Last month, Megan wrote about two early-season citrus favorites: satsumas and clementines. The volume of 5-lb gift boxes we went through this holiday season tells me you were every bit as infatuated with those sweet little darlings as I was! We’ve now entered peak citrus season, and the offerings in orange are almost overwhelming. I’m going to outline a few favorites, but keep in mind that quality and flavor can change quickly depending on the orchard that supplies the fruit and the time of the season. Our staff is constantly sampling product (I know, it’s a tough job) so we can tell you what’s the best option on the shelves right now—just ask!
Navels vs. Valencias
For a long time I was confused about the difference between the navel and Valencia orange varieties. They seem to have a similar sweet, tangy quality, are about the same size and shape, and both taste great in sangria. So why would we carry both in the Produce department? Turns out, the reason is the season. Navel oranges enjoy their peak season along with most other citrus fruits, between December and March, while Valencia oranges are a later-season citrus, ripening from February through late summer. Because Valencias can be left on the tree longer without spoiling, they can be harvested later and shipped to grocery stores into the fall. Our distributors’ Valencia supply didn’t run out until early December, right in time for the new crop of navels to arrive!
Navels and Valencias are also distinct in their form. Navel oranges are known for the characteristic protrusion on the blossom end of the fruit, which is actually its underdeveloped “twin.” The skin of a navel is thicker and denser than that of a Valencia, making it easier to peel and eat in sections. Meanwhile, Valencias are slightly sweeter and juicier, so they are favored for making delicious orange juice.
Cara Cara Navels
This navel orange has a delicate, pink flesh and is slightly smaller than the classic navel. They are low in acid, and their sweet complexity has been described as “floral.” The name comes from the Hacienda de Cara Cara in Venezuela, where a single tree of this variety was discovered. We will be receiving our supply from the San Joaquin Valley of California, where the dry sunny days and cool nights are ideal for citrus production.
These are my favorite oranges on the list. Maybe it’s the beautiful color of the interior chambers, which can range from a ruby red to a deep maroon that’s almost black. Maybe it’s the delightfully morbid sound of the name. But, above all, it’s the flavor, which is sweet and juicy, with delectable hints of raspberry! Use them for marmalades, marinades, in chutneys, mixed drinks, or in fresh slices on a Wisconsin cheese platter.
The first thing you will notice about tangelos is their peculiar shape. They have a knob-like protrusion on the stem end, giving them a somewhat bell-shaped appearance. Their loose skin makes for easy peeling—see if you can peel one in a single go! They were formed through the crossing of a tangerine and a pomelo (an ancestor of the modern-day grapefruit), but their flavor is closest to a very tangy tangerine. These will be available beginning mid-month, and the supply should be steady until the end of February or mid-March.
Rio Star Grapefruit
Straight from the Lone Star State, Rio Star grapefruits are a result of careful breeding and attention to fine flavor. It is the least bitter of all the grapefruits and has the most consistently ripe and red flesh. In fact, Rio Star grapefruits are tree-ripened, giving the fruits a chance to suck in as many nutrients from the soil as possible before they are harvested. They should be available in abundance through March or April.
The Latin name for this fruit is Citrus grandis, for very obvious reasons. They are the largest of the citrus fruits; they can grow to the size of a volleyball and weigh up to four pounds! But don’t worry, the pomelos in our stores will be a more reasonable size. Much of the bulk of a pomelo is due to its very soft, pithy rind, which can be up to an inch thick. The flavor of a pomelo is similar to that of a grapefruit, but generally crisper and sweeter. They are a common ancestor of the grapefruit and the tangelo, and are one of the oldest varieties of citrus available today.
I’ve saved these cuties for last because I have a fond place for them in my heart. They are an unusual fruit, and many people don’t know what to do with these tiny, olive-sized morsels. My response is always, “Try one!” The way to eat a kumquat is to roll it gently between your palms or fingers to unlock the flavors, pop it in your mouth, skin and all, bite down and prepare for a jolt of intense flavor! The skin is sweet and slightly bitter, while the inside is an explosion of incredible tartness. I love watching newbies try their first one— their faces are priceless! If you chew it quickly, you can balance the sweet and sour flavors for an experience that, when it’s over, will leave you wanting more! I eat them on their own like candy, but they are also great garnishes for salad and welcome ingredients in jellies and marmalades.
Happy New Year from all of us in the Produce department. Enjoy the citrus season while it lasts!