Winter is citrus season

We love our winter citrus. Oranges, grapefruits, lemons and limes flavor foods, are given as gifts and are used as decoration all through the holidays. Many of our favorite citrus fruits are at their peak at this time of year as well. While citrus fruit is plentiful and inexpensive these days, it was was unusual, expensive and given as a special gift not that long ago. Modern transportation and commercial citrus growers have turned something that was uncommon and cherished into ordinary everyday groceries.

Why we have an orange in the toe of our Christmas stocking

The origin of the orange in the toe of the Christmas stocking goes back to The 3rd Century when the now Saint Nicholas was just a bishop. He overheard the plight of a father who was considering selling his oldest daughter into slavery to help the family survive. He dressed in his red robes with white trim and crept over to the home in the dead of night. He tossed balls of gold into the home and they landed in the stockings that the family had hung by the fire to dry that night. Oranges have taken the symbolic place of actual gold, however the custom has continued for almost two thousand years.

Lots of wintertime citrus choices, including naval oranges

There's so much to choose from this time of year. From the little, easy to peel clementines and ruby red grapefruits to the odd-looking navel oranges. Navel oranges are the oranges with the little belly button on the end. This was a natural mutation found in 1917, on a tree in Brazil. The strange-looking fruit are actually two fruits that grow as one. The little undeveloped end fruit, partially covered by the orange peel, also keeps the orange from forming seeds. Cuttings from this one tree have been scattered around the globe to citrus growers and now there are millions of trees that produce the navel fruits. They are at their best from late fall through the winter.

citrus salsa with chips

Make an orange and lime salsa

Oranges and citrus are often featured in recipes this time of year. They are often added to fruit punch and mulled wine, however citrus is also featured in salads and desserts. Citrus is also common in marinades and roasted meat recipes. An interesting way to use oranges this year is to make orange salsa. This provides an alternative to the familiar tomato-laden fare and is a fresh option that your guests should love. Peel and section a couple of oranges. The best way to do this is to slice off each end, so the orange will stand upright on a cutting board. Take a very sharp knife and remove the peel and the white membrane from the sides while cutting down as you hold the orange steady. Then take your knife and slice out each section. Do the same with a lime. You'll have a bowl with orange and lime sections with no white pith. Chop coarsely. Add a quarter cup of minced red onion, a couple tablespoons of a robust olive oil, a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of red pepper flakes. Add a bit of crushed garlic if you like too. Stir together and let rest in the refrigerator for a couple of hours and garnish with a bit of cilantro if you are so inclined. I'm in the cilantro-free camp, myself. Serve like any other salsa with chips and this salsa is best served fresh.

Growing citrus

If you live in a climate where citrus grows, you are so lucky to have these nutritious gems at your fingertips. An orange contains about 60 calories, 3 grams of fiber, 1 gram of protein and 12 grams of sugar (diabetics take note of this and use as your physician recommends.) Oranges also contain 70 milligrams of Vitamin C and 6% of your daily calcium requirement. Citrus trees grow best in a frost-free climate with lots of sunshine. Here in the U.S. Florida, Texas and California are our biggest citrus producing areas. However, Brazil, India and Mexico have larger harvests. Citrus like well-drained, sandy loam soil with plenty of organic matter. Ample water is also important because juicy fruits require plentiful moisture. Northern gardeners sometimes purchase dwarf trees that they keep in containers, bringing them indoors when winter arrives. Meyer lemons, Kieffer limes and kumquats are the best choices for container and indoor growing.

Take advantage of seasonal citrus

Enjoy citrus this winter. There are many choices and flavors available. The fruits sparkle in winter recipes and are loved by young and old alike. They are a healthy alternative to cookies or ice cream as an evening snack and are quite economical this time of year as well. Experiment with some new to you recipes or enjoy some old family favorites. Your oranges are definitely balls of gold right now.