Citrus Magic

By Debra Daniels-Zeller

Juicy, with sweet-tart flavors, citrus fruits brighten winter days and can magically improve soups, salads and main dishes. Lemons, limes, oranges, tangerines (or mandarins), and grapefruits are the most common citrus available. Less popular varieties include citron, kaffir lime, bitter orange, pomelo, Ugli fruit, yuzu, and tangelo.

For the best citrus selection, check markets from October through May (in the United States), with the most varieties from December through February. Navel oranges are available as early as October. Look for Valencia oranges (named for Valencia, Spain) from February through October. Meyer lemon season is January through March, and a variety of tangerines make appearances throughout the citrus season. Citrus grown for grocery stores is mostly cultivated in Florida and California, followed by Arizona and Texas. Though they’re among the most popular fruits in the U.S., citrus isn’t native to this country.

Citrus History and Cultivation

Many people believe citrus originated in Southeast Asia, but new research indicates ancestors of citrus came from Australia. Scientists speculate the seeds floated north in equatorial currents about 30 million years ago. The oldest recorded citrus is a citron called Buddha’s Hand, an odd yellow fruit with long fingers, cultivated in China about 4,000 years ago and still available today. It is used mostly to perfume rooms because this fragrant fruit is almost all rind and contains very acidic juice. Citron relatives and hybrids – oranges, lemons and grapefruit – evolved in Asia.

In ancient times, traders carried citrus along the Silk Road, a network of trade routes from China to the Middle East and Europe. Alexander the Great brought citron to India and Europe. Wealthy Romans grew lemons in the first century and the Chinese cultivated mandarin oranges in the 1600s. Christopher Columbus brought citrus trees to Haiti on his first voyage to the New World. Spaniards planted orange trees in Florida in 1565, and by 1820 orange groves were thriving in California missions. One of the most important fruit crops in the world, citrus production today exceeds the combined total of apple, cherry, peach, and plum world harvests. The top five citrus- producing countries are China, Brazil, the United States, Mexico, and Spain.

Selection, Storage

Citrus fruits don’t ripen after picking, so oranges do not get sweeter and lemons will not get juicier. For best selection, look for firm citrus without any soft spots. The skin can be thick or thin, depending on the variety. Choose fruit heavy for its size. Inhale at the blossom end, and if you detect light citrus tones, the fruit is ripe. Lemons left on trees until maturity are said to be more fragrant and sweeter than commercial lemons in the produce section of your grocery store. For lemons with the most juice, select varieties with thinner peels, such as Meyer lemons.

Citrus keeps best in the refrigerator, but you can leave oranges out for a few days. Plan to use citrus in about a week; lemons and grapefruit last a little longer, but they gradually dry out. The most perishable citrus is lime; it develops brown spots and can dry out within a week, so keep limes in a plastic bag (so they don’t lose moisture) and plan to use them within a few days.

Juice oranges, lemons, and limes and freeze the juice in ice cube trays, then transfer the cubes to plastic bags and store in the freezer for up to 6 months. Each cube contains about 2 Tablespoons of juice, perfect for flavoring soups, sauces, and smoothies.

Citron: Looks like a large yellow-greenish textured lemon. The inside pulp is sour and not good for eating raw. Citron peel is often candied, and the pulp is used to flavor liquors. Buddha’s Hand is a fragrant citron.

Tangerine: A pomelo-orange cross, the tangerine is closely related to the mandarin orange and is sweeter with a more complex intense flavor than an orange. Smaller than oranges and slightly flattened, tangerines are easy to peel. Use tangerines the same way you would oranges in the kitchen. Tangelos and Minneolas are tangerine-grapefruit hybrids.

Kumquat: Looks like a tiny oval orange. The entire fruit, including the seeds and skin, is edible and the rind is the sweetest part of this unique citrus. Most people eat kumquats fresh or in preserves, but you’ll find recipes from soup to cookies using kumquats.

Ugli fruit: A grapefuit-orange-tangerine hybrid, Ugli fruit looks like a lumpy grapefruit with loose skin ranging in color from green to greenish-yellow. It tastes sweet, more like tangerine than grapefruit in flavor. Ugli fruit makes an excellent addition to fruit salads. For an extra sweet treat, the peel can be candied.

