Citrus is all about scent: the fresh burst of lemon, the sharp
tang of lime, the surprise of grapefruit. But you haven’t
experienced citrus, from sweet to bittersweet, until you get to
know two of the lesser-known members of the clan: sweet, strange
citron, once queen of fruits, and its puckery little Asian cousin,
The citron, when first encountered, resembles an ugly, huge, rough-skinned
lemon-- a fruit with which it is often confused. Hold the citron
to your nose and you find it has its own sweet perfume, definitely
citrusy but unlike any other. A single ripe citron, placed on a
tray, will perfume an entire room; beneath the thick, sweet-smelling
skin and pith is a small quantity of sour, fragrant juice.
The citron (citrus medica) is thought to be one of the ancient
progenitors of modern citrus. Before the Romans, and long after,
through the Dark Ages, the Renaissance and well into modern times,
the golden yellow citron was at once a symbol of wealth and position
and in common use around the Mediterranean for perfumes, medicines
and religious rites.
Citron fell out of favor with the development of thin-skinned,
juicy, sweet citrus during the last century. It is still grown around
the Mediterranean, though not widely, for use in the perfume industry;
Israeli farms grow the citron known as etrog which is at the heart
of the festival of Sukkoth. The average American is most like to
encounter citron in candied form: the thick peel of the citron is
still an essential ingredient in that enduring medieval curiosity,
the Christmas fruitcake.
Japanese cooks know the citron as yuzu, and make frequent use of
the sweet rind and sour juice to lend a twangy bite and a perfumed,
what-citrus-is-that scent to many traditional recipes.Yuzu is the
main element in traditional ponzu sauce; the freshly squeezed juice
and bits of the peel are added to pickles, soups and many other
dishes. Via Japan and all things fusion, fashionable chefs have
rediscovered citron in the form of yuzu, and it is once again creeping
into haute cuisine.
A bizarre variation on the citron is the Buddha Hand (v.sarcodactyla)
in which the developing fruit splits into segments that resemble
long, twisting fingers tipped with dainty claws. Called
fo shu kan by the Chinese, the shape of the fruit is thought to
resemble the blessing hand of Buddha. To bring good fortune, Buddha
Hand citrons are placed on altars as offerings, or candied and used
in sweets or as a condiment. The Buddha Hand has no juice, but lots
of peel, and makes excellent candies and preserves. Any citron recipe
can be adapted to the Buddha Hand.
Unlike the large, civilized and stately citron, the tiny kumquat
is the fruit that bites you back. Kumquats are an Asian cousin of
the genus fortunella and not a true citrus at all, despite a definite
citrus smell and flavor. First mentioned in 12th century writings,
kumquats can still be gathered wild in parts of Asia. They are prized
for their lovely orange scent, beautiful bright orange clusters
of fruit and shiny, green leaves, and an unusual bitter / orange
flavor that works very well with Asian ingredients. With a thin,
bitter skin enclosing the soft-seeded, sweet/sour pulp, kumquats
are definitely an acquired taste eaten straight up and raw, but
they take well to cooking and the taste is complex enough to lend
itself to interesting combinations with other savory and sweet flavors.
Kumquats are used whole or sliced, raw or cooked, pureed or chopped,
candied or pickled with spices and ginger. In Chinese herbal medicine,
kumquats are attributed properties of warmth, ‘falling downward’
Kumquats come into season in October and are available into late
winter. They are generally sold in bunches with their lovely green
leaves intact. The most readily available kumquat in this country
is the oval Nagami, but the round varieties such as Meiwa, which
tend to be imported and thus more expensive, are sweeter. Ripe kumquats
will have a nice balance of bitterness and a citrusy sweetness.
Wash well to remove dust and fungicide; don’t peel them. Kumquats
are often eaten raw and whole, like a grape, or they can be blanched
in boiling water for 30 seconds to tone down their natural bitterness,
soften the skin and plump up the flesh.
Kumquats are frequently preserved in heavy sugar syrup and used
as is, as a “spoon sweet” with ice cream, yogurt or
peppered rounds of goat cheese.
Preserved kumquats can be chopped and added to dishes, or pureed
and mixed into cream cheese or frostings for intense flavor.
