Buying local products is great in theory. But it’s not always so practical in reality. The fact is, when it comes to citrus, most people can’t get it from neighboring farms because the fruit grows in just the country’s warmest climate. So many chefs and food buyers who try to focus on using produce grown nearby cut back or do without these flavorful types of produce.
But for those in citrus-growing locales, winter is a time to celebrate as trees are loaded with ripe fruit. And many operators in the area offer as much citrus as diners will eat.
“We menu Florida citrus every single day” during the harvest season, says Dawn Houser, director of nutrition services for Collier County Public Schools. Her schools participate in a farm-to-school initiative. “We’re spearheading the program because we have the farms right here, an hour from my office.”
The Good, the Bad and the Ugli: “We think it’s a win-win for the farmers and the schools,” Houser says of the farm initiative. “And the students get really excited about vine-ripened food, which has such a different flavor. We have pretty much everything, or darn near, growing here, so why should I ship food from California?”
Houser says she purchases whatever local produce is currently available, including green beans, blueberries, watermelon and peaches. Last year, she even brought ugli fruit into the schools for students to learn about. The kids had a chance to cut and taste the citrus, which is best known for its unappetizing, deformed-looking skin. But despite its appearance, the children liked the fruit once they tasted it, Houser says. She would like to get more to offer in her schools.
Citrus cultural: At Banner Thunderbird Medical Center in Glendale, Ariz., Executive Chef Jaime Palenque also menus a great deal of citrus, which is prevalent in the area. For some patients, having the fruit on menus may actually help them feel more at home and lift spirits, he says.
“In Arizona we use a lot of citrus because it’s a cultural thing,” Palenque says. “It grows locally, and 60% to 70% of homeowners have at least one citrus tree at their house, I would say.”
He explains that citrus gives food a clean and fresh taste, without being overpowering. He includes a shrimp salad with grapefruit and orange segments on his salad bar. The salad is simply seasoned with a little chili, salt and pepper.
Also on the salad bar, Palenque offers lemon- and lime-scented olive oil that he purchases from a local company. The oils are typically used as a dressing.
“It’s a really fresh taste,” Palenque says, describing the citrus oil’s flavor. He also adds a touch of orange oil to chocolate that he melts for coating strawberries, “so the chocolate has an orange scent. People really enjoy those.”
Frigid fruit festival: While far from any citrus-growing areas, New York City-based Restaurant Associates featured a Citrus Food Festival for the month of January with optional menu suggestions as a corporate-wide initiative, according to Gina Zimmer-Rozhitsky, vice president of marketing and communications. The promotion allows the company to highlight the most seasonal items at its 125 on-site accounts, which include financial institutions, publishers, museums and cultural organizations.
“But each location [is] encouraged to develop their own creative spin on citrus dishes,” Zimmer-Rozhitsky says. Lunch menu suggestions might include arugula and frisée salad with blistered tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and lemon brittle. Tea-smoked duck breast comes with soba noodle salad and kumquat confit. Lime shrimp escabèche is teamed with a hearts of palm, avocado and pink grapefruit salad.
RA’s citrus desserts include dark chocolate ganache cake with pink grapefruit and frozen sea salt granité. For a play on lemon meringue pie, there’s a Meyer lemon meringue tart featuring the fragrant lemon variety.
Admiring Meyers: Chef Patrick Browne, at the University of Montana in Missoula, is also a Meyer lemon fan and preserves what he can since he is only able to order them for about one month out of the year—typically in January, he says. He freezes extra Meyer lemon juice and preserves the skin to pull out for “high-end events” that he caters.
One recent catered affair at the university featured blood orange foam over pan-seared monkfish with cauliflower, almonds and currants. For the foam Browne combined blood orange juice with xanthan gum, placing the mixture in a whipped cream dispenser.
For dessert at the same meal he prepared kumquat marmalade on chipotle-spiced shortbreads. He put a few small rounds of the candied fruit on each cookie. To prepare the marmalade he mixed equal parts sugar, sliced kumquat and water in a pot and simmered it until the mixture had a jamlike consistency.
Limited but appealing: “Citrus is tough, particularly in my world where I try to get things really local,” says Eric Eisenberg, corporate executive chef of Swedish Health Services’ five hospitals in the Seattle area. “If I lived in Southern California or Florida, I’d have a ton more on my menu. It brightens food, and using it is a great way to cut back on salt and fat.”
Eisenberg does feature citrus occasionally and for special events. “I always do some kind of spritzer. We’re trying to be a soda-free organization. For spritzers I try to make them different.” A recent out-of-the-ordinary rendition was a lemon grass and rosemary spritzer. To make it Eisenberg steeped smashed lemon grass and the herb in green tea. Once it cooled he strained it and poured the mixture over ice. It was finished with sparkling water and sprinkle of lemon zest.