Growing up in the middle of the 20th century in California’s San Joaquin Valley, I was surrounded by citrus-growing communities with names like Orange Cove. These proud places supplied many of the navel and Valencia oranges, grapefruit, lemons, and tangerines people throughout the U.S. consumed in the course of any given year. We didn’t hanker for other citrus varieties in those days, primarily because no one knew other types existed.
Even today, it’s hard to think of any fruit or vegetable—or any other ingredient or seasoning, with the possible exception of salt—that finds its way into as many settings as citrus. From salads and salad dressings to entrées, sides, desserts, baked goods, confectionery, beverages, appetizers, and between-course palate cleansers, citrus plays a role just about everywhere.
It adds brightness, sunniness, juiciness, a hint of freshness, and a natural health halo to virtually everything it touches. Its perfume is distinctive, clean, and pleasing, but seldom overpowering. And its impact on a dish can be either transformational or subtle, depending on the application.
At the Cheese Board in Berkeley, California, where patrons line up around the block for the pie of the day, many of the establishment’s distinctive and memorable concoctions are finished off with a light mist of lemon juice. It may sound peculiar, but I can assure you from personal experience that this final flourish represents a kind of culinary coup de grace at the Bay Area institution with no shortage of creativity or imagination.
Citrus’ unusual versatility, combined with the increasing number of exotic varieties available throughout much of the U.S., makes it particularly ripe for culinary exploration. Blood oranges, kaffir limes, Meyer lemons, Buddha’s hand, kumquats, Sumo tangerines, yuzu, Pixie mandarins, finger limes—the ranks of unusual citrus fruits continues to expand, and with them, the number of interesting uses available to menu developers.
Juice up your condiments
From blood orange ketchup to salad dressings infused with the juice of cara cara oranges (they’re sweeter than more common varieties, with a distinctly tropical aroma) or a Buddha’s hand mayonnaise, condiments can be reinvigorated, revitalized, or reinvented with citrus juice.
The Red Apron Butchery in Washington, D.C., made waves last year with a hot dog cart offering a “Viet Frank,” a so-called atomic dog with cilantro lime aioli and banh mi slaw. At Equinox, also in the District, a citrus-marinated beet salad is served with pomegranate seeds, toasted pistachio, and ricotta beignets. None other than Kikkoman even offers ponzu sauces, or citrus-seasoned soy sauce, on your local supermarket shelf.
Elsewhere, recipes for ketchups made with ginger and lime, chipotle and lime, yuzu, lemon, and kumquat are available on various gourmet websites and cooking blogs. Ditto for orange, chile lime, and Meyer lemon mayonnaises.
For the uninitiated, Meyer lemons, which are sweeter, slightly more fragrant, and darker yellow than a typical lemon, are sufficiently multipurpose. In fact, the Los Angeles Times even ran an article in 2008 titled “100 things to do with a Meyer lemon.”
Drink in the difference
Winter is really citrus season, but try telling that to a parched patron with a serious yen for an ice-cold lemonade on a hot August afternoon. These days, flavored lemonades and limeades are increasingly common, and they can be surprisingly simple to engineer. From strawberry and yuzu lemonades to ginger limeades and clever mocktails (think virgin coladas, margaritas, or mojitos), sweet and tangy options abound.
Desserts that are no afterthought
San Francisco fine-dining institution Boulevard, in the city’s Market District, serves a Boston cream pie with a Moro blood orange sorbet, while Farallon, just down the way in Union Square, boasts a carrot cake decked out with, among other delectables, a kumquat and passion fruit marmalade.
Three time zones away, Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in Miami serves lemon ricotta pancakes with an apricot-ginger compote.
The takeaway is that even when citrus isn’t necessarily the star of the dessert plate, it can still play an important role in livening up traditional pastries, cakes, pies, and other decadent delights.
A little rind, a little zest
Just about every part of citrus fruits has some sort of useful application. For example, don’t forget all the flavor and perfume that are packed into the peel. Chicken chains could enliven their batters and biscuits with tiny bits of tangerine or mandarin peel. Pastas and noodles can benefit from finely shredded lemon rind. And many confectioners have long candied citrus peels and made them the main attraction.
These are heady times indeed for fans of the many positive attributes citrus fruits lend to the culinary landscape. Whether your goal is to expand your existing dessert menu; add a bright, aromatic finish to an already popular main course; or simply add an air of intrigue, citrus varieties offer a host of fresh possibilities.