The citrus solution: Oranges, grapefruit, tangerines

When seeking extra flavor during those tomato-free months, try little slices of sunshine

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The cook's year can be divided in two: tomato and not-tomato. But sometimes, even the best-intentioned, most locavore-crazy among us so crave a sweet, tart bite in our salads that we break down and grab one of those cottony out-of-season tennis balls. You've done it too. Don't try to deny it.

In some cases, though, there's an easy alternative. Because happily for us, beneficent nature has ensured that the not-tomato months pair up perfectly with the drowning-in-citrus ones. And in a lot of dishes, a little bit of citrus will give you just what you were hankering for — certainly a lot better than an out-of-season tomato.

This is not a universal solution by any means. I'm trying to picture laying a slice of grapefruit on top of my hamburger. But it does work out often enough that it's worth exploring.

The first time I tried it was more or less by accident. It was dinner time, and I had some lettuce and some cheese. And not much else. But wait, my neighbors had dropped off a sack of tangerines from their tree — perfectly balanced between tart and sweet. What if I put some of those in the salad along with some hazelnuts?

I tried it first with crumbled blue cheese, which seemed kind of a natural because they are so often served together. Wrong. The citrus seemed to bring out every bit of bitterness in the Gorgonzola. And when you taste the cheese that way, there is actually quite a lot.

Then my wife suggested trying the same salad with some fresh goat cheese. Amazing. The combination, dressed with a vinaigrette made with hazelnut oil and Champagne vinegar, harmonized perfectly.

And then my little cook's mind started racing. What other combinations might work? There's the now-classic combination of beets and blood oranges, of course. Though you're just as likely to see navels, Cara Caras or even grapefruit, all used to great effect and demonstrating that, though all citrus are different from each other, they're not that different. For recipe purposes, use what you have, they're fairly interchangeable.

A couple of nights later, faced with the happy dilemma of having some leftover Dungeness crab, I shaved some fennel very thin and made another salad with wedges of pink grapefruit and some torn-up arugula from my garden.

The only trick to this salad is cutting the grapefruit — it's called "supremeing" in kitchen parlance. You slice off the top and bottom of the whole fruit, then cut off the rest of the peel, carefully following the line of the flesh. Then you slice free each grapefruit segment, separating it from the tougher membrane. This isn't necessary with more tender citrus, such as tangerines, but with grapefruit and oranges, it's a good idea.

Those are just a couple of examples. I have to admit that at this point I have the feeling I've just scratched the surface. I'm sure I'll find some more. We've still got a couple of not-tomato — er, citrus — months left.

Pink Grapefruit and Fennel Salad with Crab

Total time: 20 minutes; Servings: 4

2 pink grapefruit

1 head fennel

¼ red onion

Salt

¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes

¼ cup olive oil

1 cup torn arugula

4 ounces lump Dungeness crab meat

Peel the grapefruit and cut it into sections: Using a very sharp knife, cut off the top and the bottom of the grapefruit, so it will sit flat on the cutting board. Starting where you see the pink grapefruit separate from the white pith, cut away one section of peel and pith, following the line of the fruit. This will expose the underlying fruit. Continue cutting away sections of the peel and pith until only fruit remains. When you’re done, go back over the fruit, removing any traces of pith.

Working over a small bowl to catch the juice, slice the fruit into sections — make a cut between the fruit and membrane, then do the same on the other side, freeing pure fruit. Repeat until you have removed all the fruit from the membrane. Squeeze any juice from the remaining membrane into the bowl. You will need about 2 tablespoons.

Quarter the fennel lengthwise and remove the triangular core at the center. Use a mandolin or a very sharp knife to slice the fennel as thin as possible, about one-eighth inch; you’ll have about 3 cups, lightly packed. Do the same with the red onion; you’ll have about one-half cup. Combine the fennel and red onion in a large bowl.

Add one-half teaspoon salt and the red pepper flakes to the reserved grapefruit juice and whisk in the olive oil.

Toss the fennel with just enough of the dressing to lightly moisten it. Arrange the fennel on a platter in a low mound.

Add the arugula to the same bowl and toss to moisten it; you may need to add another teaspoon of vinaigrette. Arrange the arugula on top of the fennel.

Add the grapefruit and crabmeat to the same bowl and toss very gently to avoid breaking up the citrus or the crab. You want it barely moistened; if you need, add another teaspoon of vinaigrette. Arrange this on top of the arugula and serve immediately.

Per serving: 224 calories; 8 grams protein; 18 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 14 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 21 mg cholesterol; 284 mg sodium; 8 grams sugar.

Tangerine, Butter Lettuce and Goat Cheese Salad

Total time: 30 minutes; Servings: 4

⅓ cup hazelnuts

2 tablespoons tarragon vinegar

Salt

2 teaspoons minced shallots

3 tablespoons hazelnut oil

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

½ pound tangerines, peeled, broken into segments and stripped of any pithy strings

1 head butter lettuce, cored and torn into bite-sized pieces (about 4 cups)

3 ounces crumbled goat cheese

Toast the hazelnuts on a rimmed baking sheet in a 400 F oven until they smell toasty, about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and immediately cover with a damp kitchen towel. Let stand 10 minutes, then wrap the hazelnuts in the towel and rub to remove as much of the papery skin as possible. Chop coarsely; you should have about one-fourth cup.

Combine the vinegar, one-half teaspoon salt and shallots in a small bowl and let stand 10 minutes to let the shallots soften. Whisk in the hazelnut and vegetable oil.

Combine the hazelnuts and butter lettuce in a large bowl. Pour over just enough of the dressing to moisten lightly, tossing gently. Season to taste with more salt if necessary. Arrange the lettuce on a platter in a low mound.

Add the tangerines to the same work bowl and toss to coat lightly with any vinaigrette remaining in the bowl. Scatter the tangerines over the top of the lettuce. Scatter the crumbled goat cheese over the top and serve immediately.

Per serving: 265 calories; 7 grams protein; 8 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 23 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 16 mg cholesterol; 257 mg sodium; 5 grams sugar.