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.
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.
Other lesser-known citrus fruits are also gaining ground, says Wickham. Zebra lemons—pink on the inside with a yellow and green striped rind—are prized for a slightly less-acidic flavor. Pummelos, or Chinese grapefruit, are slightly milder in taste than grapefruit, but more aromatic. Minneola tangelos, easily identified by their knob-like stems and deep red-orange color, have a tart-sweet flavor, peel easily, and have few (if any) seeds. Orange and maroon-colored Moro blood oranges are known for their rich, orange and raspberry-like taste.
Loaded with vitamin C for cancer prevention and muscle rebuilding, citrus fruits also come packed with quercetin—a powerful, anti-inflammatory phytochemical found in green tea.
Grapefruit has been labeled a nutrient-packed superfood, providing antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that promote heart health and healthy skin. In fact, Wickham points out, research has indicated that Millennial women have increased their consumption as a result of the superfood image.
Some chefs reach for citrus as a flavor-enhancing replacement for excess fat and salt. A squeeze of lemon, orange, or grapefruit brightens any dressing or sauce, tenderizes meat and seafood in marinades or ceviches, and helps cut through richer, heartier dishes.
At Picca in Los Angeles, Chef Ricardo Zarate uses blood oranges as the acidic component in marinades for ceviche and salmon dishes. For his Salmon Tiradito, a Peruvian-style ceviche with thin-sliced fish, Zarate combines the fruit juice with miso to introduce a savory balance and slight creaminess. He’s also turned the marinade into a dressing for other seafood dishes and cucumber salads.
At Sepia in Chicago, Chef Andrew Zimmerman pairs kumquat and tangerine with scallops and blood pudding, reducing the tangerine juice and adding fish glace, veal demi-glace, cream, and a touch of lemon. He tops the dish with kumquat syrup. “The combination of sweet and tart flavors from the kumquats and tangerine provides a balanced acidity to cut through the richness of the caramelized scallop and earthy blood pudding,” he says.
Yuzu—or Japanese grapefruit—has become the chef’s darling for marinades, dressings, and desserts, revered for its refreshing lemon-lime taste and unique floral notes.
While yuzu juice is a common ingredient in ponzu sauce—a vinaigrette with soy and sweet mirin or palm sugar—Chef Tyson Wong at Chi Lin in West Hollywood, California, instead combines yuzu with orange juice, Grand Marnier, and candied kumquat for a sweet and sour glaze in his Chinese-style crispy beef dish. He also uses the same blend as a vinaigrette for fish or dipping sauce for crab egg rolls.
“Yuzu has that fresh, clean, and sour taste to help balance out other dishes,” he says.
Executive pastry chef Michael Aguilar of WP24 Restaurant and Lounge in Los Angeles makes a yuzu cheesecake in the style of key lime pie, with a ginger shortbread crust and seasonal sorbet pairing. But as the price of yuzu has gone up, he’s turned to other Japanese citrus fruits like kabosu and sudachi as flavorful backups.
“Kabosu tastes like a lime but slightly more bitter, stronger, and very pungent,” he says. “It brightens up heavier dishes and desserts and even works well with cranberry.” Sudachi, yuzu’s “mother fruit,” has more lemony citrus notes, great for vinaigrettes and sorbets.
Aguilar also prefers calamansi, or calamondin—a Philippine fruit that looks like a yellow-hued lime, with a kumquat- or orange-like flavor. Mixed with sugar, it’s a common Philippine drink. At the restaurant, Aguilar makes a palate cleanser with the cold juice topped in a shooter glass with warm coconut foam.
From candied kumquat rind to Meyer lemon curd and grapefruit sorbet, citrus fruits have always held a special presence in pastry chefdom, adding the finishing touch to many menus. At Oceana in New York City, executive pastry chef Joseph Gabriel turns to kaffir limes for their sweeter, less-acidic flavor, using the juice and leaves for a sorbet paired with a passion fruit “vacherin,” a sponge and meringue layer cake and pink peppercorns. And at LAVO in Las Vegas, executive sous chef Marc Marrone swears by citrus in baking, candying orange rind for scones that he glazes with more orange zest and fresh juice.
From LA to DC, citrus is holding its own on dessert trays—as witnessed at Washington’s popular Birch & Barley, where pastry chef Tiffany MacIsaac uses trendy Cara Cara oranges for her take on a creamsicle: an orange poppy seed pound cake dressed with segments of the Cara Cara, satsuma, and blood oranges, along with candied kumquats and vanilla wafers.