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Let citrus warm up your meals

Brighten up your cold-weather days with pomelos blood oranges Meyer lemons more.  |  Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times; Arrangement by

Brighten up your cold-weather days with pomelos, blood oranges, Meyer lemons and more. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times; Arrangement by H.Bloom.

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Updated: March 2, 2012 8:02AM

It’s a long time until any significant holiday, and the landscape’s hue is monotone at best. So anything — anything — that brightens the outlook is a welcome change.

Winter citrus —with its sunny disposition — does just that. Coming into its own during these snow-blanketed months, acidic fruits deliver a much-needed blast of cheer.

What’s more, citrus is versatile. Sure, it’s a no brainer when it comes to enlivening the usual applications — vinaigrettes, salads, desserts — but there’s more than meets the eye, especially in the case of unique varieties.

“This is actually one of our favorite times of year,” says Jimmy Bannos Jr., chef/partner of The Purple Pig, 500 N Michigan, where Mediterranean-inspired food reigns. “We go through a case or two of lemons a day.”

In fact, Bannos, with his Greek and Italian ancestry, uses them “like salt.” “Growing up, I even [squeezed] lemon on pizza,” he admits.

Right now, though, he’s grooving on crimson-fleshed blood oranges. “Last year, they were crap,” he says, with an air of disappointment. “They weren’t sweet and lacked the bright, juicy flavor you’re looking for. This year, though, they’re great.”

Plump, elegant — almost pine-scented — Meyer lemons are in season now, too, and they’re pretty easy to procure. (You can generally find them at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Meijer.)

At Autre Monde Cafe & Spirits, 6727 W. Roosevelt Rd. in Berwyn, they’re showcased in a palate-cleansing cocktail, made from equal parts Prosecco and fresh-squeezed Meyer lemon juice. Sound too bracing? There’s also a fragrant, juice-infused hot toddy.

Another one to watch for is the pomelo, which sports a pale green or yellow, orb-like exterior. Its unusually thick pith gives way to sweet, juicy fruit with orange-meets-grapefruit appeal — minus the “bite.” Randy Zweiban of Province (161 N. Jefferson) often uses pomelo segments raw or incorporates pomelo juice into vinaigrette.

Meanwhile, at Cafe des Architectes, 20 E. Chestnut, Chef Greg Biggers is busying himself with Cara Cara and tropical green oranges as well as oblong finger limes, whose interior is reminiscent of caviar — at least in terms of shape and size.

But you could always take a jog across town to yakitori-inspired Yusho, 2853 N. Kedzie, where you’ll find Exec Chef/Owner Matthias Merges toying with Buddha Hands, Clementines and sweet-sour, tangerine-hued Calamansis. He’s also serving a zest-infused cocktail called the Baconian Ciper, which is ramped up with quickly grilled Seville oranges.

Don’t forget, though, that it isn’t all about the juicy fruit. Some claim the zest may be the best part of all.

“It has such a bright freshness,” says Bannos, who’s serving a pork shank on a bed of soft polenta, topped with classic lemon, parsley and garlic gremolata, an herbaceous, chopped herb condiment.

At Vie, it’s gremolata time, too. On offer: sheep’s milk cheese and cranberry bean tortelloni in mushroom broth with roasted black trumpet mushrooms, local spinach and a sprinkle of Meyer lemon and cippolini aigre-doux gremolata.

But their appeal doesn’t end there. Many chefs — including Province’s Zweiban — like to preserve citrus. Especially those aforementioned Meyer lemons.

“They have such a well-rounded flavor,” he says. “So, we like to keep them around for as long as we can.”

Common in Middle Eastern and North African cooking, preserving citrus involves packing the fruit in salt and water or lemon juice. After curing for about a month, the fruit is typically rinsed. Its pith and pulp are then discarded, and the rinds are sliced or minced.

When incorporated into dishes, preserved citrus provides subtler results than straight-up zest — not to mention a touch of je ne sais quoi.

When deciding what citrus varietal to use in a particular dish, it’s generally a matter of trial and error. Climate impacts fruits’ flavor, acidity and penchant for sweetness. These qualities vary significantly from one type (or even crop) to the next.

Regardless, though, companion ingredients and the end goal should guide you. Citrus can be a centerpiece, but it also can cut through richness or offset something saccharine.

“We’re serving a sweetbreads dish with a rich, somewhat sweet sauce, so we balance that with the tart acidity of Meyer lemons,” Biggers says by way of example.

By contrast, imagine you’re making scallop ceviche. Then, the goal is to let flavors shine. In that case, Zweiban finds pink grapefruit to be the perfect foil.

“This time of year, there’s no bitterness,” he explains.

At the end of the day, though, the only rule of thumb is to and taste — and taste often.

“Beginning a dish or sauce with citrus creates a foundation that you can build on, without having it taste just like that fruit,” Biggers says. “But adding acidity at the end [of cooking] coaxes out other flavors. So, I always finish sauces with acid — and often with citrus — to keep them from tasting flat.”

Jennifer Olvera is a local freelance writer.

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