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February 5, 2015

The New Gold Rush: Citrus

  Buddhas_Hand
The citrus season is on. And with fun (and funny sounding) varieties such as Buddha’s Hand, Sumo, and Cara Cara, the food lover’s fruit basket is overflowing.

When the term citrus comes up, it’s difficult to know which ones will capture the public’s fancy unless you–and Shakespeare–know what’s in a name. For years, it was navel oranges or Valencia oranges, lemons or limes, grapefruit and other generic citrus. But, when a producer of a small, easy-to-peel mandarin orange came up with the name, “Cutie,” the rest as they say, was history. Now there is no end of producers and the clementine, one of the mandarin orange varieties, has become synonymous with this brown bag favorite.

But names aside, the fruit also has to produce consistently good flavor. For years, blood oranges have been touted for their raspberry-like flavor notes, but their taste is hit or miss - often no better than a plain orange at a much lower price, rather like those random heritage tomatoes at the grocery. The Cara Cara, on the other hand, which was propagated from a tree at Hacienda de Cara Cara in Valencia, seems to be gaining ground for its sweetness, pinkish flesh and consistent quality.

 As for the Sumo, with its distinctive topknot that really does look like a Sumo wrestler, the future is bright. The puffy thick peel pulls off easily from the large fruit, which is a cross between a mandarin orange and an orange. On the inside, the sweet segments divide easily and they have less of that annoying white membrane that afflicts other citrus.

From a chef’s point of view, there have been several developments of note:

  • Meyer lemons: Thin-skinned, juicy, and smooth skinned, Meyer lemons—a cross between a lemon and an orange that were cultivated in China more than 100 years ago—were once a real specialty item. Now they’re available by the bag. Cooks revel in their sweeter scent and taste in their favorite recipes. Just thinking of Meyer lemon curd has us salivating.
  • Budda’s Hand: Looking like a giant squid or a sea anemone, with fingers (or tentacles), splaying out in every direction, Buddha’s Hand is useful in scary movies, at Halloween, or for recipes calling for a sweet rind.  There is no juice in this ancestor of the citron, but the rind can be candied, used in alcoholic drinks or any recipe that calls for lemon zest.
  • Yuzu: Although this Japanese citrus fruit can be difficult to find fresh, yuzu juice became widely available as chefs began touting its uses in seafood and other dishes, including desserts. The hybrid comes in part from a sour mandarin orange which may describe its complex, fragrant flavors that are often described as a combo of grapefruit, lemon and lime. The fresh zest is used as an accent in dishes in Japan; there is even a powdered version of the zest available. Yuzu also comes in a paste called kosho that kicks it up a notch with chiles in the mix. Authentic ponzu sauce also contains yuzu, but ponzu sauce on many menus is more likely use less expensive citrus fruits in its place. There are rumblings that the fresh yuzu is going to become more widely available in the United States, but that talk has been around since before the dawn of the Cutie.

 

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