Lighten Up with Citrus

by Debra Daniels-Zeller

With brilliant colors and flavors ranging from highly acidic to sweet-tart, the citrus family offers something for everyone.


The ancestor of modern citrus fruit is the inedible primitive citron, which probably originated in India. Arab traders brought mandarins from China to Italy during the Roman Empire. Soldiers under Alexander the Great took lemons from Assyria back to Greece. The British Navy used limes that were cultivated in the West Indies to prevent sailors from developing scurvy.


Climate plays a major role in citrus agriculture. It influences size, shape, flavor, color, texture, juice content, and thickness of the fruits' peel.

Citrus fruit grows well along the Gulf Coast and in California, Florida, and Texas, where the temperature is between 70 and 90 degrees. Heat and humidity produce sweet and juicy varieties, such as the renowned Indian River grapefruit. The sweet flavor, vibrant flesh, and development of lycopene in the Texas grown "Star Ruby" grapefruit is due to the high temperatures experienced while growing.

Citrus grown in cooler areas tends to be less juicy and more acidic. Lemons, for example, are better suited to the cool California coast. Some varieties, such as Satsumas, can withstand temperatures as low as 18 degrees. However, prolonged cold temperatures may take a toll on some citrus fruits, especially the smaller varieties. It may take three hours to damage a grapefruit or an orange at 27 degrees, but only an hour at 29 degrees to injure small lemons.

Citrus harvest occurs at different times during the year because "early" and "later" varieties grow in various locations.


Select citrus fruit heavy for its size. A thick skin and light-weight fruit is a sign of an old citrus without much juice or flavor inside. Avoid citrus with soft or brown spots. Since conventionally-grown citrus fruits are sprayed heavily with pesticides and treated with fumigants for color or ripening, it's worth searching out organic varieties, especially if the peel will be used.

Since citrus fruit ripens on the tree, no further ripening is necessary once you bring them home. Ideally you should store citrus fruit loose in the refrigerator. It will keep for up to three weeks. Citrus stored at room temperature dries out, and the sugars may ferment. The fruit may also pick up off-flavors around it.

Citrus juice can be frozen, and I have found that you can freeze whole lemons and limes. Let them thaw before using. The peel will be too rubbery to use, but the juice is fine.



One of the oldest citrus fruits, the citron's seeds have been found in excavations dating back to 4000 B.C. The inedible flesh, which ranges between sour and slightly sweet, has a diluted lemon flavor. Citron juice can be used like lemon juice. The peel is pressed for oil and used as flavoring, or it may be candied and used in holiday fruit cakes.


Descended from pummelos in Malaysia and hybrid­ized with oranges in the West Indies, grapefruit has been cultivated for the last century. During the 1920s, the first pink grapefruit crops were developed in Texas. Grapefruit has a slightly bitter, yet sweet, taste. It can be used for juice, jam, or marmalade, and in fruit salads and vinaigrettes. It is also good baked, broiled, or grilled with maple syrup drizzled on top.


Originally from China, kumquats tolerate cold weather better than other citrus varieties. In the United States, they are grown mostly in Florida and California. They have a sweet peel, and the flesh is tart. Kumquats are usually eaten raw, but they are sometimes made into marmalade or puréed, with the seeds removed, for use in various dishes. lists a number of recipes, such as sauce, bread, chutney, chips, and even oatmeal cookies, for the curious vegetarian cook.


The lemon is thought to be a citron-lime hybrid that originated in India. During the 4th century, it was cultivated in Greece and Rome. In 1565, lemons were planted in Florida. The most versatile of all citrus fruit, lemons can be used in just about anything — from breakfast to dessert, from sweet to savory. The zest (grated peel) is also widely used.


Originally grown in India, limes also grow well in Egypt and the West Indies. The smallest members of the citrus family, limes have a distinct taste and are an essential ingredient in Southwestern, Asian, Mexican, Latin American, Caribbean, and other cuisines. Put them in marinades, add a little zest to soups or vinaigrettes, or make a lime granita for a decadent-tasting sweet treat.


Tangerines, clementines, or mandarins — call them what you will. These small, easy peelers are native to China. Arab traders later transported them to Italy. Juicy and sweet with no seeds, they're perfect for a sweet treat. They can be used in the same ways that oranges are, and the peels can be zested to flavor just about anything from oatmeal to cobbler.


Native to China, oranges were grown in ancient Greece and later taken to India. They were originally small and bitter with many seeds, but over time, hybridization made them larger and juicier with fewer seeds. Oranges are categorized into two groups, sweet and sour. The sweet varieties include Valencia, navel, and blood oranges. Sour oranges, like Seville or Bigarade, are not eaten raw but made into marmalade or jam. Oranges enhance both sweet and savory dishes. Use the zest as well.


The pummelo, which originated in Malaysia, is the world's largest citrus fruit. It looks like a large green grapefruit, but its flavor is more acidic and bitter. It is also less juicy. Combine it with oranges and dates for a salad, or drizzle a little agave nectar on top and eat it like you would grapefruit.