Lime: Limes are usually a bit smaller than lemons. Oval with a green skin and a green juicy flesh, the two main varieties of lime are Persian and Key limes. The latter variety is smaller, has more yellow than green color, and comes from Florida. The season for California limes begins in late October, but unlike other citrus, summer is peak season for Florida limes. Like lemons, choose organic or untreated if you want to zest the peel. Think salsas, dressings, desserts, or cocktails (Daiquiri, Margarita, Mojito) for limes. Use less juice and zest from limes than from lemons because limes have a more intense flavor.

Kaffir lime: Exotic looking, kaffir limes are round, bright green with a bumpy texture, and about the size of lemons. The fruit contains lots of seeds and the juice is quite sour in young kaffir limes and often unpalatable in older varieties. The leaves and rind are used in Thai cooking. Coconut, rice and vegetable curries, and sweet lime syrup (with kaffir lime leaves and zest, sugar, water, soy sauce, rice vinegar, and ginger) are just a few ideas for kaffir lime.

Yuzu: One of the few frost-hearty citrus fruits, yuzu originated in China and is popular in Japan to add zest to dishes and as a garnish. Yuzu resembles a slightly flattened lemon with more texture. The flavor is more intense and it is known for its characteristically strong aroma. The juice makes a fine vinaigrette, but it doesn’t give as much juice as a lemon and is often more expensive. In Korea the outer peel of yuzu and the flesh inside are used to make marmalade.

Grapefruit:This fruit got its name because it grows in clusters like grapes. Grapefruit can be seeded or seedless, and the flesh can be anywhere from red to pink, golden yellow and almost white. You can find grapefruit all year in markets, but some of the famous Texas varieties, such as the Ruby Red, Rio Star, and Ruby Sweet, are available only during citrus season. Pair grapefruit slices with chopped avocado for a delicious salad, or have as dessert by slicing it in half, sprinkling with brown sugar, and broiling for 2 to 3 minutes.

Pomelo: One of the original citrus fruits, a pomelo looks like a giant grapefruit and is sometimes called a shaddock, named for the English explorer Captain Shaddock. He transported pomelos from Malaysia to the West Indies during the mid-18th century. Pomelos or shaddocks have a light green skin that turns bright yellow while ripening. You’ll know it’s ready to eat from its sweet floral smell. Enjoy the pomelo fresh or make a salad with it. To peel it, cut the top off the pomelo and make vertical slices down the sides of the fruit with a sharp knife. Then, remove the peel and as much of the pith (which is bitter) as possible. Separate the pomelo into its natural segments. The slices will be covered in a white membrane, which you can eat, but for an even sweeter and juicier taste, peel it away as well. Pair pomelo with shredded carrots, avocado and peanuts, or try it with sweet lime vinaigrette with mint and cilantro.

Lemon: The outer lemon peel can be bright yellow or green, and either seeded or seedless inside. The most common lemon variety is the Eureka, followed by the Lisbon, but there is not much flavor difference between the two. Meyer lemons are smaller, sweeter, and juicier with a thinner skin. Meyer lemons have a shorter growing season than other varieties.

Lemon reacts to foods in different ways. The juice can curdle milk and help apples, bananas, and avocados maintain their color, but it can draw the color from green vegetables, if left too long. One lemon yields about ¼ cup juice. Reconstituted lemon juice can be used for fresh, but the flavor is different; if a recipe calls for fresh lemon, the final product may turn out differently if you use processed juice for the real thing.

When using lemon zest (the outer peel), remove it with a microplane zester or grater before juicing, and remember a little goes a long way with zest. Lemon enhances a gamut of dishes from breakfast to dessert.

Orange: An ancient hybrid, oranges can be yellow or a mottled orange with red. They can enhance salad dressings, hot breakfast cereals, breads, desserts, and marinades for tofu and tempeh. The word orange generally refers to sweet oranges, though there are bitter varieties such as the Bergamot and Seville, which are not typically eaten raw. The Seville peel is often used to make marmalade, while the Bergamot peel is used to make Earl Grey tea. Sweet oranges are much more edible. Common types of sweet oranges include:

Mandarin: a type of seedless orange with a loose skin that is available in December. The most popular variety is the Satsuma.

Clementine: a cross between an orange and a mandarin, with high sugar content and few seeds.

Navel: named because the blossom end resembles a navel. This orange is sweet and seedless with a thick skin; it is propagated only through cuttings.

Cara Cara: orange peel with pink-red flesh and a cranberry-like zing. Cara Cara oranges are juicy and sweet and are grown primarily in California.

Valencia: considered classic oranges, Valencias typically contain a lot more juice than other varieties, which makes them ideal for making OJ. Valencias are thin-skinned and easy to peel.

