Winter is the drear season in the north for fresh fruit. As far back as the 1870s, grocers in Minnesota challenged winter by importing lemons and oranges during the winter holidays. My mother, born in Gibbon (Sibley County) in 1907, remembered oranges in December, each carefully wrapped in red tissue paper, each selling for $1—very big bucks in those days for a bit of citrus heaven.
The Pacific Fruit Express began operating that year, delivering California citrus in winter by rail. The entire country came to expect fresh oranges, lemons, and tangerines in their grocery stores and on their tables most of the year.
Citrus fruits were first grown and cultivated in southeast Asia and have a fairly wide range of ripening dates, so they’re available almost yearround. In California, where they are grown both as orchard and backyard fruit, most people know when grapefruit, pomelo, tangerines, kumquats, loquats, oranges (Seville, navel, Valencia), Meyer and other lemons are in bloom and ripen. You can smell them when they’re blossoming; entire neighborhoods are suffused by the extraordinary scent of citrus flowers for weeks at a time. In Central California, trees bear so heavily that their trunks and branches have to be shored up to bear the weight of basketball-sized grapefruit. In December, navel oranges plunge into backyard koi ponds like bombs.
Happily for us here in Minnesota, citrus fruit keeps very well, so long as it’s kept cool in the basement or refrigerator crisper. Left out on the counter, fruit stays juicy, but its skin, which is very porous, dries to a leathery hide. (If you’re eating the fruit raw, peel the pith away from the skin, dry the skin, and keep it for use in braises—heavenly!)
One of my favorite citrus fruits is the Meyer lemon, a happy accident of cross-pollination between a small Chinese orange and lemon. The Meyer used to be a strictly backyard tree in California—the tree itself is very small, lending itself to typical backyard spaces—well-loved by people who grow it because of the fruit’s sunny, mild nature. Its skin is exceptionally thin, and the fruit has very little acid, so you can cook with it or use it for lemonade without needing to add much sugar. In almost fifty years in California and Arizona, I never saw a Meyer lemon for sale—you either acquired the fruit from your own or a neighbor’s tree. Now Meyers are grown commercially in California and Texas, and we at Mississippi Market are the fortunate recipients. If you’ve bought them before, you know that they are highly seasonal—late winter through early spring is their time to shine.
Blood oranges are another terrific citrus fruit. Their color is so arresting that they seem to beg to be used for fruit drinks, tarts, and salads, where their deep, glowing red-purple flesh can be highlighted.
If you haven’t tried pomelos, they’re worth tasting. These grapefruit-parents help you appreciate what pomologists have wrought through hybridizing cultivars like the famous and succulent Ruby Red grapefruit from Texas. Pomelos are larger and their flesh much drier than the very moist Ruby Red’s. Their flavor and texture are distinctive and definitely worth trying. Curious what happens when you mix a tangerine and a pomelo? A tangelo! Also delicious, of course.
Two terrific uses for Meyer lemons are lemon curd and lemon tarts. You can substitute blood oranges in both recipes.
3 Meyer lemons, sliced paper thin, rind and all
2 c. sugar
pie or tart dough for 9-inch single crust
4 eggs, beaten
- Preheat oven to 425°.
- Combine lemon slices and 1.5 c. sugar in a bowl; gently toss together so slices are well coated. Let stand at least 2 hours, preferably overnight, lightly covered. At end of macerating period, taste to see if you need more sugar. The mixture should be tart.
- Add beaten egss to sugar/lemon mixture.
- Pour mixture into dough-lined 8- or 9-inch tart pan.
- Bake at 425° for 15 minutes.
- Lower heat to 375° and bake for about 20 minutes more or until knife inserted in center comes out clean.
- If lemons start to burn, cover lightly with tinfoil.
Lemon or Mandarin Orange Curd
Curd isn’t only terrific on toast or scones; it makes a wonderful icing between layers of white butter cake. Spoon a big alongside pound cake or vanilla ice cream.
1 c. superfine sugar
4 1/2 Tbs. cornstarch
1/2 ts. sea salt
1 1/2 c. lemon or orange juice
1/2 c. water
4 room-temperature egg yolks
1/4 c. unsalted butter
3 Tbs. lemon or orange zest
- In a saucepan, mix sugar, cornstarch, and salt. Gradually stir in the juice and water. Bring to a boil over low heat, stirring constantly. Remove saucepan from the heat.
- With a whisk, beat egg yolks until pale and smooth. Carefully add about half of the sugar/juice mixture to the egg yolks, stirring constantly to prevent the yolks from curdling. Then blend in the rest of the yolks. Transfer the mixture back into the saucepan.
- Bring to a boil again over low heat; boil 1 minute, stirring constantly.
- Remove from the heat and blend in the butter and rind; stir until mixture is very well blended.
- Scrape into a small mixing bowl and allow to cool.