RECIPES: Add zest to winter dishes with citrus

Winter is citrus season and the bins in the produce departments are overflowing. There are the members of the “cutie” club that include tangerines, clementines, tangelos, Minneola and satsuma. With their thin, leathery, easy-to-peel skins and built-in packaging, these diminutive citrus treats are great for snacking. A bit farther down the aisle, big, bold navel oranges with their thick, bright orange skins rest aside the more thin-skinned, but no-less-sweet juice oranges.

The more exotic blood oranges, Cara Cara oranges and Meyer lemons with their intense tropical colors and vibrant aromas are often featured in decorative mesh sacks to highlight their preciousness — and higher price. Lastly, oversized red, pink and white grapefruit and the nearly comically large pomelo round out the bunch.

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The tangy, sweet but vibrant flavors of citrus add life and lightness to nearly any dish. It’s like cooking with sunshine in a winter season of root vegetables and braised meats. With so many choices in the market, it’s time to put some zest in your recipes!

Citrus is available year-round, so we hardly think about it having a season. Well, of course, it does! It’s just that they are in the market year-round because they are being shipped from all over the world from wherever they are grown. Cooking with citrus in season, especially from regional or local farms, means a real emphasis is on flavor.

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Our first thought concerning the flavor of citrus is often sour, but citrus is more than a pucker. The science of flavor is based on terpenes, naturally occurring chemical compounds found in plants and some animals, responsible for the aromas and flavors. Citrus terpenes create its woody, pine-like scent and taste. The aroma and flavor of various citrus are multilayered and complex, certain to put some pep in your step.

Citrus is more than a tasty ingredient. Vitamin C is one of the most widely recognized nutrients. It’s essential for supporting the body’s natural defense system, helps the body absorb iron, and provides essential antioxidant support. Research also suggests that high intakes of foods rich in vitamin C may help support heart health and healthy aging, and help reduce stress and anxiety.

When cooking with citrus, nothing is wasted — the sweet and tangy juice, the luscious flesh, and the intensely flavored, oil-packed rind can add delicious notes to nearly any dish. Citrus fruit can be stored short-term (up to one week) at room temperature. To prolong the shelf life (up to three to four weeks) of citrus fruits, store them in the refrigerator. The practicality of citrus storage allows for many ways to incorporate them into your cooking. You can use the zest, juice, segments or even the whole fruit.

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Let’s start with the zest. The skin of citrus fruit consists of the zest, the outer colorful layer where the essential oils are found. Underneath the zest is the spongy white pith, which is bitter and needs to be blanched or cooked for a long time to make it more palatable. When you want zesty flavor without discoloration, use only the zest. The high acidity of lemon juice will turn most green vegetables yucky, drab army green.

The sharp, fine-toothed rasp grater known as a Microplane is an excellent tool to remove the outer zest from citrus fruit. A light touch with this handy kitchen gadget will remove the outer zest and leave the bitter pith behind. You can also use the fine side of a box grater, a pronged zester, and even a vegetable peeler.

Zest is best prepared immediately before use, not grated ahead as it will dry out.

Once you’ve zested the fruit, it’s time to get inside. You can juice it or segment the fruit. For juicing, simply roll the citrus on a hard surface with the palm or your hand to loosen up the juices. Then, halve the fruit horizontally. Next, you can use a citrus juicer or simply grab a dinner fork with long tines. Insert the fork into the cut side and move the fork around with one hand while squeezing the fruit with the other.

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Juice is concentrated citrus flavor but be careful when adding it to animal and plant-based dairy products, especially low fat, or reduced fat as the acid may cause it to curdle. Trying to cut back on salt? Use citrus juice instead. Acidity, like saltiness, also leads to an increase in salivation, literally making food more mouth-watering.

You can also segment the fruit with technique known as peler a vif in French cooking. This translates to “remove the skin,” but it’s more than simply peeling off the outer skin as with your fingers. This technique also removes the outer white membranes of the segment, exposing whole pieces of flesh and vesicles, the tear-shaped sacs within the segments that contain the actual juice.

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To section citrus fruit, using a small sharp knife and a cutting board, slice off the top and bottom so it will stand upright. Set the fruit upright on a clean work surface. Working from top to bottom and following the curve of the fruit, slice off the peel, white pith and outer membranes to expose the segments. You can then cut the fruit crosswise into “wagon wheels,” circular slices of fruit with segments divided by white pith, or into individual segments of pure juicy fruit.

Give your recipe rotation a shot of sunshine with citrus. Salads, appetizers, mains and desserts all can benefit from a burst of brightness. Try cooking with large chunks of citrus fruit, skin and all, for big bursts of flavor like with this Spicy Chicken with Clementines. Or buck convention and make Whole Meyer Lemon Dressing, perfect for dipping vegetables or drizzling over grilled seafood or chicken. (In this instance, the flavor of the bitter pith is lessened by the floral lemon.) The Mixed Citrus Salad with Fennel and Feta is a great way to let citrus shine. Lastly, my better-for-you Citrus Pudding Cakes are guaranteed to cure the winter blues.

Virginia Willis is an Atlanta-based Food Network Kitchen chef, James Beard Award-winning food writer and author of seven cookbooks. Follow her at virginiawillis.com.

RECIPES

Let the sunshine in with recipes for Mixed Citrus Salad with Fennel and Feta, Whole Meyer Lemon Dressing, Spicy Chicken with Clementines, and Citrus Pudding Cakes.

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Credit: Virginia Willis

Credit: Virginia Willis

Mixed Citrus Salad with Fennel and Feta

This is a salad without any rules — except it’s all about the citrus and the salt. Salt from the feta and salt sprinkled on the citrus. The salt on the wagon wheels brings out the juice, creating its own savory dressing. If you want, you could add thinly sliced scallions or red onion for sharpness.

Credit: Virginia Willis

Credit: Virginia Willis

Whole Meyer Lemon Dressing

This zesty sauce is bright, bold and a snap to make. Whether used for dipping, dabbing or drizzling, it pairs with everything from crudités to shrimp to roasted chicken.

Credit: Virginia Willis

Credit: Virginia Willis

Spicy Chicken with Clementines

Assemble this dish in the morning so it marinates all day and pop it in the oven at the end of the day. Bright, clean and fresh — along with healthy, easy and most of all delicious — it’s the best of weeknight cooking. Serve with couscous or rice for a simple supper.

Credit: Virginia Willis

Credit: Virginia Willis

Citrus Pudding Cakes

Pudding cakes are the wonderful marriage of smooth, creamy pudding and moist, tender cake crumb. The cake rises to the top, and there’s a warm, pudding-like sauce below.

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