Seasonal Citrus

Ryan Tanaka

When, where, and why to source winter’s favorite fruits.

Though local sourcing gets all the hype, seasonal sourcing is just as important for quality, taste, and the environment. It’s easy to forget that citrus fruits—though available year round—reach their tastiest during the winter months. And from an eco-conscious standpoint, sourcing citrus seasonally helps preserve natural growing conditions and maintain healthy soil.

“Citrus fruits thrive in areas with warm to hot summers and mild winters,” says Joan Wickham, a spokesperson for Sunkist, which collects fruits from thousands of family farmers.

Come January, California’s citrus bounty explodes with different oranges, tangerines, lemons, limes, and grapefruit. As the season progresses through February, March, and April, more distinct varieties of these fruits—such as Valencia oranges, white grapefruit, pixie tangerines, and honey mandarins—are ready for harvest, Wickham says. Southwestern climates like Arizona also cater to citrus growing, and Texas is known for the sweeter taste and juiciness of its Red Star and Rio Star (pink) grapefruits.

Juicy Facts

Citrus flower buds begin to form in early winter and develop through late winter and spring. After bloom, fruit develops from five to 18 months, according to Wickham. Typically, citrus fruit is then picked by hand, put into bins, and hauled to packinghouses, where it is cleaned and prepped for delivery.

When sourcing, Wickham suggests looking for fruits that are firm and heavy with bright, colorful skins. Avoid bruised, wrinkled, or discolored fruit, which could indicate the fruit is old or has been stored incorrectly. For best results, store citrus in the cooler, or freeze the juice and zest for long-term storage. Dehydrated zest stores like spices.

Chef Paul Virant of Vie and Perennial Virant in Chicago looks to pickling, candying, and charring, as well as jam-making and compote-making to preserve his citrus. Using two parts salt to one part sugar and a handful of herbs, he pickles lemon rind for four months, later pairing the delicacy with vegetables, roasted poultry, and seafood.

“The natural acidity of fruits like mandarins, Meyer lemons, blood oranges, and kumquats combined with wine, honey, vinegar, and spices make a perfect complement for richer foods,” he says.

As for what will be most popular in 2014, Wickham has her picks for this year’s trendy citrus. Cara Cara oranges, a type of seedless navel grown in California’s San Joaquin Valley, are high on the list because of their distinctive pinkish-red color, an exceptionally sweet flavor, and a tangy, cranberry-like zing. Another best-seller, the Gold Nugget variety of mandarins, is deliciously sweet with a bumpy rind and a bright orange, seedless interior.

The popular Meyer lemon will continue its streak, thanks to sweeter, less-acidic juice and rind. Wickham wouldn’t be surprised if more chefs reach for seedless lemons, similar to Eureka and Lisbon varieties, to skip the preparation hassle.


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