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Begin the year with citrus

(Provided photo —Yvona Fast)

Did Santa bring you oranges for Christmas? Oranges and other citrus fruit were once a prized, healthy winter treat. That was before the miracle of modern transportation, which brings us fruit harvests from Florida and California. While our local fresh produce is out of season, the cold winter is the time for fragrant, juicy, vibrant citrus — at their peak from October to April.

Citrus fruit are famous for their high content of vitamin C — and the winter months are the season we need more of this strong immune booster to help ward off infectious diseases. Vitamin C also helps us beat winter fatigue by aiding with iron absorption. However, this vitamin dissipates quickly when exposed to air, so eat the fruit as soon as you cut it open, and drink the juice soon after squeezing.

Citrus fruits are rich in potassium and magnesium, two minerals that play a role in regulating blood pressure. They also contain vitamin A, fiber, and other antioxidants and cancer-fighting compounds (flavonoids lycopene, limolene, terpene, phenols and isothiocyanates).

These subtropical plants are native to Southeast Asia and were first cultivated in China. The original fruit was small, hard and bitter, but through centuries of cultivation and selection, we have developed large, heavy, sweet fruit.

Oranges are probably the most popular citrus fruit. In “The Long Winter,” Laura Ingalls Wilder writes about the delight of receiving oranges on Christmas.

Oranges originated in southern China and Indonesia. From there, they spread westward, arriving in the Middle East by the 9th century and southern Europe by the 15th. Columbus brought them to the Caribbean on his second voyage, and Spanish explorers and missionaries introduced them to Florida and California, which is where most of our oranges are grown today. Tangerines and mandarins are small, loose-skinned, sweeter orange varieties.

Lemon trees grow wild in the north of India and probably originated there. Limes are native to south Asia. Both have been cultivated there for 4,000 years or more. During the Middle Ages, Arab traders brought lemons and limes to Africa, and the Moors took them to Spain, where they spread to the rest of Europe. The juice and zest of limes and lemons add complexity to many dishes and are important ingredients in sauces and dressings.

The largest citrus is the Malaysian pumelo, native to southeast Asia, where they’re popular at festivals. The pear-shaped fruits can weigh up to 25 pounds. The olive-sized kumquat is the smallest citrus; it is eaten whole — peel, seeds and all.

Grapefruits are newcomers to the citrus family. The large grapefruit is thought to be an accidental cross between an orange and a pummelo. An English ship captain brought pummelo seeds from the East Indies to Jamaica in 1693. By the 1800s, grapefruit cultivation had begun in the West Indies. Popularity grew slowly, and grapefruit did not become common until the 20th century.

Ugli fruit is another newcomer. Discovered growing wild in Jamaica, it is thought to be a cross between a grapefruit and a tangerine.

Clementines are the most recent newcomers to the citrus family. The hybrid, created in Algeria at the beginning of the 20th century, is a cross between the popular orange and the smaller Chinese mandarin.

Oranges, clementines, tangerines, mandarins and grapefruit are great as a snack. Zest and juice from lemons, limes and oranges can impart flavor to baked goods like breads, cookies and scones. Chicken, fish and pork are all great with a citrus-flavored marinade. Use lemon, lime and orange juice in salad dressings and vinaigrettes.

Salad dressing or marinade

Ingredients:

1 small clove garlic, crushed

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 Tablespoon olive oil

1/2 teaspoon dried basil

Juice of 1/2 lemon or lime (about 2 Tablespoons)

1 teaspoon prepared mustard

Dash each black pepper and turmeric

Zest (grated rind; the outer colored part, not the white inside, which is more bitter)

Directions:

Crush garlic with salt. For salad dressing, blend with other ingredients in the bottom of a salad bowl, and toss greens into it to coat. Then add other salad ingredients.

For marinade, heat the oil; add garlic, basil, black pepper and a little zest. You may add or substitute other herbs, such as rosemary. Cool and add salt or a teaspoon of soy sauce and lemon or lime. Use immediately; combine with meat or fish in a zip-lock plastic bag or other container. Seal and marinade in refrigerator. Also good as a grilling or basting sauce for fish.

Makes about 1/4 cup or enough for 4 cups greens when used as a salad dressing.

Citrusy Salad

Ingredients:

Dressing (above recipe)

4 clementines or 2 oranges or some ugli fruit

4 cups spinach-arugula mix or fresh baby spinach or lettuce blend

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

1 bunch green onions (4 or 5)

2 Tablespoons crumbled feta cheese, optional

Directions:

Combine dressing ingredients in bottom of salad bowl. Peel clementines. Divide in half; cut crosswise in 4 pieces. Add and stir, crushing slightly to release juice.

Toss washed, torn greens into the dressing.

Remove root ends and any wilted parts from scallions. Chop in 1/2-inch pieces. Stir into the salad. Stir in chopped nuts and cheese, if using. Serves 2 to 4 depending on serving size.

Option: For a clementine broccoli salad, substitute 3 cups lightly steamed broccoli florets (or broccoli and cauliflower) for the spinach.

Serves 2 to 4.

Lemony Baked Fish

Ingredients:

1 teaspoon cooking oil

1 lime

1/2 lemon

About 3/4 pound fish fillets (whitefish)

1 clove garlic

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon basil

1/4 cup thinly sliced onion

1 teaspoon butter

1 Tablespoon fresh parsley, minced

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Oil the bottom of 9-by-9-inch baking dish. Wash lemon and lime, and slice into thin slices. Place in oven and heat 3 to 4 minutes. In the meantime, crush garlic with salt, and slice the onion.

Remove pan from oven and lower heat to 375. Place fish on top of lemon and lime slices. Sprinkle with the crushed garlic and basil, and dot with butter. Spread the onion on top. Return to oven and bake until fish flakes easily with a fork; this should take just a few minutes and will depend on the type of fish. Remove from oven, and sprinkle with fresh parsley for garnish. Serve hot, with pasta or rice and a vegetable or salad. Serves 2 to 3.

Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on Facebook at Words Are My World.

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