There has been a collective holding of the breath among California citrus growers following the hard frost we experienced a couple of weeks ago. Frost damage to leafy greens and tender vegetables is immediately apparent, but citrus frost damage is disguised and delayed. It's a nail biting waiting game. The truth will eventually come out (cough, cycling), and injuries to fruit start to manifest about a week or two following nasty cold weather.
Happy news — most of the citrus crop is just fine. But there were losses. More thin-skinned, small citrus like tangerines and mandarins will take a big hit (prices are already going up in anticipation). And mitigation was necessary — we had five consecutive nights of freezing temps — and the wind machines (average cost to run just one is $30 an hour, according to the Western Farm Press) and water sprayers rang up an overall bill of $28 million. When you consider that a total crop loss in the state would have run upwards of a couple billion dollars, you'll turn on the fans.
Most of our local citrus farmers — Walker, Rieger, Rancho Santa Cecilia, Mud Creek and Friend's, to name a just a handful — are still selling very high quality Satsumas, Kishus, Washington navels, Eureka and Meyer lemons. The pink-fleshed and practically floral Cara Cara navels showed up over a week ago. And blood oranges — mostly Moro — have just started adding to the rainbow. We're smack dab in the middle of peak citrus season and assuming (well, hoping) no more frosts or flooding from here through spring, it's looking very bright.
Selecting for freshness is easier with some citrus than with others. The thinner zipper skin on some tangerines means they're usually harvested with clippers to prevent the skin from tearing off when pulled from the tree. Check for a firm green stem and, if the fruit has leaves still attached, it should feel pliant and a little juicy. Citrus reaches its bright hues and full flavors when in full sun. Select for even and bright color across the fruit if you can, although with some smaller citrus — some limes and the tiny and sweet Kishu for example — that won't be entirely possible. The juiciest lemons and limes feel heavier than they look and have a slight give when lightly squeezed, but don't do this with larger citrus or tender tangerines unless you're looking for tell-tale signs of sponginess in the rind — a sign of early rot.
Most citrus fruit will keep at room temperature for several days. If you do keep your fruit out, don't store in a plastic bag as it fosters mold. Pull the bag back out if you decide to refrigerate to keep the fruit from drying out in the crisper.
If you're looking for inspired citrus ideas, head immediately over to Matt Armendariz's annual ode to winter citrus (and be sure to go back and read his previous citrus posts, too). Armendariz's posts are always saturated with stunning photography, but you can tell he's paying just a little more attention when it comes to his favorite family of fruit. The vanilla candied kumquats alone …
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