Put the squeeze on citrus

Blue Jay satsumas
Blue Jay satsumas

I was on the phone the other day with California orange grower Dennis Johnston for a story. We talked about the 100 acres of Satsuma mandarins he sells with the stems and leaves on, an Asian tradition that’s becoming more widespread.

One reason he likes selling his fruit this way, Johnston says, is because retailers have to get it on the shelves quickly, not let it sit in a warehouse for two weeks while the leaves dry up and become worthless.

The next day, I was passing the little Asian fruit store near my home and there they were – bright orange Satsumas attached to a spindly stem like a mast, with a sail of waxy green leaves. They sat atop an empty box splashed with the Blue Jay brand.

Yup, they were Dennis’ oranges, trucked all the way from the San Joaquin Valley. Fresh, sweet and easy to peel.

Satsumas are just one of the specialty citrus varieties that brighten our winter. Here are a few more.

Blood Oranges – Check out my Toronto Star story on blood oranges at http://bit.ly/Ubfb6i Some have a red blush on the skin from cold nights in the orchard, while others look like a regular orange until you cut them open. Surprise! The flavour resembles orange tinged with tangy raspberry. You’ll find the California moros, a popular blood orange variety, in 3-pound mesh/poly bags. I found Sicilian blood oranges wrapped in red tissue at Longo’s. Both should be available until March.

Cara Cara – Try this seedless, low-acid navel orange with pretty pink flesh. It’s rich and sweet with a hint of cherry or blackberry. This “power orange” contains more vitamin C than a regular navel, it’s an excellent source of Vitamin A and fibre and a natural source of lycopene, the same pigment that gives red grapefruit and tomatoes their red hue and antioxidant status.
Caras were discovered in Venezuela in 1976 and brought to the U.S. They’re so popular, California growers are planting trees as fast as they can, so we should see more every year between January and March. Serve cara caras as a snack or squeeze the juice into your vinaigrette.

pink variegated lemons
pink variegated lemons

Lemons – You may think a lemon is a lemon, but not anymore! There are seedless lemons, beloved by chefs and bartenders, variegated lemons with pink flesh and beautiful skin streaked with green, big bumpy ponderosas, loaded with juice. “baby” lemons and, my personal favourite, the sweet, thin-skinned Meyer, a cross between a lemon and a tangerine. Check out my story about this Lamborghini of lemons in the In Season section.

I also learned that citrus trees don’t produce a profitable crop for five to eight years, so they’re a huge investment. All it takes is one big freeze in January to wipe out a year’s work.

“How do you sleep at night?” I asked Dennis, a fourth-generation citrus grower, after last weekend’s frigid temperatures.

“Well, we do,” he laughed.

Did I mention I love my job?

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