A hybrid between a mandarin and a grapefruit, mineola tangelos are the most visible variety. These fruits are easy to peel and quite juicy with a little more tartness than mandarins. Tangelos are great in marinades and salad dressings. The juice and zest are good cooked in a rice pilaf or added to a savory black bean soup. Like oranges, tangelos add flavor to quick breads, cookies, and desserts.


Ugli fruit, a native of Jamaica, is a cross between a grapefruit and mandarin. It looks a little like a lumpy, puffy grapefruit, but it is sweeter than grapefruit and almost seedless. Available in specialty markets, enjoy it like you would grapefruit.


(Serves 4)

Buckwheat and orange pair together like a marriage that was meant to be. Look for buckwheat groats in natural foods stores, or get Kasha (toasted buckwheat) and skip the toasting instructions. You can use rice or almond milk to replace soymilk, if you like. This recipe is good with or without the ginger, and it's easy to cut in half to serve two instead of four.

  • ¾ cup raw buckwheat groats, rinsed
  • ½ cup orange juice
  • Approximately 1-¼ cups soymilk, divided
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 teaspoon finely chopped orange zest
  • 1-3 teaspoons freshly grated ginger (optional)
  • Pinch of sea salt
  • 3 Tablespoons chopped dates
  • 3 Tablespoons toasted chopped pecans

Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat and add buckwheat. Stir until fragrant and toasted, about 5 minutes. Be careful not to let the buckwheat groats burn.

In a medium saucepan, add juice, 1/2 cup soymilk, water, zest, ginger (if desired), salt, and dates. Stir to blend, then bring to a boil and add buckwheat. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes or until buckwheat is done. Once the liquid is absorbed, add remaining soymilk. Add less if you want a thicker porridge and more if you favor a thinner blend. Stir and heat for 5 minutes. Top with toasted pecans.

Total calories per serving: 208 Fat: 6 grams
Carbohydrates: 36 grams Protein: 7 grams
Sodium: 13 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams


(Serves 6)

Although guacamole is often made with lemons, lime is a wonderful choice for this traditionally-inspired guacamole.

  • 2 ripe avocados
  • ¼ cup fresh lime juice (from approximately 1 large or 2 small limes)
  • ¼ cup minced onion
  • 1 jalapeño, seeded and minced
  • 1 teaspoon agave nectar or fruit sweetener (available in natural foods stores)
  • Salt to taste
  • 3 roma tomatoes, chopped
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped cilantro

Cut avocados in half and peel. Mash avocados with lime juice. Mix in onions, jalapeños, and agave nectar. Add salt to taste. Gently blend in tomatoes and cilantro. Serve with tortilla chips or use to top tacos and tostadas.

Total calories per serving: 123 Fat: 10 grams
Carbohydrates: 9 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 11 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams


(Serves 4)

You could also use leftover squash or pumpkin in place of the sweet potato for this easy, almost instant soup.

  • 2 cups canned refried black beans
  • 1 cup baked sweet potato or 1 can sweet potato purée
  • 3 cups water
  • 2 cloves garlic, pressed
  • Spicy salsa to taste
  • 1 large lime, thinly sliced
  • ½ cup baked tortilla chips, crushed

Purée black beans with sweet potato, water, and garlic, blending until smooth and creamy. Pour into a saucepan and heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Blend in spicy salsa. Serve with a squeeze of lime and garnish with crushed tortilla chips.

Total calories per serving: 184 Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 35 grams Protein: 8 grams
Sodium: 386 milligrams Fiber: 8 grams


(Serves 6)

This is a typical cabbage and carrot salad with a twist, using tahini (sesame paste) and citrus instead of mayonnaise for the dressing.

  • 4 cups shredded cabbage
  • 1 medium carrot, grated
  • ¼ cup raisins
  • 1 Tablespoon lemon juice
  • ¼ cup grapefruit juice (preferably pink grapefruit)
  • ¼ cup orange juice
  • ¼ cup raw tahini (or cashew or almond butter)
  • 1 Tablespoon rice vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon powdered ginger
  • A few drops of hot sauce, such as Tabasco
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Combine cabbage, carrots, raisins, and lemon juice. Set aside. Blend grapefruit juice, orange juice, tahini, rice vinegar, ginger, and hot sauce. Stir until creamy. Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour dressing over cabbage and carrots and mix. Refrigerate for approximately half an hour before serving.

Total calories per serving: 108 Fat: 6 grams
Carbohydrates: 14 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 6 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams


(Serves 5)

I often use this dressing for a raw salad or to enhance maple-sautéed apples or pears. For a raw salad, use apples or pears, dates, kiwi, and oranges or other seasonal fruit. Garnish with coconut or chopped pecans.

  • 1-½ teaspoons orange zest
  • ½ cup orange juice
  • 2 Tablespoons almond butter
  • ½ ripe banana
  • Pinch of sea salt

Blend all ingredients with a hand blender or fork until creamy. Pour sauce over your favorite fruit salad or sautéed fruit.

Total calories per serving: 63 Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 7 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 1 milligram Fiber: 1 gram


(Serves 4)

You may want to experiment with different citrus combinations, such as orange-grapefruit or lemon-lime, for the marinade. It's always good to sample the marinade first since it may need a bit more spice, salt, or sweetener added.

