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Citrus for Christmas

Stuffing Christmas stockings with oranges a century or so ago seems these days such a quaint way to celebrate the holidays. Try that one on your kids!

Our modern-day ambivalence, however, betrays how little thought we spare for the seasonality of fresh citrus fruit, once a marvel in the depths of winter, not least that it could be transported across the country from sunny, southern orchards to snowbound stores.

Tasting of summer, oranges, grapefruit, lemons and limes brighten winter days with their sweetness, tang and zest. At their height, citrus fruits are plump, smooth-skinned and have that floral, faintly antiseptic aroma that tickles the nose. Although many types of domestic citrus store well, and many are imported from around the globe all year, grapefruit and oranges purchased in fall are pale shadows of what's in store for shoppers who can wait a couple of months.

Christmas provides the perfect occasion for growers to market the variety of mandarin oranges known as clementines, often branded as Cuties. Packed in their own 5-pound box, these tiny, easy-to-peel fruit deliver the citrus season's first gift. And shoppers are buying plenty. McClatchy News Service reported in January that California orchardists are planting more mandarins than any other citrus.

As the country's second-largest citrus producer, our neighbor to the south meets most of the demand for fresh fruit, from early November to April or May, depending on variety. Florida's production is larger, but most of it goes to orange juice, about 40 percent of the world's supply, according to McClatchy. Except for south Florida's Key limes, virtually all limes sold in the United States come from Mexico.

Americans can thank Christopher Columbus for introducing citrus — among other foods — to the Caribbean on his second voyage. Citrus's eventual dietary significance to sailors persists in the term for the fruit's primary acid, "ascorbic," which means "no scurvy." In addition to its vitamin C, citrus contains a chemical compound, limonin, found to prevent several cancers, including those of the mouth, throat and stomach.

Even without health to recommend them, citrus strikes a balance between sweet and bitter flavors like almost no other ingredient in the kitchen. And the fruit's rind, juice and pulp all can be used to different culinary purposes. In their native Southeast Asia, citrus is a critical component of cooking. Citrus also is celebrated in many Mediterranean dishes, owing to the ancient Greeks' and Romans' widespread cultivation.

Millennia of cross-breeding have yielded numerous varieties that are sweeter, juicier, lower in acid and easier to peel than their predecessors, as well as being visually stunning. Some examples are Moro blood oranges, Cara Cara navel oranges, Satsuma mandarins and Honeybell tangelos.

Because each fruit has a distinct appearance and flavor, it's hard to imagine shoppers losing their appetite for citrus before summer fruits appear. But the most enthusiastic and well-intentioned of us can stall halfway through that box of clementines, leaving them to languish past their eating prime.

When that happens, consider reviving them — and almost any other citrus — in a simple syrup. Then spoon the simmered slices with infused syrup onto ice cream or all-natural yogurt, layer them with French toast or arrange them on top of store-bought cheesecake for instant elegance. Better yet, bake your own cake with this recipe from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Mail Tribune Food Editor Sarah Lemon can be reached at 541-776-4487, or email slemon@mailtribune.com. For more tips, recipes and local food news, read her blog at mailtribune.com/wholedish

How discontented would our winters be without clementine cake? (Michael Sears/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MCT) - MCT