Moro or Blood: the outside resembles an orange with only hints of the red flesh inside. The flesh can be anywhere from luscious pink to dark ruby red. The segments are stunning in salads, and the juice makes a great vinaigrette.


  1. Make vinaigrette using lemon, lime, or orange juice instead of (or with) vinegar.
  2. Stir fresh lemon juice into a soup just before serving.
  3. Add a squeeze of lemon, lime, or orange juice or chopped zest to brighten a sauce’s flavors.
  4. Add about a teaspoon of lemon juice to a cup of soymilk for a buttermilk substitute in recipes.
  5. Blend finely chopped orange or lemon zest into biscuit, bread, muffin, pancake, or cake batter.
  6. Toss bananas, apples, pears, or avocados with citrus so they won’t discolor.
  7. Add lemon juice to rice while cooking for more fluff.
  8. Make vegan citrus sugar. Use zest of 1 lemon and 1 orange and 1 cup sugar. Process in a food processor to distribute the zest. Store in a tightly covered jar. This sugar will keep for months unrefrigerated.
  9. Make citrus salt with 1 Tablespoon minced citrus zest and ½ cup Maldon flaked sea salt. Toss, spread on a baking sheet, and dry in a 200-degree oven for 1 hour or until dry. Stores covered at room temperature for 1 year.
  10. Make a sweet lemon or orange cashew cream by soaking ½ cup unsalted, raw cashews in ½ cup apple cider in the refrigerator overnight. Add 1 Tablespoon chopped fresh lemon or orange zest and 2 Tablespoons fresh juice, and blend with a food processor or blender until creamy. Refrigerate for up to four days.

Blood Orange Salad Dressing

(Makes 1/2 cup or 4 servings)

  • ¼ cup juice from blood orange
  • 2 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon water
  • 2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon vegan mayonnaise
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
  • Dash of salt

Place all ingredients in a shaker jar and shake until well blended. Toss with greens and serve.

Total calories per serving: 76 Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 3 grams Protein: <1 gram
Sodium: 46 milligrams Fiber: <1 gram

Chipotle-Citrus Tofu Marinade

(Serves 4)

  • 1 dry chipotle
  • 2 fresh Medjool dates, pits removed and diced
  • 1 cup fresh orange juice
  • ¼ cup fresh lime juice
  • 2 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, pressed
  • 1 teaspoon agave nectar
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 pound tofu
  • 1 teaspoon rice flour (optional)
  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil

Blend chipotle, dates, orange and lime juice, vinegar, ¼ cup olive oil, garlic, agave nectar, salt, and pepper in a blender or with a hand-blender.

To marinate tofu, first press the excess liquid out by placing tofu between two plates and pressing gently.Pour off the liquid. Slice tofu into ¼-inch slices. Place tofu in a refrigerator storage container and pour the marinade over the top. Cover and refrigerate for 8 hours.

Pan-fry tofu in remaining oil. When each side is browned, flip. Pour remaining marinade over tofu and serve. Or you can make a sauce with the marinade by heating it and adding the teaspoon of rice flour sprinkled over the top and stirred into the marinade.

Total calories per serving: 308 Fat: 22 grams
Carbohydrates: 22 grams Protein: 10 grams
Sodium: 17 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Raw Kale and Avocado Salad with Lemon Dressing

(Serves 4)

This is a great way to get those who aren’t familiar with kale on board. I’ve used this idea for lemons and avocados in other vegetable salads with great success.

  • Juice and zest of 1 lemonl
  • ½ to 1 Tablespoon agave nectar
  • 1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • ¼ teaspoon each: salt and pepper
  • 1 avocado, peeled, pitted, and diced
  • 1 sweet-tart apple, washed, cored, and diced (not peeled)
  • 1 bunch of kale, tough stems removed and discarded and leaves sliced very thin
  • 2-4 Tablespoons chopped dried cranberries or sour cherries

In a medium mixing bowl, combine lemon zest and juice, agave nectar, garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Stir in avocado and apple.

Place shredded kale in a medium salad bowl. Gently toss with lemon dressing, avocado, and apple. Sprinkle with cranberries or cherries.

Total calories per serving: 260 Fat: 18 grams
Carbohydrates: 25 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 193 milligrams Fiber: 6 grams

Tangerine Dream Cake

(Serves 8)

We prepared two of these cakes for this issue’s front cover photo and used jam between the layers. Each cake is about 1-inch tall and is delicious even served without frosting.

