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Give your tastebuds a citrus wake-up call

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It's less than a month till spring and the only respite from the seeming endlessness of winter is a basket of sunny oranges and lemons on the kitchen counter. Citrus fruits are at their peak, just when northerners need them most -- not only for a daily dose of vitamin C, but for the sheer sensory pleasure they provide. Too bad so many of us limit our exposure to a single glass of juice in the morning. Beyond oranges, grapefruits and tangerines, there's a whole world of lesser-known and quite versatile citrus fruits -- from pomelos and blood oranges to kumquats and Meyer lemons. Eat them as is, or add them to cooking to heighten flavour and add a tangy end note.

Even lemons and limes, well-known as they are, could stand a little more time in the spotlight. Besides grating the zest or squeezing their juice, ever thought of chopping a whole peeled lemon into a rice pilaf or a cucumber salad?

That's what California cookbook writer Viana La Place does. She grew up in Southern California in a family from Sicily; lemon turned up all over the dinner table -- from salad dressing and risotto to granite and gelato.

"The taste of citrus brightens up almost every food that I can think of," she said from her kitchen in San Francisco, where she looks through the window onto her garden with its two Meyer lemon trees, heaving with hundreds of golden-yellow fruits.

"There's the extraordinary fragrance and its palate-cleansing quality. Citrus wakes up your tastebuds. And it brings out the other flavours that you are using, too."

La Place, author of almost a dozen cookbooks, garnishes rice dishes with wedges of lemon for squeezing on at serving time. She might use a microplane to finely grate lemon and orange zest onto fresh ricotta or mozzarella cheese. Or she will segment Ruby Red grapefruit and toss it into a salad of radicchio, Belgian endives, dates and toasted walnuts. She eats kumquats whole, just like that. Or else she slices them up thin and tosses them into salads for a sweet-and-sour effect.

It has been mild in San Francisco lately, and La Place's crop of kumquats and Meyer lemons has been plentiful; she's been giving them away by the basketful. Even a continent away in Winnipeg, a wide variety of citrus is in full supply on produce shelves, including grapefruit from Florida, lemons from California and clementines from Morocco and Spain.

Risotto with orange and lemon

Serves 4

This non-traditional risotto calls for orange and lemon zest, but also tiny bits of the juicy fruit. La Place uses Meyer lemons, but more common varieties are fine, too. Wash well before grating or zesting.

1 Meyer lemon

1 orange

45 ml (3 tbsp) unsalted butter

15 ml (1 tbsp) extra virgin olive oil

1/2 onion, finely chopped

500 ml (2 cups) Arborio rice

125 ml (1/2 cup) dry white wine

1500 ml (6 cups) chicken broth, brought to a simmer

Sea salt

125 ml (1/2 cup) Parmesan cheese

Toasted almonds or pine nuts, finely chopped

Basil or mint leaves, for garnish

Use a vegetable peeler to remove the zest of the lemon and half of the orange in ribbonlike strands. Set aside.

Use a zester or julienne peeler to make fine strips of zest from the remaining orange half. Place the finer strips of orange zest in about a cup of boiling water to remove some of the bitterness. Drain well and dry on paper towel.

Cut away most of the white pith from the lemon and orange. Very finely chop the fruit. Set aside.

In a 2-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan, place 30 ml (2 tbsp) of the butter and the olive oil. Warm over medium-low heat. Add the onion and cook gently for 8 to 10 minutes, until tender.

Add the rice and stir well until all the grains are glossy. Add the wine, raise the heat a little and let the wine evaporate. Add the ribbonlike strands of citrus zest and stir.

Add a ladleful of warm broth and stir until it is absorbed by the rice. Continue in this way, adding one ladleful at a time, until the rice is al dente but the risotto is creamy. Halfway through the cooking, add the fruit. Taste for salt and add as needed. When the risotto is at the correct consistency, remove from the heat and stir in the remaining tablespoon of butter and the grated Parmesan.

Serve in shallow pasta bowls topped with a sprinkling of almonds or pine nuts and a few basil or mint leaves, torn into fragments, and the blanched fine strips of orange zest.

Adapted from San Francisco food writer Viana La Place's cookbook My Italian Garden (Broadway 2007)

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 6, 2013 D4

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