SUN is good. If I could hibernate my way through the rainy season, I would. Luckily, citrus fruits can add a little sparkle to the dark days of winter, giving us a glimpse of languorous, sunny days to come.
My aversion to rain notwithstanding, we're fortunate here in California to be blessed with a temperate climate that's conducive to growing some of the finest citrus in the world -- perfumed, wine-colored blood oranges; juicy, rosy-fleshed grapefruit; sweetly succulent mandarins; zesty little limequats; and fragrant Meyer lemons.
"Citrus need colder nights to develop color and acidity, while hot weather helps to develop the fruits' sugars," explains Didar Singh Khalsa of Guru Ram Das Orchards in Yolo County.
As a result, citrus grown in hot tropical or sub-tropical climates tend to be insipidly sweet. That's why, according to Khalsa, Florida oranges are primarily used for juice, while California oranges make for better eating.
Khalsa grows organic oranges, grapefruit, lemons and some specialty citrus. His tiny limequats are a cross between a kumquat and a lime. They have thin, edible skins that, he cautions, are a bit too tart for most people when eaten fresh. He prefers to use the juice for cooking, or add sliced limequats to marmalades and sautes for a piquant, fragrant touch.
Chez Panisse pastry chef Alan Tangren sings the praises of Khalsa's pink Star Ruby and yellow White Marsh grapefruits. "They have a perfect flavor balance and extraordinary flavor because Didar picks them at their peak ripeness," says Tangren. "I love to make Star Ruby sherbet with a touch of Champagne added to complement the flavor of the fruit."
Tangren adds that "Rio Star," the name that most pink grapefruit are sold under in the stores, is actually a brand name. The fruits are usually Star Ruby or Rio Red, both Texas varieties.
I like to use pink grapefruits or pomelos (a large, thick-skinned, Asian citrus fruit) in a Thai-style salad of crispy fried shallots, fresh mint and cilantro, and a spicy lime vinaigrette. But be aware that pomelos have a very thick membrane and can be difficult to segment.
Khalsa also grows navel and Valencia oranges. Valencias are commonly sold as juicing oranges, although they also make for good out-of-hand eating. Valencias tend to "regreen" in hot weather, when chlorophyll spreads throughout the tree into the fruit. As a result, perfectly ripe Valencias can take on a greenish hue when, in fact, they may be even sweeter than usual.
Michael Salinas of Kennedy Farms near Modesto offers exquisite seedless satsuma mandarins and seeded page mandarins from October through March. Though they may look alike, mandarins and tangerines are a different species than oranges.
Many citrus fruits are hybrids created through cross-pollination or through bud grafts, when root stock from one species or variety is grafted onto another to produce a new species or variety. For example, certain varieties of tangelos are a cross between a pomelo and a tangerine.
Kennedy Farms offers two unusual, golden yellow grapefruit/pomelo crosses. Oro Blanco is a medium-acid, sweet, high-pulp variety, and Mello Gold is a low-acid, extraordinarily sweet, juicy variety with extra-large vesicles (the little individual pulp sacs in citrus fruit).
Another unusual citrus fruit gaining notoriety is the blood orange. California is one of the largest producers of domestic blood oranges, specifically the moro variety. Most blood oranges are grown in Sicily, but moros flourish in our Mediterranean climate from December through mid-May. Other varieties worth searching for include taroco and sanguinelli.
Blood oranges have delicate, sweetly perfumed flesh that ranges in color from pale orange to a deep crimson.
Blood oranges are irresistible served in salads or desserts. I like mine squeezed into mimosas. Tangren likes to add early season moros, which are a bit more acidic than those growing later in the season, to upside-down cake. Their slight acidity balances well with the cake's rich butterscotch flavor, and their deeply hued flesh adds a beautiful tint of color.
BLOOD ORANGE GRANITA WITH STRAWBERRIES IN ROSEMARY SYRUP
1/2 cup water (use 2 1/2 cups if making lemon granita)
1/4 cup less 2 tablespoons sugar (use 1 cup for lemon granita)
1 cup blood orange or lemon juice
1 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1 rosemary sprig
1 cinnamon stick
2 pints strawberries, hulled, and sliced
In a medium saucepan, combine the water and sugar and bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar is completely dissolved. Remove from the heat and let cool. Stir in the blood orange or lemon juice. Pour the syrup into a 13-by-9-inch metal baking pan and freeze for at least 2 hours, stirring the granita with a fork every 20 minutes to give it a granular consistency.
Meanwhile, make the strawberries. In a medium saucepan, combine the water, sugar, rosemary and cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer over for 10 minutes. Let cool completely, then strain into a medium-sized bowl. Add the strawberries and let macerate for one hour.
Serve the granita in shallow bowls with the strawberries on the side. Serves 4.
Per Serving: 217 Calories; 1g Fat; 1g Protein; 54g Carbohydrate; 3g Dietary Fiber; 0mg Cholesterol; 5mg Sodium. Exchanges: 1 Fruit; 2 1/2 Other Carbohydrates.
E-mail Laurel Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column is a service of the Berkeley Farmers' Market and Eating Fresh Publications (www.eatingfresh.com) publishers of "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area."
The Berkeley Farmers' Market is open 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays at Derby Street and MLK
Jr. Way, and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays at Center Street and MLK Jr. Way.
Call (510) 548-3333 or visit www.ecologycenter.org