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ingredients and techniques

exotic citrus fruits and how to use them

meg's picture

Citrus season is always something of a pleasant surprise. In the cold, damp grey of winter, I imagine trucks rumbling to and fro across the country. From California with Meyer lemons and blood oranges; from Texas with enormous pink grapefruits; from Florida with Cara Cara and navel oranges.

In what seems like an instant, produce departments around the country are transformed by the luminous colors of fruits from warmer climes. No matter how much of a locavore you are, the almost miraculous appearance of citrus stirs the heart.

In many grocery stores, citrus is pretty standard--oranges, lemons, limes, and maybe a few oddballs like kumquats or blood oranges. But you may occasionally run into something more exotic, and as far as fruit families go, the citrus family is nothing if not exotic. There are citrus fruits as small as the first joint on your thumb and as large as your head. They come in many colors--white, yellow, pink, orange, red, and green. Some are incredibly bitter, others are sugar sweet, and some are sour enough to make you squeeze your eyes shut and shudder.

But what do you do with fruits such as these? How do they make it out of the grove and onto your table?

When trying a new citrus fruit, a little research is in order. Finding out what certain fruits are traditionally used for is a good first step to incorporating them into your own cooking. For instance, Rangpur limes are a classic gin and tonic addition. If all else fails, you could do worse than whipping up a cocktail.

Next, scrape a little bit of zest off the fruit with your fingernail. Smell the aroma of the fruit. Cut it open and try a little bit. Is it very sour, sour-sweet, mostly bitter, or a combination of those? The flavor of it will point you in the right direction. Bitter fruits tend to cut through rich flavors and provide contrast. This is one of the reasons why a grapefruit half is much appreciated alongside a big breakfast of eggs, bacon, and buttered toast.

The citrus fruits we're singling out today are just some of the more unusual citrus we could find at local grocery stores. You are likely to find all sorts of citrus hybrids--most of them can be eaten out of hand. We chose the fruits we did because some of them aren't well-suited to snack time and need a little more preparation.

Starting in the upper left-hand corner and going clockwise:

Bergamot Oranges range from green to lemon yellow, but are orange-sized. They have a distinct fragrance that is most widely recognized in Earl Grey tea. The juice is moderately sour--less so than lemon juice--and bitter.

Meyer Lemons are small, smooth and thin-skinned lemons whose juice is a little sweeter and less tart than a normal lemon. They have a sweet fragrance, and they often contain quite a lot of seeds.

Makrut Limes are wrinkly limes with very tart juice and incredibly fragrant zest. To me, makrut lime zest is reminiscent of citronella. The zest and leaves of this fruit are often used in Thai curry pastes and Vietnamese, Indonesian, and Cambodian cuisines.

Rangpur Limes look a lot more like mandarin oranges than limes. Indeed, they are a cross between the mandarin orange and the lemon. Flavor-wise, they favor their lemon parentage and are tart. They can be used as a substitute for lemons or limes.

Pink Lemons are very similar in flavor to regular lemons. When immature, the rind is variegated, although the fruit becomes a more uniform pinkish-yellow color as it matures. The flesh has a beautiful rose color from lycopene--the same pigment that gives grapefruit its pink color.

Mandarinquats, as you might imagine, are a hybrid of the mandarin orange and the kumquat. They can be eaten peel and all and are sweet-tart.

Blood Oranges have become more common in recent years due to their gorgeous purple-red interiors and delicious sweet flesh. They are best used wherever their particular combination of brilliant flavor and gorgeous color can be allowed to shine. Last year, I made a memorable blood orange curd, for instance. Blood orange marmalade is another great way to use them. Blood orange segments are also a stunning topping for cheesecakes or any dessert where a pop of color and citrus flavor are needed.

Citron or Buddha's Hand is perhaps the most exotic of all citrus. To me, they resemble cuttlefish or, sometimes, a strange breed of starfish. This citrus is notable not only for its appearance but also because it contains no flesh or juice. When you cut one open, as shown in the photo, the inside is all white pith. Therefore, it is typically candied and used in baked goods.

Ten Things To Do With Exotic Citrus Fruits
1. Marmalade. Almost any citrus can be used in marmalade.
2. Cocktails
3. Infused vodka. High proof alcohol is a great way to capture the flavor of citrus and save it for the rest of the year.
4. Flavored Salt. Remove the zest from any citrus fruit with a rasp grater and combine it with flaky sea salt.
5. Citrus-ade. Most citrus, when combined with water and enough simple syrup to take the edge off the acid, is delicious in a cold beverage.
6. Flavored sugar. Just like flavored salts, you can add flavor to sugar (my preference is turbinado) by combining it with citrus zest. Then it becomes a topping for your favorite baked goods.
7. Candy the peel
8. Make cake! Find a simple recipe for a moist cake (pound cake is a good one), and use any citrus zest to flavor it.
9. Marinate some olives. A great way to flavor store-bought olives is to add citrus peel, fresh herbs, and garlic to them. Cover with olive oil.
10. Infuse honey. Drop citrus peels into a jar of honey and wait for the magic to happen.

Other sweet and sour things you might enjoy: All About Kumquats, Lemon Poppyseed Pancakes, Meyer Lemon Marmalade


Ange D's picture

I keep seeing Pomelos. Are they tart or sweet? What do you do with them. They have such a thick skin.

meg's picture

Pomelos are pretty sweet. At first, I thought they would be a lot like grapefruit, but the ones I had were very sweet, not bitter at all, and with only a tiny bit of bitterness. You can eat them like grapefruit. A few years ago I made a Thai-inspired quinoa salad with pomelo:

Ange D's picture

I always thought they were a thick skinned grapefruit. I'll have to try them the next time I see them.

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