Categories: Lifestyle

Pucker up!


Nothing brings sunshine to dreary winter weather like the scent of citrus. The fragrant zest and tangy flesh of a lemon, lime, grapefruit or orange is at its peak now – at the height of our winter – when the blood orange and grapefruit are their deepest shades of ruby and oranges and limes are practically bursting with juiciness.

More citrus selection for chefs and home cooks

Most of us know citrus is delicious tasting, adding zip, freshness and a tart quality to sweet and savoury cooking. Its clean sharpness can cut through a rich, buttery sauce, or it can create the balance needed to offset all the sugary coconut goodness of a lemon square. And lemon zest? It’s dynamic on pasta, salads and in baked goods, while a slice or twist of peel enhances any drink, from water to a serious cocktail.

Gwendolyn Richards, Calgary based writer of Pucker: A Cookbook for Citrus Lovers (available at the Bookstore on Perron and Chapters) said “we’ve long known the versatile qualities of lemons and limes in cooking and baking, but the Internet and cooking shows on TV have upped the mainstream awareness to even more culinary possibilities. And today, obscure citrus from around the world is often in your local supermarket.” As an example, Richards points to the caviar (finger) limes (with flesh like tiny beads) she found recently at her local grocery.

“The world is smaller now, so it’s easier to find strange ingredients. Chefs and restaurants have embraced citrus fruit for their flesh and fragrant zest – they’re cheap and easy to work with, and now home cooks can push the envelope and play around with the latest exotic citrus find too,” she said.

Chinese New Year and citrus

But citrus is more than a food flavouring, enhancer or garnish – it also has great meaning to world cultures, such as those celebrating the Lunar New Year. At this time of year, Chinese New Year celebrations in Edmonton’s Muttart Conservatory (The Year of the Monkey Lunar New Year Celebrations runs until Feb. 28) take the form of dragons, lanterns and tropical floral displays. And if you look closely, you’ll see the lemon and orange trees amidst the greenhouse foliage – citrus trees are said to be good luck.

Why the relationship of citrus and Chinese New Year? It is said that the orange or golden colour of citrus resembles gold or money – even the words orange and tangerine sound like the words for luck and wealth in one Chinese dialect. It is also said that mandarin oranges represent the sun’s positive energy and are meant to lift spirits.

In practice, citrus trees often have red money envelopes draped off branches. In many Asian cities, citrus trees are usually placed on each side of an entry door, and small kumquat trees are often presented to friends and business associates during this important time of year.

Grow your own citrus? In central Alberta?

If you don’t believe you can grow your own lemons and other citrus right here in St. Albert, Jim Hole will prove you wrong. For several years now, the co-owner of Hole’s Greenhouses and Gardens at The Enjoy Centre has enjoyed the bounty of Meyer lemons (a tasty balance of sweet and tangy) from a tree he keeps in his home.

At this time of year, Hole also sells citrus trees at his greenhouse, unassuming two or three-foot shrub-type greenery that produce oranges, key limes or Meyer lemons. Selling them for about $60 per potted tree, the gardening expert is adamant that buyers shouldn’t think of leaving the store without grow lights – what he describes as the number one factor to successfully growing citrus.

“Citrus isn’t complicated – it can take cooler temperatures (even a bit of frost), and blazing, dry summer heat. The key is light,” said Hole, who uses full-spectrum T5 fluorescent tubes for grow lights, but points to any inexpensive bulb on a gooseneck lantern that can do the job just as well. The trick is to position several lights as close to the leaves as possible.

“As soon as April hits, I put the tree on the deck. The soil shouldn’t be wet – just a moist, sandy soil. As of about October, and through the cold-weather months, the tree is inside, with two or three grow lights on the leaves for up to 16 hours a day (6 a.m. to 10 p.m.). You can give the semi-tropical plant a fertilizer (10-4-3) once a month in winter, but light is the plant food. It’s all about the light,” he said.

Though the flowers (best triggered by cool temperatures) are fragrant, Hole said it’s the tangy, sweet offerings from about 10 homegrown lemons that keep he and his family happy each year.

Though growing your own fruit is one way, (the lemon tree is often perfumed with flowers during the indoor winter months) there are other ways to permeate the air in your home with a lemony fragrance, including growing herbs like lemon thyme or cultivating the lemon cypress tree (also available seasonally at Hole’s and other garden shops).

The cypress tree needs four to six hours of direct sunlight each day – perfect for sitting in a sunny window. As with the lemon tree, the cypress doesn’t like wet feet – just keep it moist and water when it feels dry to the touch. The lemon cypress can even be trimmed into a standard topiary shape.

Did you know …

• The white layer between the outer peel and flesh of citrus fruit is called the pith, and it’s extremely bitter.
• Grocers recommend choosing citrus fruits that feel firm and heavy for their size – thin-skinned ones tend to be juicier
• Generally, the smaller the citrus fruit, the more often it blooms. Some lime and lemon trees can produce up to four times a year, while for the big navel oranges, it’s just once each spring.
• Oranges 101 – Satsumas are seedless, easy to peel, tangy and sweet. Blood oranges are juicy and sweet, with raspberry overtones and bright red flesh. Tangerines have intense flavour, and can be sweet or tart, while Clementines are very sweet and seedless, with juicy pulp. Have you heard of tangelos? They are refreshingly tart and very juicy, and good old navels are exceptionally sweet, and easy to peel.

Lucy Haines: Lucy Haines has been a freelancer writer for the St. Albert Gazette since 2012. She writes features on travel, food, seniors, homes and gardens.