Arrow-right Camera
A&E >  Food

Citrus can lift spirits and meals

From the sourest lemons and limes to the sweetest satsumas and clementines, citrus fruits flourish this time of year.

The little packages of sunshine are delivered when we need them most – in the dreary depths of winter – perking up meals and uplifting spirits with a tangy taste of the tropics.

Their versatility makes them perfect for sweet or savory dishes. Plump grapefruits and pummelos, fragrant Meyer lemons and Mandarin oranges, tangerines, blood oranges, kumquats and key limes are easy to incorporate into any meal. And their pinks, oranges, yellows and greens help beat the winter blues right along with their zesty flavor.

They’re also good for you. Rich in vitamin C and a good source of vitamin A, citrus fruits help boost immune systems. In fact, for some people, high doses of vitamin C can cut down the length of a common cold by as much as a day and a half.

Vitamin C also aids in absorption of plant-based sources of iron like spinach, Swiss chard, lentils, quinoa and nuts. And it’s known to delay or prevent heart disease and certain kinds of cancer.

When looking for just the right citrus at the supermarket, be sure to give the fruit a soft squeeze, avoiding buying any with soft spots. Look for specimens that feel heavy for their size; they will be particularly juicy.

With the exception of lemons and limes, which are too acidic and sour for most people, citrus fruits are delicious and simple snacks on their own. But they complement everything from dessert and drinks to dinner.

Use them in beverages – from a glass of freshly squeezed orange or grapefruit juice in the morning to a slice of lemon in an evening cup of herbal tea. Make ice water more interesting with an orange wedge or lemon or lime slices for a light citrus scent in an otherwise tasteless drink. Build cocktails like screwdrivers, mimosas, greyhounds, margaritas, lemondrops and classic daiquiris with freshly squeezed citrus juices.

For breakfast, pair homemade lemon curd with lemon-scented crepes or pancakes. Make your own marmalades or preserves to top toast or muffins.

For lunch and dinner, poach chicken or fish in low-calorie, fat-free citrus juice instead of sautéing or baking with oil or butter. Or, add a zesty spark to salads – like spinach and tangerine, roasted beets and kale with mixed citrus, or arugula and orange with pomegranate seeds, fennel and almond slices or pistachio bits.

On the sweeter side, make lemon-scented shortbread cookies, key lime pie, cranberry-orange scones or a lemon loaf with citrus-scented whipped cream for coffee or tea time.

This winter, I’m celebrating citrus season with a series of aromatic desserts full of bright flavors and slightly sweet – but not cloying.

However you end up eating your citrus fruits, save the rinds to make candied citrus peels, which make lovely garnishes for desserts and drinks. Or, enjoy the sugar-coated pieces on their own for a sweet afternoon treat.

Orange Greek Yogurt Cake with Morello Cherries and Citrus-Scented Whipped Cream and Candied Orange Peels

This super-moist but only slightly sweet cake pairs tangy orange zest with the semi-smoky and chocolaty flavors of dark-skinned sour cherries.

Adapted from the Orange Yogurt Cake recipe in Martha Stewart Living, December 2006

Unsalted butter, softened, for pan

1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted

1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/8 teaspoon baking soda

Pinch of salt

3/4 cup plain Greek-style yogurt

1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened

1 teaspoon grated orange zest, plus 1 tablespoon orange juice

1 large egg

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

12 ounces Morello cherries

Powdered sugar, for dusting (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8-inch round cake pan. Combine and stir all ingredients through vanilla in a large mixing bowl until thoroughly mixed. Gently stir in cherries, then pour into pan. Bake until a toothpick comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Let cool completely. Dust with powdered sugar. Top with citrus-scented whipped cream and candied orange peels. (Recipes below)

Yield: 8 servings

Candied Orange Peels

6 oranges

1 1/2 cups sugar

Cut off ends of oranges. Cut away peel along the curve of the fruit, leaving most of the pith. Slice peel lengthwise into 1/4-inch strips.

Cook peel until tender, 10 to 15 minutes, in a medium pot of boiling water. With a slotted spoon, place peels in a single layer on a wire rack set over a rimmed baking sheet; let peels dry slightly, 15 to 20 minutes. In a medium pot, bring 1 cup water and 1 cup sugar to a roiling boil on high heat, stirring frequently to dissolve sugar. Add peels, cooking until they become translucent, and water and sugar mixture thickens into a syrup, about 15 minutes. With slotted spoon, place peels in single layer on rack set over rimmed baking sheet, letting dry 3 to 4 hours. Mix with remaining sugar until well-coated.

Note: You don’t have to stick with oranges. If you have other citrus on hand, try a combination of grapefruit, oranges and lemons – 4 of each fruit – with 2 cups of sugar, cooking with 1 1/4 cups and coating with 3/4 cup.

Citrus-Scented Whipped Cream

There are many ways to achieve citrus-flavored whipped cream.

For each of these suggestions, combine all ingredients with an electric hand mixer on high until stiff peaks almost form, then refrigerate until ready to use.

Simple syrup: Beat 1 cup heavy cream with ¼ cup syrup left from preparing candied orange peels (recipe above). .

Zest: Combine 2 tablespoons of powdered sugar with 1 cup heavy whipping cream, ½ teaspoon vanilla extract, 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed orange juice and 1 teaspoon orange zest.

Grand Marnier: Combine 1 cup heavy cream with 2 tablespoons powdered sugar and 1 ½ to 2 teaspoons Grand Marnier. Or, for a citrus-scent with floral notes, use St. Germain instead of Grand Marnier.

Fresh Orange and Greek Yogurt Tart

Adapted from Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food, January/February 2010

For the crust:

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/4 teaspoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 stick plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cold and cut into small pieces

1/4 cup ice water

The filling:

1/4 cup fresh orange juice

1 teaspoon orange zest

1/2 cup sugar

5 large egg yolks, beaten

1 cup Greek-style yogurt

3 medium oranges, peeled and sliced thin

Powdered sugar, for garnish

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a food processor, combine flour, sugar, salt and butter, processing for about 10 seconds. Sprinkle ice water over the flour mixture and process until the dough begins to come together and butter pieces are still visible, about 15 seconds. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and roll it out, then place in a 9-inch tart pan. Fill with pie weights and bake for 10 minutes. Remove weights and bake 10 more minutes, or until lightly golden brown. Remove from oven and cool. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk juice, zest and sugar until sugar is dissolved. Then, whisk in yolks and beat in yogurt until well mixed. Pour into pie shell and bake until set, about 40 to 45 minutes.

Cool completely, then cover and place in refrigerator until thoroughly chilled, about 3 hours. Just before serving, place orange slices on top of tart and sprinkle with powdered sugar.