Fresh kumquats can be sliced and added to salads for a shot of
color, chopped and added to quick breads or muffins, or cooked in
Kumquats pair well with strong alcohols such as vodka, gin, rum
and aquavit; also with creamy textures and sweet/rich tastes such
as ice cream, cream cheese and crème anglaise. In combination
with other fruits, such as pineapples, they make a striking and
flavorful addition to fruit desserts.
Citrons and Buddha Hands come on the market in September, and appear
through early spring. You’ll find fresh citron at Asian stores
(as yuzu) and in early September at Jewish markets (as etrog) or
occasionally at local farmers markets in Southern California, where
it is grown as a curiosity. Citron are not widely grown, much is
imported and it is, therefore, expensive.
Citron is all about the peel, with its wonderful flavor and smell.
Wash the fruit carefully before use. The peel can be substituted
for any kind of citrus zest in baking or marinades, or use the thick
skin to make candied and sugared strips of peel, which can then
be chopped and used in pound cake, muffins, cookies or spice cake,
or eaten as a treat with coffee—sometimes dipped in chocolate.
Lift breakfast out of the ordinary: use citron peel in any marmalade
recipe, combining the citron juice with the juice from another type
Citron juice is available bottled as yuzu, but fresh-squeezed
juice tastes far better. The juice can be used in vinaigrettes and
is particularly nice in ponzu, a popular Japanese dipping sauce
for fish and tempura.
Five Spice Chicken with Kumquats
Chinese cuisine recognizes and builds on five key elements: bitter,
sweet, salt, sour and pungent. To be balanced, food must be prepared
with elements of all five. Kumquats are considered a pungent flavor—not
bitter, as one might think. Serves six.
3 pounds chicken thighs with the skin and bones
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
½ teaspoon white pepper
1/3 cup vegetable oil or peanut oil
5 green onions, cut into small pieces
3 tablespoons rice wine or sherry
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped to a paste
1 tablespoon water or chicken stock
12 kumquats in syrup (see following recipe)
2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon water
Combine the salt, five spice powder and white pepper. Sprinkle
the chicken with the spices and let marinate, refrigerated, for
half an hour.
Heat the vegetable oil in a wok or large, heavy sauté pan,
and cook the chicken a few pieces at a time until lightly browned,
removing to a bowl. When all the chicken has been browned, pour
off most of the oil. Quickly stir the green onions in the hot wok
then add the chicken, soy sauce, rice wine, ginger, kumquats and
water. Lower heat, cover and simmer until the chicken is cooked
through, about 10 minutes. Add the cornstarch and water mixture
and boil to thicken. Spoon the sauce over the chicken, with a few
Kumquats in Syrup
Kumquats are poached quickly in heavy syrup that balances their
natural bitterness. Try adding whole spices for flavor, and alcohol
for a kick. The kumquats will keep, refrigerated and covered, for
up to two weeks.
1 cup water
3 cups granulated sugar
4 cups firm, very fresh kumquats, washed
Optional: ½ cup rum, gin, vodka or aquavit
Optional: Whole spice such as star anise, a cinnamon stick, several
cardamom pods or cloves
Combine the water and sugar in a large heavy-bottomed pan (add
whole spice now.) Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until
all the sugar has dissolved. Add the kumquats and weight down with
a plate or lid; they float. Cook gently until wrinkled and tender,
about 15 minutes; they may pop and fizzle. Remove from heat (add
alcohol here) and allow to cool in the syrup. Refrigerate.
Serve with grilled chicken and rice.
2 cups raw kumquats, washed
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 dried red chili or 1/ 2 serrano chili, seeds removed
1 tablespoon minced onion
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, peeled and very finely chopped
2 tablespoons white vinegar
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon fresh orange juice
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
3 sprigs cilantro, chopped
By hand, using a large knife, slice the kumquats into /4 inch slices,
then roughly chop. Reserve in a bowl, along with all the juice.
Heat the vegetable oil in a 1-quart saucepan with a heavy bottom.
Sauté the chili, then add the onion and ginger; cook slowly
for one minute. Add the kumquats and their juice, the vinegar and
sugar, and the salt and cook at a simmer over gentle heat until
thickened, stirring often. This should take about 15-20 minutes.
Add the orange and lemon juice and cook a further five minutes.
Remove from heat, add the cilantro and correct seasoning; depending
on the kumquats, you may want to add a little more sugar, vinegar
or a few more drops of lemon juice. Remove the chili before serving.
