We are now in the middle of the short winter season on a glorious island blessed with sunshine most of the year. For a very short period of time, the skies may appear dull and the clouds will temporarily cover the brilliant light that we are accustomed to. But it is also the time of the year when the citrus trees in the heart of the Mediterranean are very productive. During a grayish winter flecked with rays of sunshine, what a delight it is to see the trees heavy with fruit, a colorful backdrop of edible yellow, orange and green hues brightening up our countryside, our gardens, the fruit bowl on our kitchen tables and our food. I even love them in tall glass vases instead of flowers, the colors nearly a reminder of the summer that will be with us again very soon.
Citrus on the island is at its peak with a variety of oranges of all sorts, lemons, sweet clementines, mandarins and in some gardens kumquats. An abundance of citrus so much so that this is when I usually get calls from friends begging me to visit and cut the fruit in their garden to use for my jam making and preserves. What a treat, the very thought of unwaxed, pesticide-free, home-cultivated produce with no artificial coloring excites me and I am lost in thought about the endless possibilities of what to cook and how creative I will dare to be with all the surplus fruit. There is something so satisfying about picking fruit from the tree and storing it in a jar, capturing all those flavors, literally from the tree straight into the pan. And on this island, with no distances too long, it is something so easy to do.
Mediterranean oranges come in all shapes, flavors and sizes, blood oranges with bright red flesh that taste of raspberries, some with big navels and no seeds, bitter Seville oranges brought to the island during Arab rule and in the open rambling countryside, fragrant bergamot oranges that look more like lemons. If you are lucky enough to have citrus trees in your garden, with more fruit than you can possibly eat, the best place to leave the fruit is on the tree until you need to use it. As well as incorporating citrus with your recipes, it is so lovely to give baskets of citrus gifts, and ideas are flowing of jams, preserves, lemon and orange curds, lemon tarts and cakes and freezing juices for cordials. Any kind of citrus is such a great enhancer to both savory and sweet dishes and can be enjoyed in salads, cocktails, baked goods and in sauces and vinaigrettes.
There are so many ways to have citrus always available in your kitchen without having to take up space in your fridge or freezer. There is never a shortage of good recipes accessible via the internet and you can experiment and be bold and creative. I am going through a phase of adding fresh herbs, flowers and spices to my marmalades and jams. My experiments are not always successful but I have produced some great combinations such as orange and rosemary, lime and oregano and lemon and sage. And a few more unusual ones, also very delicious, were kumquat with prickly pear, bergamot and lavender with quince and bitter orange with pomegranate. When you try to mix and match new flavors and are unsure, make a small batch and see whether it is to your liking before you plunge in and use all your supplies.
I stumbled on a preserved citrus recipe that has proved to be such a success in my kitchen, a shortcut in many ways when you are in a hurry and it is something I will be making regularly. I say that “I stumbled” as it was a result of an unsuccessful recipe and this is the one I am sharing today as I also discovered along the way that the pith of the island’s citrus does not have such a bitter taste and when it is preserved, the flavor of the pith from Mediterranean oranges and lemons is rather delicious. This must be quite unique and so contrary to what you will find in most recipes and what you are taught in culinary school. Not having to remove the pith is also less time consuming and obviously gives a greater yield. It is also a very nutritious source of vitamins, fibre and minerals and 80% of the Vitamin C in citrus is in the pith.
I call my recipe preserved Citrus Zest and you can store it in large tupperware boxes or something similar. This preserved zest can be added to cakes and all sorts of bakes; it is practical to simply add a handful to some water and immerse peeled fruit to retain its color. I also add it to savory dishes in small quantities just for the flavor when you do not want too much sweetness. It is also a good alternative to shop-bought candid peel and of course for any recipes that require zest. I have made a huge batch using lemons but will be doing the same with oranges. When you squeeze any citrus, do not throw out the fruit but use it to make preserved zest. You can store it in plastic bags in the fridge until you have accumulated enough to make a batch.
You will need:
Lemons, Oranges, Limes Citrus of your choice,
Sugar, 500g sugar to every liter of water
Salt, 4 teaspoons to every liter of water
Simply immerse the citrus in a solution of salt and water.
I use 4 teaspoons of Salt to every litre of water.
Leave to soak for 24 – 48 hours.
Rinse them very well and soak in water for an hour. Drain.
Mix sugar and water in a large pot, I use 500g sugar to every liter of water.
Use enough water to cover the fruit. Bring to a boil and keep at a rolling boil for 30 minutes. Allow to cool.
Drain the syrup and leave the citrus in a colander for a few hours.
Toss and roll the citrus in sugar and leave for at least a week stored in a covered container.
Shake off the extra sugar and pass the peel through a mincer.
This preserved zest can be stored at normal room temperature and there is practically no risk of spoilage because of the sugar concentration and time of boiling. Use as required.
And if you are visiting the island blessed with abundance and all the good things in life, I encourage you to have a taste of the unique fruits that have been basking in the glorious sunshine and nurtured by the Mediterranean earth and perhaps you may even take back precious memories of your visit captured in a jar !