Strip away the wrapping -- the fragrant prize inside is worth the work. Citrus fruits are vibrant gems, their juice-packed segments tidily arranged like spokes of a wheel. Bound in sunlit peels, the flavors and visual possibilities seem endless. Many supermarkets and farmers markets sell more varieties of citrus than ever before, showing off piles of behemoth pomelos, red-blushed blood oranges and Cara Cara oranges with bright, salmon-colored interiors. There are containers of kumquats, too.
Chefs know the just-right acidity that citrus can bring to dishes. Whether the fruit is added in segments, peeled slices or as a smidgen of juice, it can cure taste bud boredom.
Whole Foods and Asian groceries are generally good sources for offbeat varieties.
Here's an introduction to a few extraordinary varieties.
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Blood orange: Imagine oranges that aren't orange. Their flesh is a shocking purplish-red. OK, blood-red. They are sweet, with an irresistible raspberry-like flavor, generally seedless. More glory than gory. These stunners provide color and flavor drama, too. They can be eaten out of hand, turned into marmalade or squeezed into fabulous wake-up-red juice. Try them in cocktails such as mimosas (sparkling wine mixed with blood orange juice).
Cara Cara orange: A cross between two navels discovered in the mid-'70s at the Hacienda de Cara Cara in Venezuela, now most are California-grown. Sampled next to traditional navel oranges, both are seedless and have similar outside color, but inside the Cara Cara's flesh is a splendid, deep salmon hue. It is slightly sweeter and less acidic and edged with a hint of blackberry and sweet cherry.
Pomelo: Picture a citrus fruit that's almost as big as a volleyball; that's the pomelo. It's an ancestor to the grapefruit that is wildly popular in Asian cuisines. It ranges in flavor from tangy with a slightly tart edge to spicy-sweet. The thick, soft rinds vary in color: yellow, yellow-brown, lime-green or pink. The sweeter-than-grapefruit flesh also varies, from light yellow to deep pink, from juicy to slightly dry. Generally, pomelos are less juicy than grapefruit, so when cut into sections, they hold their shape better. The rind is often candied and found in fancy fruitcakes.
Kumquat: These beauties look like tiny round or oval oranges, generally about 1 inch long. The entire fruit is edible, and because the rind is sweet and the interior is tart, they are like an inside-out orange. In Cantonese, kumquat translates as "gold orange," a nod to the fruit's role as a symbol of prosperity. Although they can be thinly sliced, seeded and used raw in green salads, I think they shine best when cooked.
This stunning salad makes a great impression served on a large platter on a buffet table. The ingredients can be doubled and it can be prepared several hours in advance, covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated -- making it a delicious addition to a potluck gathering. If you don't want to mess with cooking and peeling the beets, ready-to-use steamed beets are sold in the refrigerated deli at some supermarkets and Trader Joe's. Fresh blackberries can be
added as a garnish.
CITRUS AND BEET SALAD
Yield: 4-6 servings
2 medium red beets, tops trimmed 1 inch from bulb
2 medium golden beets, tops trimmed 1 inch from bulb
3 blood oranges, divided use
1 Cara Cara orange
Optional: peeled segments of 1/4 pomelo
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
½ small fennel bulb, very thinly sliced crosswise
1/4 red onion, very thinly sliced
Good-quality extra-virgin olive oil
Coarse sea salt, such as fleur de sel or Maldon sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh cilantro and/or Italian parsley
1. For beets, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Wash beets, leaving some water on skins. Divide and enclose in 2 separate aluminum foil packets; place on rimmed baking sheet and roast until beets are tender when pierced with a knife, about 1 hour. Let cool.
2. Meanwhile, using a sharp knife, cut all peel and white pith from all citrus except 1 blood orange (cut top and bottom off citrus, making those 2 cuts parallel to each other and cutting just below white pith -- place cut side down on work surface and cut off peel and pith in strips starting at the top, following the contour of the fruit). Cut remaining blood orange in half and squeeze juice into small bowl or cup. If using pomelo, cut the peeled fruit into segments along the membranes.
3. Peel cooled beets and cut off stems. Slice 2 beets crosswise into thin rounds. Cut remaining 2 beets into wedges. Layer beets and oranges on plates or a platter, dividing evenly (add pomelo segments if using). Arrange fennel and onion over beets. Add lemon juice to blood orange juice; stir and spoon over salad; drizzle salad generously with oil. Season to taste with coarse sea salt and pepper (do this at the last minute if making ahead). Let salad stand for 5 minutes to allow flavors to meld or refrigerate up to 4 hours covered with plastic wrap. Garnish salad with cilantro and/or parsley leaves.
I like to serve this irresistible sauce atop grilled or broiled pork chops or chicken thighs. It's easy enough for a weeknight dazzler, but delicious enough for company. Here I serve the sauce-topped protein over raw spinach leaves for a salady taste and texture, but if you prefer, saute the spinach in a little olive oil and season with garlic salt.
SWEET-SOUR-SPICY KUMQUAT SAUCE
Yield: 4-6 servings
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 medium shallots, thinly sliced
6 kumquats, washed, dried, thinly sliced crosswise, seeded
3 tablespoons sugar
2/3 cup water
1/3 cup dried cranberries or dried cherries
1/3 cup white wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
1. Heat oil in medium skillet on medium-high heat. Add shallots and cook until starting to soften, about 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add kumquats, sugar, water, cranberries, vinegar and red pepper flakes. Bring to simmer, stirring frequently until sugar dissolves and mixture thickens, simmering about 8 to 10 minutes. Spoon over cooked chicken or pork chops placed on a bed of cooked or raw baby spinach leaves.