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Capture the shine of citrus with these 4 recipes

Winter is peak season for lemons, oranges, grapefruit

By Gretchen McKay, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Published: February 28, 2024, 5:57am
2 Photos
Flavored with orange zest and juice, the easy cornmeal cake is topped with a spiral of fresh orange slices that are candied during the baking process.
Flavored with orange zest and juice, the easy cornmeal cake is topped with a spiral of fresh orange slices that are candied during the baking process. (Gretchen McKay/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS) (Gretchen McKay/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) Photo Gallery

PITTSBURGH — It’s pretty easy to feel blue on a dreary, colorless day in late winter in Pittsburgh.

The fun and excitement of the holidays has dissipated, and even though the days are slowly growing longer, it seems like the sun is never again going to peek out from behind the clouds.

It’s nice to live in a place with four distinct seasons, but winter has a tendency to drag on and on, all the more so when there’s no snow to pretty the landscape. Surely I can’t be the only one daydreaming of spring as I shiver in my oversized sweatshirt?

There is at least one cheerful perk of the cold winter months at mealtime: Juicy and colorful citrus fruits like oranges, lemons and grapefruit are in peak season, and often on sale at the grocery store.

This year looks like a good one for citrus lovers. Florida orange production is up 30 percent over last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with some 20 million boxes forecast. California should also enjoy brisk sales, with about 50 million boxes of fruit expected to hit the market.

Usually sweet and sometimes tangy, citrus fruits are little balls of sunshine that brighten the culinary landscape in ways a winter squash or bag of Brussels sprouts cannot. They also provide a healthful shot of vitamin C and other antioxidants that can help ward off a case of the sniffles or flu. High in fiber, citrus also helps you feel full (good for weight management after holiday weight gain) and aids with digestion.

Another plus: While a lot of citrus is eaten raw, out of hand, or squeezed into juice, it also can be used to add a bit of zing to baked goods or entrees.

Take the humble lemon, for instance. In addition to tenderizing meat and adding much-needed acid to a salad dressing or vinaigrette, lemons can bring a vibrant pop of flavor to a simple pasta sauce.

Oranges are similarly equal opportunity. A terrific base for a good-for-you smoothie or fruit-forward cocktail, oranges also go beautifully in salads, are great for marinades and add a bright, summery touch to cookies, cakes, quick breads and so much more.

With that in mind, we think these four citrus-packed recipes are bound to become seasonal favorites.

Instead of a traditional marinara, dress your favorite pasta in a vibrant lemon sauce made with lemon, Parmesan, cream and garlic. Forgo the tomato salsa for one that marries tangy grapefruit, creamy avocado and the punch of red onion. In lieu of ketchup or barbecue sauce, slather your burger or dip your fries in a fresh and punchy aioli that hangs its hat on fresh lime juice and zest.

And for dessert? Why opt for canned pineapple when an upside-down orange cake made with fresh fruit is just as easy? We’ve got a recipe for an easy cornmeal cake topped with a circle of fresh orange slices that are caramelized and candied as they bake in the batter.

The right pick

When buying citrus, choose firm fruit with bright, colorful skin. It should also smell slightly sweet and feel heavier in the palm of your hand than expected — a higher water content means the fruit will be juicier.

Citrus zest and peel is best when it’s fresh, so before pulling out your Microplane, box grater or vegetable peeler, make sure the fruit is clean and shiny, regardless of whether or not it’s organic. Some fruit is sprayed with color dyes and/or edible wax to keep it moist, and the peel also can hold trace amounts of pesticides; a quick rub with your fingers under warm running water will get the job done.

Pasta al Limone

Serves 4. Adapted from “Fresh Pasta at Home” by America’s Test Kitchen ($30)

This vibrant sauce comes together in about the same time it takes to set the table — fast and easy! I made it with cavatappi.

