When the holiday season is over and the full cloak of winter settles in over much of the country, citrus fruits begin to step into the spotlight and beg you to sample their bright, refreshing flavors and colors. Although most citrus fruits are available throughout the year, the true harvest season runs from January through April. My own curiosity usually peaks around mid-December, when I pay close attention to the national weather forecast to see how my supply of citrus for the coming months will fare; a hard frost can ruin the entire harvest, but a sudden cold snap towards the end of the growing cycle will ensure extra sweetness and juice.
Most people associate the production of citrus fruits in the United States with Florida and California, but citrus fruits are a vital crop in Texas, Arizona and Louisiana. Texas is especially proud of their vibrant red grapefruit varieties, the Ruby Red and The Rio Star. Florida is well known for numerous and superior varieties of oranges and tangerines and California growers specialize in Valencia and Navel oranges as well as Blood Oranges and other exotic varieties.
Navel Oranges take their name from the little mark at the top that looks like belly button. They are large, with a thick skin that peels easily and are seedless, making them a great eating orange. Valencia Orangesare perfect for juicing. They have a thinner peel which is often greenish, with vibrant orange flesh that produces a softly sweet juice. Another great juicing orange is the Pineapple Orangewhich is larger than other juicing oranges with a peebly peel and sweet flesh. Hamlins are pale yellow to green, seedless, with a thin peel and tart flesh, good for juicing and to bring a zap of acidity to the palate. Ambersweetsare a new Florida variety, developed in 1989. After a decade of production, Ambersweets are finally becoming more widely available; if you are lucky enough to find them, buy them. They are easy to peel like Navel oranges, but have plenty of juice and vibrant orange color with fewer seeds than other juicing varieties. Temple Oranges, on the other hand, are chock full of seeds, but their delightfully sweet juice and distinctive flavor more than make up for it.
Look for more exotic varieties of oranges in specialty markets. Blood Oranges imported from Sicily are a rare treat, medium-sized, with a think flesh and reddish orange hue. They have a distinctive flavor that is unmistakable, candy-sweet but with a balanced acidity that makes them excellent for eating, sectioning and juicing. California Blood Oranges, on the other hand, resemble small navels, but with a thicker, pithy peel and deep, blood-red color. Mandarin Oranges are a small, thin-skinned variety, with firm sections and a tart flavor, while their cousin the Clementine is easy to peel and sweeter with few seeds. The Satsuma is a variety that originated in Japan, seedless and sweet, perfect for snacking and desserts.
Tangerines, another delightful offshoot of the orange, are a subcategory of the Mandarin. Sunburst tangerines are the most familiar variety, with their dark orange peel, firm sections and sweet flesh. The Honey Tangerine or Murcott, as it was once called, has a yellow skin with a greenish tinge and a distinctive aroma. They are full of seeds but yield a delicious, sweet juice. Honeybell tangerines, are a special variety only available for about 6 to 8 weeks. Originally known as the Mineola, they were re-named in an effort to persuade consumers to try them. Honeybells are seedless, honey-sweet, with a heady aroma and thin, tight skin, they are heavenly to snack on or squeeze for a luxurious glass of juice.
Discovered in the West Indies in the early 1700's and later introduced to Florida and the Gulf Coast in the 1820's, Grapefruit is perhaps the most sensual of the citrus fruits; heavy, sweet and luscious. They come in a rainbow of colors, but this is not an indicator of sweetness or intensity of flavor; those characteristics are determined by the particular variety and annual growing conditions. Red, pink and white grapefruits all pack a potent nutritional punch. Rich in the phytochemical lycopene as well as antioxidants like Vitamin C and caratenoids, a diet that includes grapefruit will aid in keeping your heart and immune system healthy, maintain memory function, and lower the risk of cancer.
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