  • Juice and zest from 2 tangerines (add water to make 1 cup juice)
  • 1/3 cup canola oil
  • 1 Tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup vegan sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8-inch square or 9-inch round cake pan with parchment paper.

In a small bowl, combine the juice, zest (grated, chopped outer peel), oil, vinegar, and vanilla extract. Set aside. Mix flour, sugar, and baking powder in a large bowl. Blend well, making sure no small lumps of baking powder remain.

Combine wet and dry ingredients, and blend well without over-mixing. Pour batter into the prepared cake pan. Bake 30-35 minutes or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Cool on a cooling rack.

Total calories per serving: 271 Fat: 9 grams
Carbohydrates: 45 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 46 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Note:For vegan sugar information, visit

Broiled Grapefruit

(Serves 4)

A winter treat for breakfast or dessert.

  • 2 large pink grapefruits
  • 2 Tablespoons vegan sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon cloves
  • 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

Preheat oven broiler. Slice grapefruits in half and run knife around the outer edge and between the segments. Place in baking dish. Combine sugar, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg in a small bowl and sprinkle over grapefruits.

Place grapefruits under broiler for 3 minutes. Mixture should be bubbly and top caramelized. Let cool slightly before eating.

Total calories per serving: 77 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 20 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: <1 milligram Fiber: 2 grams

Zesty Lemon-Mustard Dip

(Makes about 1 cup or 8 servings)

I love this spicy dip with warm pita bread and roasted root vegetables. If you are able to get fresh horseradish, grate it as fine as possible.

  • 2 or 3 Tablespoons grated fresh or bottled horseradish
  • 8 ounces silken tofu
  • 1 large or 2 small garlic cloves, pressed
  • 2 Tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 2 Tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 Tablespoon rice or apple cider vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon agave nectar
  • 1 teaspoon tamari or soy sauce
  • Freshly ground pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor. Refrigerate for about 1 hour so flavors blend.

Place grapefruits under broiler for 3 minutes. Mixture should be bubbly and top caramelized. Let cool slightly before eating.

Total calories per serving: 25 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 2 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 145 milligrams Fiber: <1 gram

Parsley Rice with Carrots, Lime, and Pistachios

(Serves 4-6)

  • 1¾ cups water
  • 1 cup brown rice
  • 3 Tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 1 teaspoon agave nectar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon pepper
  • 1 cup grated carrots
  • 1 cup packed, minced curly parsley
  • ½ cup shelled toasted pistachios

Bring water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add rice and 1 Tablespoon lime juice, then cover and bring to a second boil. Reduce heat and simmer 45-50 minutes, or until all water is absorbed by rice. Set pan aside for 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork. Place rice in a salad bowl.

Combine remaining lime juice, agave nectar, salt, and pepper. Stir in carrots and parsley. Blend well, then stir into the rice. Garnish with pistachios.

Total calories per serving: 283 Fat: 9 grams
Carbohydrates: 46 grams Protein: 8 grams
Sodium: 178 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams

Orange Oats and Cranberries

(Serves 2)

  • ½ cup fresh orange juice
  • ¾ cup water
  • 1 cup old fashioned oats
  • 2 Tablespoons dried cranberries
  • 1 Tablespoon flax seeds
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped pecans
  • Almond, soy, or rice milk (optional)

Place orange juice, water, and oats in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Add cranberries, reduce heat to low and simmer 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Remove from heat. Divide into serving bowls. Sprinkle with flax seeds and chopped pecans. Serve with almond, soy, or rice milk, if desired.

Total calories per serving: 270 Fat: 9 grams
Carbohydrates: 41 grams Protein: 8 grams
Sodium: 3 milligrams Fiber: 6 grams

Grapefruit, Apple, and Avocado Salad with Satsuma Vinaigrette

(Serves 4 to 6)

  • 1 avocado, pitted, peeled, and diced
  • 1 apple, washed, cored, and diced
  • ¼ cup Satsuma juice (1 Satsuma)
  • 1 Tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 ruby grapefruit, segmented
  • Freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • 3 cups chopped romaine lettuce

In a small bowl combine avocado, apple, Satsuma juice, vinegar, olive oil, garlic powder, and salt.

In a large salad bowl, gently mix the dressing-avocado mixture with the grapefruit, adding freshly ground pepper to taste. Serve over a bed of romaine lettuce.

Total calories per serving: 162 Fat: 11 grams
Carbohydrates: 17 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 43 milligrams Fiber: 6 grams

Debra Daniels-Zeller is a frequent contributor to Vegetarian Journal.