  • 8 ounces extra firm tofu
  • ⅓ cup grapefruit juice
  • 2 Tablespoons lime juice
  • 1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon spicy mustard, horseradish,or wasabi
  • ½ teaspoon salt

Drain and press tofu by placing the 8-ounce block on one dinner plate, then stacking two or more additional plates on top of it. Allow to sit for 30 minutes. This presses the water out and prepares the tofu for marinating and absorbing flavors. Cut into 4 slices when done.

Blend grapefruit and lime juice, vinegar, mustard, and salt. Place tofu in a glass dish with each piece of tofu immersed in the marinade. Cover and refrigerate tofu for about 8 hours.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lay the tofu slices in an oiled baking dish. Bake for 30 minutes. Pour the remainder of the marinade over tofu, if you like.

Total calories per serving: 17 Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 5 grams Protein: 6 grams
Sodium: 392 milligrams Fiber: <1 gram


(Serves 4)

Lemon enhances greens, especially hearty greens such as kale and collards. Agave nectar is a liquid vegan sweetener from the agave plant, available in natural foods stores. Adding it helps balance the acidity of the lemon. Use maple syrup if you can't find agave nectar.

  • 1 cup brown Basmati rice
  • 1-¾ cups water
  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 or 2 cloves garlic, pressed or minced
  • Pinch of cayenne
  • 2 Tablespoons water
  • Zest and juice of 1 lemon (about ¼ cup)
  • 2 teaspoons agave nectar or maple syrup
  • 4 cups finely chopped kale
  • Salt to taste
  • ¼ cup toasted chopped pecans (optional)

Rinse Basmati rice. In a medium saucepan, bring water to a boil. Add rice, reduce heat, and simmer for 45 minutes. Remove from heat, let stand for 5 minutes, and fluff with a fork.

Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add oil and onions. Stir, then place a lid directly over the onions and sweat until they are soft. Mix in garlic and cayenne. Stir and cook for 1 minute. In a small bowl, combine water, lemon juice and zest, and agave nectar. Add lemon juice mixture and kale to the onions, stir, cover, and cook until kale is soft. Mix in rice and season to taste with salt. Serve garnished with pecans.

Total calories per serving: 261 Fat: 6 grams
Carbohydrates: 51 grams Protein: 7 grams
Sodium: 34 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams


(Serves 8)

A variation on this recipe is an orange-banana cashew cream. Simply replace lemon with orange (zest and juice) in this recipe, and add 1 or 2 teaspoons maple syrup before blending.

  • 3 cups sliced bananas
  • 1 cup raw cashews
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 Tablespoons frozen apple juice concentrate
  • ¼ cup fresh lemon juice (from approximately 1 lemon)
  • ½ Tablespoon lemon zest
  • Pinch of salt

Place sliced bananas on parchment paper in a shallow glass pan and freeze for a few hours or overnight. Soak cashews in water for a few hours or overnight in the refrigerator.

Combine cashews, water, concentrate, lemon juice and zest, and salt in a blender, and blend until smooth and creamy. Add bananas and purée until thick. Serve over sliced fresh fruit, such as apples, pears, strawberries, or mangos.

Total calories per serving: 155 Fat: 8 grams
Carbohydrates: 20 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 5 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams


(Serves 4)

Citrus and coconuts seem to go together naturally.

  • 12 kumquats, halved and seeded
  • 1 cup regular or lite coconut milk
  • ½ cup water
  • ½ teaspoon cardamom
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla
  • ¼ cup agave nectar or maple syrup
  • 3 Tablespoons cornstarch
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ cup finely chopped dates
  • 1 Tablespoon shredded coconut

Purée kumquats in a blender until smooth. Add coconut milk, water, cardamom, vanilla, agave nectar, cornstarch, and salt. Blend until smooth. Pour into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about 10 minutes. Stir in dates, then pour into serving bowls and garnish with shredded coconut before serving. Serve warm or refrigerate and serve cold.

Total calories per serving: 154 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 38 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 180 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams


(Serves 6)

Simple and easy to make, this lime dessert seems almost decadent because of the coconut milk. Lightly dust it with shredded coconut, if you like.

  • ½ teaspoon agar (a vegetarian gelling agent available in natural foods stores)
  • 1 cup water
  • ¼ cup agave nectar or maple syrup
  • ½ cup lime juice (from approximately 4 limes)
  • 1 large ripe banana
  • ¾ cup regular or lite coconut milk
  • Pinch of salt

Combine agar, water, and agave nectar in a saucepan. Let agar soften for a minute, then bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 3 minutes. Remove from heat and, in a blender, combine agar-water mixture with lime juice, banana, coconut milk, and salt. Blend on medium speed until smooth and creamy. Pour into ice cube trays and freeze until solid.

Remove from trays and process in a food processor, pulsing the machine on and off until the cubes are the consistency of coarse snow. Then run the machine until the mixture is creamy but not runny. Cover and freeze for a few hours. No need to let this sit out before serving.

Total calories per serving: 64 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 17 grams Protein: <1 gram
Sodium: 17 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

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