Ah, February! This can be one of the hardest months to get through here in Wisconsin. Winter is here in force, with all of the cold dreary weather that entails. Cold and flu season is in full swing, and the bright warm days of spring seem an eternity away.
Lucky for us, it’s citrus season! To me, there’s nothing better to cheer me up on a dreary February day than the sight of a vibrantly orange minneola tangelo or the deep red color of a Moro blood orange. Not only is the color of this fruit an antidote for the winter blues, but the sweet/tart flavors can be a real pick-me-up, and the extra vitamin C and other nutrients can help keep us healthy through the depths of winter.
Here’s a short guide to some of the citrus fruits you might find on our aisle this month. Remember, every season and every grower is different; Flavor and quality can change very quickly in the produce department. While I’ve tried to give general ideas about the flavors and seasons of each fruit, it’s always a good idea to sample before you buy. Just ask a produce employee, we’d be glad to give you a sample of anything on our aisle!
The navel orange is the most widely enjoyed winter citrus fruit by far. They are distinguished from other oranges by the prominent “navel” that forms on their blossom-end (opposite from the end where the stem once attached). Navels are virtually seedless, and they have an unmistakable sweet orange flavor. The season for navel oranges begins in November and depending on the year, it can extend through March. Like many other citrus fruits, navel oranges get sweeter as their season progresses.
Take a look at the bright pink flesh of these oranges and you might think that they are a cross between an orange and a red grapefruit; but in fact the Cara Cara is a true navel orange without any other parentage. The distinctive pink flesh is due to a mutation that was originally found on just one tree in the Hacienda de Cara Cara in Venezuela. Cara Cara Navels have less acid than orange-fleshed navels, and a more delicate and complex, almost floral flavor.
There are several common varieties of blood oranges including moro, tarocco, and sanguinello. Each has their own distinct characteristics, but they all share an intense dark red flesh and a just as intense sweet/tart flavor. These oranges originated in Sicily, but most of the blood oranges that we sell are grown in California. They make excellent juice,but are also good for fresh eating. The red pigment in blood oranges is called anthocyanin, which is a potent antioxidant. Blood orange season starts in December and extends through April.
Unlike any of the other citrus on this list, Valencia oranges are at the height of their domestic season in the summer rather than the winter. Lucky for us, Mexico has a thriving citrus industry, so we are able to source these popular juicing oranges throughout the year. While usually classed as a juicing orange, valencias are also excellent for fresh eating. They have a few seeds, but they also have a wonderful orange flavor that tends to be a little sweeter than that of navel oranges.
Of the many different varieties of grapefruit, our favorite is the rio star, grown in Texas. The red flesh of this grapefruit is exceptionally sweet, with a rich, well balanced flavor. Other pink varieties such as ruby and star ruby have a similar bittersweet flavor. The pink coloring of these grapefruit is due to lycopene, which is the same healthful antioxidant found in tomatoes.
Pomelo is similar to grapefruit, but much much larger: they can weigh up to 4 pounds each! This is a very old citrus fruit, in fact, it was crossbred with a sweet orange to produce what we know today as grapefruit. Pomelos have a very thick, aromatic skin, with sweet, mild flesh that lacks the bitterness of grapefruit. These interesting fruits are somewhat rare. Their season runs from January until March, but the supply of organic pomelo in the United States is very limited, so we can’t guarantee that we’ll have them throughout their entire season. We’ll get them when we can!
Of all the citrus, perhaps the most confusion exists in the world of tangerines and mandarins. What’s the difference? Technically, tangerines are a subset of the broader group of fruit called mandarins. Tangerines were so named because they (mostly) passed through the Moroccan port of Tangier on their way to the United States. They generally have a thinner and more brightly colored skin than fruits that are simply classified as mandarins.
Satsuma and clementine mandarins are true mandarins that are seedless, easy to peel, and quite sweet. Their season is a little earlier than the majority of the tangerines, running from late November until January. There are many varieties of tangerines, including page, pixie, murcott, dancy, and fairchild. These varieties have a richer and more complex flavor than the satsuma and clementine mandarins, but they also generally have more seeds to contend with. Their season runs from January until March.
Like their name implies, tangelos are a cross between tangerines and pomelos. The most popular varieties include the tart and refreshing minneola, and the sweet and juicy Orlando tangelo. Tangelos inherited all of the sweetness and complexity of flavor of their tangerine ancestors. They are characterized by a bell shape, and loose skin that is easy to peel. The season for tangelos is similar to that of tangerines: January through March.
If pomelos win the award for the biggest citrus on the block, kumquats take the prize for the smallest. These small orange fruits are about the size of an olive, but they pack a flavor punch that more than makes up for their petite size. The proper way to eat a kumquat is in one bite, skin and all. The rind is bitter sweet, and the flesh is exceptionally tart and juicy. Eating a kumquat is an adventure: The initial sweetness of the rind gives way to an explosion of tartness as you bite into it, creating an intense texture and flavor experience.
I’ve skipped a description of lemons and limes in this article since those are commonly known fruit that are almost always available. However, the meyer lemon deserves a little extra ink. Meyer lemons are sweeter than common lemons, with less acid, and a thinner, smoother skin. They’re delicious in any recipe that calls for fresh lemon—in fact when they’re in season I hardly ever use common lemons. I especially like their juice in desserts, or in a hot toddy with ginger, honey, and hot water. Meyer lemons have a much shorter season that common lemons; they’re generally available from December through February.