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WHAT'S IN SEASON?

COOL WEATHER CROPS

Kiwifruit & Citrus

 

BY BARBARA KOBSAR

 

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KIWI

It can be an arduous task shopping for produce in the winter-but not here in the East Bay. Farmers’ markets continue to showcase in-season produce from farms operating year-round. Choices may differ from what we find on our summer shopping sprees, but cool weather crops are prodigious and delicious.

The kiwifruit harvest is short and sweet. Sophisticated procedures for measuring starch content before picking and temperature controlled storage units ensure a ready supply of kiwifruit until late spring. California holds the distinction of producing 95 percent of the nation’s kiwifruit.

 

Kiwifruit originated in China and was originally called Chinese gooseberry because early botanists associated the sweet-tart flavor of the fruit to a gooseberry. When production began in New Zealand in the early 1900s, it was renamed kiwifruit for its resemblance to the fuzzy brown kiwi bird-the country’s national symbol.

 

When the kiwifruit was introduced to Southern California in the early 1960s, it was a costly gourmet fruit waiting to find a niche. But each season has found new kiwifruit aficionados, and as a result, kiwi is one of only a few fruits that are less costly today than when first marketed.

 

The fact that kiwifruit are actually berries makes them nutritionally different from tree fruits such as peaches. The multitude of tiny seeds embedded in the kiwifruit’s flesh are nutrition-packed. Ounce for ounce, a kiwifruit contains as much potassium as a banana, four times the vitamin C of a grapefruit and twice that of an orange.

 

The kiwifruit’s edible (but rather fuzzy) brown covering hides bright green flesh with a strawberry-lime-pineapple flavor that tingles the taste buds with every bite. The cut and scoop method is the easiest way to get the party started, and the crosswise-cut halves fit neatly into egg cups for easier scooping with a spoon-kids love this one. Cut kiwifruit does not turn brown when exposed to the air so you can top salads, entrees and side dishes with slices of the fruit early in your meal preparation.

You might be lucky enough to spot some joined kiwifruit (called fans) when shopping at the farmers’ market, and although these odd gems are considered seconds in the commercial market, they offer the same flavor and nutritional value, and are usually a good buy.

 

Buying kiwifruit that are just slightly firm is a good idea, because they are less likely to bruise in your shopping basket. Leave them to sit a couple days at room temperature and they will begin to yield to gentle palm pressure. If it’s not softening fast enough, place the unripe kiwifruit in a loosely sealed paper bag with an apple or banana to give it that ethylene gas bath that helps fruit ripen. Firm fruit keeps for 2-3 weeks in the refrigerator in a loosely closed plastic bag; ripe fruit keeps for 5-7 days.

LOCALLY GROWN KIWIFRUIT
East Bay landowners have experimented with growing kiwifruit, but the trees need a winter freeze to produce fruit. Fortunately, Central Valley growers are finding a ready nearby market for kiwifruit, so expect to see more and more local product coming from nearby orchards. At this time of year, kiwifruit arrive by the box every Sunday at the Walnut Creek Farmers’ Market. Farmer Brian Shigley helps customers select fruit, pointing out a few that are ready-to-eat and others that will take a few days to reach perfection.

Shigley is part of Old Herold Ranch, a family farm located in the foothills below Auburn and about 30 miles northeast of Sacramento. Shigley’s father, Doug Shigley, developed an interest in growing kiwifruit after a 15 degree freeze in the early 1980’s wiped out his orange orchard. He went shopping for the biggest kiwifruit he could find, propagated the seed and then whip-grafted each of the small plants onto a parent kiwifruit vine. It was a success and a bonus for farmers’ market shoppers looking for local produce.

CITRUS

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The citrus scene in the East Bay seems to be ever-expanding. When I was growing up, there were two choices in the orange department: Navels most of the time and Mandarins during the Christmas season. Both remain favorites, but there’s so much more to enjoy these days.

Climatic differences between the citrus producing states (California, Florida, Texas, Arizona, Louisiana and Georgia) guarantee oranges, grapefruits, lemons and limes year round but Mandarins, Cara Cara, Moro or Blood oranges, kumquats, pomelos and Buddha’s hand or citron are arriving fresh picked now from local farms.

 

The smallest of the group is the olive shaped, bright orange kumquat. Some are used for decorative purposes or for making marmalade, but the whole kumquat is edible-the skin is actually sweeter than the seedy flesh. By comparison, the thick-skinned pomelo (also know as Chinese grapefruit) is the largest citrus fruit and an ancestor to the ubiquitous grapefruit. The pomelo’s light colored pulp is generally drier and less acidic than grapefruit’s-a little sugar helps to bring out the juice.

 

Buddha’s hand (citron) is probably the most intriguing and newest member in the local citrus club. Undoubtedly named for the gnarly yellow “fingers” emerging from the fruit’s base, Buddha’s hand is more of a decorative piece in my kitchen. In China, it’s a symbol of good luck, happiness and longevity-and I’ll take that too.

 

The problem with eating Buddha’s hand is that it is all skin, with nothing but pith under the outside layer of fragrant, tasty zest. You can use the zest in any recipe calling for lemon zest-use a zester to remove just the colored part of the peel, or a vegetable peeler if you want larger pieces-or slice the Buddha’s hand and candy it to make citron for dessert making.

 

Oranges are definitely the most diverse group of citrus. There are three basic types of oranges-sweet, bitter, and loose skinned Mandarins. California’s sweet, seedless Navel orange is considered the finest table orange, while Florida’s thin-skinned Valencia is the top quality juice orange. Sweet Cara Cara oranges are relatively new at the local farmers’ markets, and were an instant hit in my house. Cara Cara look like Navel oranges, but they have deep salmon-pink colored flesh. I find Cara Cara oranges slightly juicier and sweeter than navels, and they have an intriguing hint of grapefruit flavor.

Sweet-tart Moro or blood oranges sport a beautiful deep pink or red flesh under orange skin (sometimes with a blush of red). As a snack or used in salads, sauces and dressings, this orange is full of dramatic taste and color.

 

Mandarins include a large group of “zipper-skinned” oranges with loose segments that divide easily-no wonder we think they’re so great. Tangerines, tangelos (a cross between a tangerine and a grapefruit) and tangors (a cross between a tangerine and a sweet orange) are all Mandarins. I look for Fairchild and Satsuma tangerines and the Minneola in the tangelo department.

 

Bitter or sour oranges (Sevilles) are available on a limited basis during the first part of the year. Their high acid content makes them ideal candidates for marmalade, and the highly scented, thick skin is perfect for making candied peel.

 

Heavy citrus means lots of juice, and only a mere 3/4 cup of fresh squeezed juice or 1/2 cup whole fruit sections will provide you daily amount of Vitamin C. Citrus fruits need no refrigeration if stored at a cool room temperature and used within a week, but when citrus of any kind is placed in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, the storage time increases to 2 or 3 weeks.

 

Enjoy, and see you at the farmers’ markets.

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