Centering on citrus fruits can give cooks renewed zest for life

January 12, 1994|By John Willoughby | John Willoughby,Contributing Writer

The everyday abundance of citrus fruit in wintertime dulls our sense of wonder at these brilliant gifts of nature. We expect the splashes of orange and yellow in the supermarket, the bursts of fragrant oil from the peels when we tear them open, and the tang and sweet/sour taste of the juice inside. Still, as a Northerner, I always wake up when I go south, gawking at the orange or lemon trees in the back yards of friends' homes in Florida and southern California.

Both in citrus country and in the cold North, chefs are rediscovering the bright, bracing taste of citrus fruit and using its flavor-blending characteristics to new advantage. Citrus is a key to healthful cooking; it lends its jazz notes to all manner of dishes and techniques. Chef Mary Sue Milliken uses citrus for many purposes in the dishes she creates for the Border Grill restaurant in Santa Monica, Calif. "I find that citrus just helps dishes out in a lot of ways," she says. "We squeeze a fresh lime quarter into soups, for example, not because we want the soup to taste like lime, but because it heightens flavors, cuts richness and balances out the various flavors."

At the China Moon Cafe in San Francisco, Barbara Tropp says citrus peel is all but indispensable to her new-style Chinese cooking. Ms. Tropp uses strips of peel to add an aromatic character to stir-frys. For desserts, she minces peel with sugar in a food processor; the flavor of the peel is driven right into the sugar.

"Using citrus peel in cooking is like discovering bright red lipstick," says Ms. Tropp. "It will change your life."

Spinach and grapefruit salad

Serves 8

2 teaspoons poppy seeds

1/2 red onion, thinly sliced

3 grapefruit, preferably pink or red

6 cloves garlic, peeled

2 tablespoons white-wine vinegar

2 tablespoons olive oil, preferably extra-virgin

1 tablespoon coarse-grain mustard, preferably Pommery

1/2 teaspoon honey

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

3/4 pound fresh spinach, trimmed, washed and torn (16 cups)

1/2 small jicama, peeled and cut into matchsticks

Heat a small skillet over medium heat. Add poppy seeds and toast, stirring constantly, until aromatic, 1 to 2 minutes. Place onions in a small bowl, add cold water to cover and soak for 10 minutes. Drain.

Meanwhile, with a sharp knife, remove skin and white pith from grapefruit and discard.

Working over a small bowl to catch the juice, cut the grapefruit segments from their surrounding membrane; reserve the segments in a small bowl. Measure 1/3 cup of the juice and set aside.

Place garlic cloves in a small saucepan and add water to cover. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook until tender, about 3 minutes. Drain.

In a blender, combine vinegar, olive oil, mustard, honey, cooked garlic and reserved grapefruit juice. Blend until creamy. Season with salt and pepper.

In a salad bowl, combine spinach, jicama and reserved onions and grapefruit sections. Drizzle with the dressing and toss. Arrange on salad plates and garnish with the toasted poppy seeds.

Per serving: 89 calories, 2 grams protein, 4 grams fat, 13 grams carbohydrate, 60 milligrams sodium, 0 milligrams cholesterol.

Pilaf with lime zest, almonds & raisins

Serves 4

2 tablespoons blanched slivered almonds

1 1/2 teaspoons vegetable oil, preferably canola

1 onion, finely chopped

2 tablespoons pine nuts

1 cup short-grain rice, such as Arborio

2 1/4 cups defatted reduced-sodium chicken stock

cup golden raisins

2 teaspoons grated lime zest

1 teaspoon saffron threads, crumbled, or 1/4 teaspoon powdered saffron

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon red-pepper flakes

1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Spread almonds on a pie plate and bake for 5 minutes, or until golden.

Heat oil in a medium-sized heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add onions and pine nuts and saute until the onions are soft and the pine nuts slightly browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in rice and cook an additional 4 to 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the chicken stock, raisins, lime zest, saffron, cinnamon, salt, pepper flakes and cardamom; stir well. Reduce heat to low, cover and

simmer until

all the liquid has been absorbed, 15 to 18 minutes. Remove from the heat and fluff with a fork. Stir in the almonds and serve.

Per serving: 286 calories, 6 grams protein, 6 grams fat, 53 grams carbohydrate, 274 milligrams sodium, 0 milligrams cholesterol.

Grilled lemon and cinnamon chicken

Serves 4.

The following recipe was adapted from the forthcoming "Big Flavors of the Hot Sun" (William Morrow).

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried

1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon tomato paste

1 teaspoon minced jalapeno

salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste

4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (1 pound)

1 lemon, quartered

4 sprigs fresh oregano for garnish (optional)

In a large shallow dish, combine lemon juice, garlic, oregano, cinnamon, tomato paste and jalapenos. Season with salt and pepper. Add chicken and turn to coat well. Cover with plastic wrap and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours or up to 8 hours, turning occasionally.

Prepare a grill or heat broiler. Drain the chicken and discard marinade. Grill or broil the chicken on a lightly oiled rack until no longer pink inside, 5 to 6 minutes per side. Garnish with lemon and oregano, if desired, and serve.

Per serving: 167 calories, 27 grams protein, 4 grams fat, 6 grams carbohydrate, 67 milligrams sodium, 72 milligrams cholesterol.

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