An ode to citrus

I mentioned this in last week’s post, but citrus plays a key role in our winter diet. We eat a lot of fresh fruit on the regular, mostly our gorgeous local peaches and cherries and apples, but in winter our counters are piled high with grapefruit and clementines and oranges of every variety. Is it local? Absolutely not, although with the warming trends we’re seeing here it may be soon. Is it necessary? Absolutely yes, because “I feel like I’m swallowing the sun, and it’s so dark outside.” There are a thousand good reasons to incorporate more citrus in your diet, but for the moment, let’s just focus on how it provides a thin slice of joy during an increasingly bleak season. (Also it’s far cheaper than buying totally unregulated “vitamin C capsules” in little plastic bottles.)

More sunshine, please.

Lots of people remember receiving oranges in Christmas stockings, back when food was truly seasonal and therefore quite precious and rare. Citrus fruit is of course available year-round nowadays, but it really is best in the northern hemisphere’s winter. American citrus production is concentrated in California and Florida; California grows most of the citrus used for fresh eating, whereas Florida’s production is focused on juice. Texas and Arizona both grow some commercial citrus too, but their numbers pale in comparison to the Left Coast and Right Coast groves, even though Florida is suffering from a variety of citrus diseases. Brazil, Spain and Mexico dominate the world citrus market.

Did you know that most mammals can synthesize their own vitamin C – but that humans and other primates cannot? (Capybaras and guinea pigs can’t either. Don’t feel bad.) During the eighteenth century, disease killed far more British soldiers than military action; scurvy was the leading cause of death, particularly for sailors without access to fresh fruits and vegetables for months at a time. Though anecdotal evidence suggested that lemon and lime juice (and sauerkraut) prevented scurvy, and the few hardy sailors who consumed shipboard rats did not contract it (rats can synthesize their own vitamin C!), it wasn’t until very late in the century that citrus fruit was issued in sailors’ rations. Once one of the world’s most devastating diseases, scurvy is now rarely seen in the developed world, except in cases of severe malnutrition.

An ideal winter salad, with bitter greens, pomegranate, sharp Manchego and lots of citrus.

In addition to preventing scurvy, vitamin C also helps with non-heme (plant-based) iron absorption. This means that you’ll get even more benefit from your iron-rich kale and spinach salad if you spangle it with bright citrus! Make a simple citrus vinaigrette by combining three parts good olive oil with one part citrus juice (any variety or combination of citrus works) in a Mason jar. Add finely minced shallot or red onion, a bit of raw garlic if your tastes swing that way, generous amounts of salt and pepper, and a spoonful of Dijon mustard. Shake well to combine, then taste and adjust seasoning to your liking. If you’re using tart lemons a drizzle of honey wouldn’t go amiss here, to balance the sharp citrus tang, and any chopped odds and ends of fresh herbs can be put to good use in this preparation, too. This will keep indefinitely in the fridge; you’ll just need to give it a good shake before serving as it’s not a true emulsified dressing.

Hot lemon and ginger tonic with a touch of honey will set you straight.

Most Americans consume their citrus in the form of orange juice. Despite what the “healthy breakfast” campaigns would have you believe, fruit juice is not actually healthy – it’s simply pure liquefied sugar that hits your system hard because it has no beneficial fiber to slow it down. We don’t drink any juice for this reason, but we do drink quite a lot of our homemade lemon-ginger tonic, especially later in the day when the icy weather calls for a hot drink but good sense dictates that it’s time to lay off the strong black coffee. No recipe is required for this; we simply combine lemon juice (or lemon slices) and finely grated ginger (use a Microplane if you have one) with hot water to taste. No fresh ginger? Powdered will work fine, just whisk well. You can add a spoonful of honey to sweeten the deal. Strain out the aromatics or not, as you like. This easy winter drink tastes nourishing and restorative, like you’re doing something kind for yourself.

Is it any wonder we crave color in the depths of a gray winter?

I’ll freely admit that our rural location does not offer the same spectacular citrus selection I was truly spoiled by in the big city. We can of course find standard navel oranges, grapefruits, lemon and limes. On occasion we’ll get cara cara or blood oranges, or perhaps an unexpected surprise of tangelos or Meyer lemons. We have the branded net bags of “Halos” or “Cuties,” which are sometimes (but not always) clementines. But Buddha’s hand, or kishu mandarins, or pomelos, or Key limes, or yuzu, or kumquats, or bergamot sour oranges? Never have they been spotted here, and likely they never will. If you, however, live anywhere near a specialty grocer or citrus groves, definitely seek out these more unusual varieties – they’re well worth your time and money, if only to taste something completely new. When we finally install our greenhouse, I plan on purchasing dwarf citrus trees; whether or not they ever bear edible fruit, I’ll still be able to inhale the intoxicating scent of the blossoms.

Almond thumbprints with lemon curd and orange marmalade.

Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant (think of using lemon juice to prevent artichokes or avocadoes from browning) and is essential for the body’s tissue production, including bone, blood vessels and collagen. Despite its reputation, however, no credible studies have proven that it mitigates cold symptoms – this seems to be purely urban legend stemming from one single book published in the 1960s. As with all vitamins and minerals, it’s much better to obtain these nutrients from whole foods than from powders, pills or supplements, especially because these real foods offer plenty of fiber, too. Other great sources of vitamin C that you might want to add to your diet: kiwifruit, red, orange or yellow bell peppers, pomegranates, strawberries, broccoli, tomatoes and potatoes. Of course, all of these foods have lots of other vitamins and minerals too, but a little extra vitamin C boost can’t hurt – especially not this winter.

Wishing you a healthy winter season filled with thin slices of joy everywhere you look.

3 thoughts on “An ode to citrus

  1. Citrus can be quite productive in season. The trees do not grow fast, but as they mature, they can produce too much fruit to share with friends and neighbors. The juice does not can well, but freezes very well. We used to save grapefruit juice for summer, because it is better chilled during warm weather! I just wrote about citrus for last Monday, and grapefruit for yesterday.

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      • We tend to take them for granted because they need less work than the deciduous fruit trees and are actually more reliable. Stone fruits used to be the main crops of the orchards of the Santa Clara Valley. Citrus, although common in home gardens, were not common in local orchards. However, stone fruits can have ‘off’ years if the developing fruit is ruined by a late rainstorm. Sadly, now that so many of the citrus trees that I grew up with are big, most of the people who live here have little appreciation for them, or bother to share them with neighbors. Gardeners take most of the fruit, and the rest attracts vermin. Avocado trees often get cut down because they are so messy.

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