From satsumas and Buddha's hands to pomelos and finger limes, there's no need to fear these seasonal citrus treats.
For many of us it used to be that winter meant just a few things when it came to citrus, like, oranges and grapefruits. Now a walk down the produce aisle has all kinds of bright oddities on display, brightly colored bumpy beasts and funny fingered fruits that call out from their shelves like strange citrus sirens. Their colors tempt and they smell divine, but what to do with these curiosities?
While many of these originated in more exotic spots on the globe, they are now also grown in California and Florida, and a few other southern states. So for those of us in the rest of the country who are devoted to local food, we'll just have to wait for the stone fruits to appear. But for everyone else, bring on the quirky citrus.
1. Buddha's hand
Behold the beautiful Buddha's hand! This odd-looking impossible love child of an octopus and lemon may not have a lot of pulpy flesh, but its fragrance and rind make up for it. Smithsonian Magazine
notes that its ancestor, the citron, may have been brought to China from India by Buddhist monks and cultivated in ancient China. Nowadays in China and Japan it is popular around the new year for its association with happiness, wealth and longevity. They've been grown commercially in California since the mid-80s.
The rind is not bitter like other citrus and it's wildly fragrant – think lavender meets lemon meets orange – which makes it the perfect candidate for marmalades and candied peels. It can be used to infuse spirits (like vodka or gin), used in baking, for teas and even around the house for cleaning and frarance.
If you've seen a pomelo, you probably didn't forget it. They look like a grapefruit, but in cartoonish proportion. They're goofy, they're huge! Also known as pummelo, shaddock and pompelmous, they win the prize for world's largest citrus. Native to Southeast Asia and Malaysia, they have been grown in China since antiquity and are now also grown in California and Florida. The Chinese variety is large and somewhat pointed; it has a very thick skin which opens to reveal 18 segments (as opposed to a grapefruit's 12) and a whole lot of juice. Pomelos are not as bitter as many grapefruit varieties, but can be used as you would a regular grapefruit; plus, that thick skin is lovely for candying.
Kumquats have been charming American shoppers for years, they have a diminutive continence that is just happy, but do people really know how to eat them? An informal poll of my friends and colleagues suggests that some people don't. So here goes, how to eat a kumquat: Remove stem (if any), place in mouth, consume. There is no peeling. Oh, and then brace yourself for a bit of a surprise – their rind is the essence of fragrant orange but get down to the pulp and whammo, it can be pret-ty tart. But in the best way.
There are generally two varieties found in the United States. Marumi kumquats are a bit rounder and pack less of a sour punch, while Nagami kumquats (grown in California, Florida and Texas) are oblong – about 1.5 inches long, more or less – and have pizzaz. I love to eat them as they are, but I also love to candy them to add flourish to desserts ... from angel food cake to chocolate mousse, a tangle of bright candied kumquats adds moxie. See how here: 8 odd things you can candy.
4. Finger limes
Maybe these have been around for a while – though I've just started seeing them here in New York City. In California, where they are grown, I tried one and it was kind of exciting. (It's the little things.) These Australian natives are slender green things that measure up to three inches in length. But unlike a normal lime, when you cut one open, the citrus guts ooze out with gusto. But the most curious part is their juice sacs. They are small, round, firm and translucent ... and pop in the mouth like caviar, earning the fruit the nickname, "lime caviar." Think pearls. The flavor is more structured than lime, it has hints of sweeter citrus and also herbs. The rind is super aromatic as well.
These aren't exactly snacking fruits, they're too tart, but they are fabulous to use in places you'd like a twist on citrus, so to speak. On fish, on mango or watermelon, in drinks, atop desserts – those bright pearls are just such fun. And with their minty rind, they would also be great for candying or transforming into marmalade. (See more about them at Shanley Farms.)
So many little oranges! But don't be confused. Satsumas may be all the rage, but they are just another member of the mandarin orange family, which also includes tangerines and clementines. They are easy to peel, easy to segment, and are one of the sweeter fruits of the citrus world. They likely originated in northeast India before being cultivated in China and then brought west – they were introduced to Florida in 1876 and are now predominantly grown in California as well as Louisiana and Alabama. Their beauty is in the flavor – sweet but with a citrus tang to keep them in line. Plus, they are so juicy; in my experience, they are the juiciest of all their citrus cousins.
Use them as you would tangerines/clementines ... and try them in my favorite cake ever: The perfect clementine cake!