Hot-and-Sweet-Seared Ahi with Ponzu, Japanese
Pickle and White Grits
Ponzu is a classic Japanese dipping sauce which features citron,
or yuzu juice. Buy your ahi from a reputable fish market and keep
it very, very cold at all times. You will need a single thick piece
of ‘ahi. Avoid the tail section, which is stringy. Serves
6-8 as an appetizer, 4 as an entree.
1 ½ pounds first-quality ahi tuna, in one piece, 1 ½
to 2 inches thick
1/2 teaspoon crushed red chilies
½ teaspoon ground Szechuan pepper or white pepper
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons granulated sugar or turbinado sugar (brown sugar crystals)
Optional: 1 teaspoon dried tangerine peel, finely ground
A few assorted Japanese vegetable, seaweed pickles or pickled ginger
(available at Asian markets)
¼ cup yuzu juice (preferably fresh)
3 tablespoons mirin ( sweet rice wine, known as hon-mirin)
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons bonito flakes
1 2/3 cups spring water
1/3 cup white grits
Pinch of salt
Thinly sliced chives or green onion tops ( for garnish)
Cut the ‘ahi into two-inch square chunks and keep cold while
you make the rest of the preparations. Combine the dry spices and
ground tangerine peel.
Heat a non-stick pan until smoking hot. Quickly roll the ‘ahi
cubes in the spice mix on all sides and sear quickly for a few seconds
on each side until the spices are just blackened. (Note: the pan
must be VERY hot.) The inside of the fish should still be raw. Remove
each piece as it is done. Chill.
Half an hour before serving, bring the water and salt to the boil,
and add the grits, stirring constantly. Reduce heat and cook until
thickened; the grits should be creamy, almost runny. Do not over-season,
the grits should be on the bland side to contrast with the spicy
crust and the ponzu. Keep warm, covered.
Thinly slice the cubes of ahi and fan down one side of the serving
plate. Add a few pickles, a small spoonful of the grits and drizzle
a little of the ponzu over the fish and around the plate. Scatter
over some green onions and serve immediately with more ponzu on
Note: All ingredients listed here are
available in Asian markets.
Honeyed Citron Peel
True citron come into season around September. Buddha Hand citron
can also be used in this recipe. Makes 1 ½ cups, or about
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
½ cup honey
1 ½ cups water
5 cups citron peel (about 5 large citrons)
Prepare the citron peel by quartering the fruit lengthwise and
cutting away all but a half-inch of the white pith. Place into a
large pan, cover with cold water and bring to the boil, then reduce
heat and simmer for 30 minutes, or until softened. Drain and repeat
the process. The peel will be very soft. Cool and carefully trim
away any soft pulp and cut into long thin strips.
Combine the sugar, water and honey in a 4-quart pan with a heavy
bottom. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat and simmer until the
sugar is completely dissolved. Add the peel and cook at a bare simmer,
stirring occasionally, for about 45 minutes. The peels will look
waxy. Drain well, and spread out on parchment or waxed paper to
dry. Reserve syrup for another use.
The candied citron can be diced or chopped, and added to cookies,
muffins, pound cake or fruit cakes.
The long strips of peel can be dried and rolled in superfine sugar
(also known as bartenders sugar or caster sugar.) These, in turn,
can be dipped into melted dark chocolate for a real treat.
Citron Pound Cake
Almost a cross between cheesecake and pound cake, with an elusive
hint of citron.
2 tablespoons soft butter (for the tube pan)
1/3 cup blanched almonds, finely ground in a food processor
2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup finely chopped Honeyed Citron Peel (or 2 teaspoons grated
2 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter a large non-stick tube pan
or bundt pan, and dust with the ground almonds. Sift together the
dry ingredients and set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter until white and fluffy.
Add the cream cheese (and zest, if you are using it instead of candied
peel) and beat until thoroughly combined. Add the sugar, a small
amount at a time, beating well after each addition. Slowly add the
eggs, one a time, while mixing; the mixture may curdle, but will
come back together.
Remove the bowl from the mixer and scrape down the sides. By hand,
gently stir in the dry ingredients until combined. Fold in the chopped
citron peel. Spoon the mix into the prepared tube pan and bake until
a knife comes out clean, approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes.