Exploring the Bounty of Winter Citrus
There’s something magical about winter citrus. More now than at any other time of year citrus grown in warmer climates has begun to peak, evoking sweeter, juicier flesh and bright, colorful peels. “Winter citrus is different from year-round citrus because it is much more varied,” says Carrie Nahabedian, chef/owner of NAHA and Brindille in Chicago.
You’ll find more types of lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruit—from the finger like Buddha’s hand lemon to floral bergamots and candy-sweet Florida honeybell oranges. Winter fruits like these also tend to come from smaller farms and often from organic farms, so they are fresher and have not been stored for months on end, Nahabedian adds.
Come winter, Jamie Bissonnette, chef/partner of Toro in Boston, can’t wait to get his hands on the very fragrant and unusual lemon known as Buddha’s hand. He slices the long “fingers” whole into thin strips, candying them for use in pâtés or on pesce crudo that includes umami-rich sea urchin. Buddha’s hand is best for peeling in this way because, as Bissonnette explains, “It has all the best parts of lemon zest with less bitterness, more lemon flavor, and little juice or acid, so it helps cut the richness of different foods and dishes.” While the fruit has a short shelf life, he suggests storing it loosely wrapped in damp paper towels in the cooler.
Chef Nahabedian sources her favorite Buddha’s hand from a small farm in Southern California, and her preparation includes blanching, cooling, and candying the rind of the long fingers over and over again—multiple times as classic French chefs do. She’ll even dry the zest and grind it into a powder. When combined with freshly ground aniseed, green cardamom, star anise, and dried vanilla bean, the powder becomes a flavorful dusting for scallops. The rind serves as an aesthetic element for the plate, which is also dressed with a pink grapefruit juice, vanilla bean, and mountain butter reduction, Belgian endives, grapefruit segments, and more Buddha’s hand peel, but prepared as a confit this time.
Repeated candying helps rid the peel of any impurities and extracts more flavor from the fruit. With the Buddha’s hand lemon, Nahabedian says, it’s important to source the edible kind, as the fruit is also raised and sold for ornamental flower arrangements.
Chef Bissonnette prefers the sweeter zest of finger limes over traditional limes for his Japanese-style crudo and Thai dishes. He’ll grate it over striped bass, sliced sashimi style, and served with a green papaya salad layered with rice noodles.
At Grant Achatz’s Roister in Chicago, Chef Andrew Brochu pairs finger limes with his savory and rich Buttered Pipe Pasta & Clams dish. He makes a green chili–spiked relish out of the zest from finger limes, along with kaffir limes, which serves to brighten up the buttery, semi-brothy dish that includes al dente bites of the pasta, shucked clams, and a layering of fresh mint on top.
A citrus considered closer to a type of orange, a bergamot actually has a skin that more closely resembles that of a lemon or even a more-yellow-colored lime. The bergamot fruit is favored by Italians for use in cologne as well as in food because of its heavily aromatic and floral notes. At Brindille, Nahabedian makes a marmalade out of the bergamots that she serves with scones, crumpets, and crème fraîche during the restaurant’s afternoon tea service. She’ll also use the fruit in Moroccan-inspired dishes, as bergamots are commonly used in that country. Once, Nahabedian grated the zest over a foie gras, lightly dressed with an infused Afghani saffron, white wine, rhubarb, a little raw shallot, and a duck jus reduction for thickening.
In winter, seasonal clementines offer a sweeter, deeper orange flavor to dishes. At Toro, Chef Bissonnette makes a fermented paste out of the fruit that is similar to a yuzu kosho. He combines the pith and juice of the clementines with sea salt, and lets the mixture ferment at room temperature for a couple of weeks before adding chopped chilies like jalapeño, Fresno, or Jimmy Nardello—an heirloom variety in New England—to the mix. He’ll serve it as a condiment with Nantucket Bay sea scallops, which are also garnished with that candied Buddha’s hand, a couple of drops of yuzu juice, and some fresh mint or basil.
Chef Nahabedian dehydrates clementine segments as capsule like garnishes for Scottish wild game like duck, squab, or wood pigeon. But she prefers super juicy, clementine-sweet honeybell oranges from Florida—available for a short time only in December and January—for use in house-made spritzers or to give ice cream that Creamsicle flavor. She’s also been known to candy the rind and dip it in chocolate for a special treat.
At Mustards Grill in Yountville, California, chef/owner Cindy Pawlcyn prefers locally grown clementines in winter for the deeper flavor, swapping traditional oranges for clementines in a take on a Duck à l’Orange. She makes a Moroccan salad with the clementines, red onion, chopped parsley, shallots, and wood-grilled meats, and adds, “They’re great in heartier dishes like a cassoulet.”
For ceviche or crudo dishes, she’ll toss the clementines in with the marinated fish just before serving, or even roast and slice the clementines as a garnish, complemented with herbs like black mint. An achiote paste can be made with the fruit and zest—smashed with a little oregano, olive oil, and garlic—as a marinade for chicken and fish, or as the main condiment for a fried cod fish sandwich.
For the popular butterscotch trifle dessert at Ampersand Wine Bar in Chicago, chef/owner Darren McGraw layers real Scotch-spiked butterscotch pudding with a blondie, whipped cream that has been steeped with cocoa nibs for chocolate flavor, and clementine segments. For a different sauce, he’ll combine a third of those clementine segments and deglaze a caramel with them and Cointreau.
Grapefruit and Pummelo
Chef Pawlcyn prefers pairing smoked fish with all types of winter citrus, including grapefruit, making a salad out of the segments with avocado, butter lettuce, a mustardy-lemon vinaigrette, and a sprinkle of dehydrated Meyer lemon zest that’s ground into a powder and blended with a little salt. This becomes the main garnish for her Sacramento-sourced smoked sturgeon.
She’s also been known to pair pink grapefruit segments, topped with minted crème fraîche and pistachio vinaigrette, with rose, red, and yellow beets. Combined with a little ginger, lime, peanuts, and grapefruit salt (made in the similar way as the Meyer lemon salt), grapefruit helps ease the bitterness of Chinese greens. Of course, freshly squeezed grapefruit juice makes for great, classic greyhound cocktails at the bar, and grapefruit segments can also be pickled alongside lemons and oranges, and with spices like coriander and cumin, used to brighten up pork and richer dishes.
“A lot of Thai dishes use lemon and grapefruit, so we’ll make a winter Thai salad with green papaya, homemade green curry, and grapefruit tossed in a vinaigrette with lime juice, Thai chilies, and a little sugar,” she says. A version of this mixture also becomes the marinade for grilled calamari when its combined with fish sauce and garlic and boiled down into more of a syrup.
Chef Pawlcyn swaps traditional grapefruit for seasonal pummelos—also known as Chinese grapefruit—in a Thai-style salad featuring the segments, along with smashed English cucumbers, pickled basil, mint and cilantro leaves, and a dressing combining juices from a lime, Minneola tangerine, and Meyer lemon with garlic cloves, olive oil, red pepper flakes, soy sauce, and sesame oil.