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1 pound spaghetti or pasta of choice

1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more for cooking pasta

4 tablespoons butter

1 shallot, minced

1 clove garlic, minced

1/4 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving

2 teaspoons grated lemon zest plus 1/4 cup juice (2 lemons)

1/2 teaspoon pepper

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil or parsley

Bring 4 quarts water to boil in large pot. Add pasta and 1 tablespoon salt and cook, stirring often, until al dente, about 10-12 minutes. Reserve 1 1/2 cups cooking water, then drain pasta and set aside.

Heat butter in now-empty pot over medium heat until shimmering. Add shallot, garlic and salt and cook until softened, about 2 minutes. Stir in cream and 1 cup cooking water and bring to a simmer. Cook for 2 minutes.

Off heat, add pasta, Parmesan, lemon zest and juice, pepper and toss to combine, tossing frequently and adjusting the consistency of sauce with remaining reserved cooking water as needed. Stir in basil and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Serve in warmed bowls, with lots of fresh finely grated Parmesan cheese.

Fish Tacos With Grapefruit Salsa

Serves 4. Adapted from marthastewart.com

The nontraditional salsa on top of these fish tacos combines tart and refreshing grapefruit with creamy avocado, fresh lime juice and a little jalapeno for heat.

1 Ruby Red grapefruit, segmented and cut into 1-inch pieces

1 avocado, diced

2 tablespoons diced red onion

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro, plus sprigs for garnish

1/2 jalapeno, seeded and finely chopped

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

4 cod fillets (4 ounces each)

8 corn tortillas

1 cup shredded napa cabbage

Make salsa: Combine grapefruit, avocado, onion, cilantro, jalapeno and lime juice in a medium bowl. Season with salt and set aside.

Heat oil in a large skillet, preferably cast-iron, over medium-high heat. Season cod generously with salt and pepper and sear, undisturbed, until golden brown, 2-3 minutes. Flip and continue cooking until golden and flaky, 2-3 minutes more. Remove and let cool slightly, then flake with a fork.

Toast tortillas over a gas burner, turning, until lightly charred, about 1 minute. Top with fish, salsa and cabbage.

Lime Aioli

Gretchen McKay, Post-Gazette. This zesty aioli can be used to jazz up everything from seafood, to veggie burgers, to hard-boiled eggs.

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/2 cup nonfat plain yogurt

1 teaspoon grated lime zest

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice

1 garlic clove, finely minced

1 teaspoon kosher salt or coarse sea salt, or to taste

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1 tablespoon minced cilantro

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Serve right away or refrigerate for up to 2 days.

Upside-Down Orange Cornmeal Cake

Adapted from bhg.com

For batter:

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup cornmeal

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder


3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened

1 1/4 cups granulated sugar

4 eggs

1 cup whole milk

4 teaspoons orange zest

2 teaspoon vanilla

For topping:

1/2 cup unsalted butter

1/3 cup packed brown sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

1 large orange or 2 small oranges, sliced 1/8 -inch thick

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Prepare batter: In a medium bowl, stir together flour, cornmeal, baking powder and 1 teaspoon salt. In a large bowl, beat 3/4 cup butter with a mixer on medium to high for 30 seconds.

Add granulated sugar. Beat 1 minute or until fluffy, scraping sides of bowl occasionally. Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each until combined. Alternately add the flour mixture and milk, beating on low between each addition until just combined. Stir in the orange zest and the 2 teaspoons vanilla; set aside.

Heat a 12-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat for 1-2 minutes. Add 1/2 cup butter. Stir the butter around until melted and the bottom of skillet is coated. Whisk in the brown sugar, 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla and a pinch of salt. Bring to boiling; boil 1-2 minutes or until thickened and caramelized.

Remove from heat. Lay orange slices in one even layer in the bottom of the skillet. Spoon batter over oranges; spread evenly.

Bake 45-50 minutes or until top is golden and knife inserted near center comes out clean. Cool in skillet 5 minutes. Invert onto a serving plate; transfer any fruit stuck in skillet to cake. Cool 20 minutes.