California citrus: Short crop long on flavor

This salad features winter citrus and red chicories such as radicchio. Those red “greens” reach peak harvest at the same time as citrus like blood orange, grapefruit and kumquats, and make for a spectacular pairing of flavors.
This salad features winter citrus and red chicories such as radicchio. Those red “greens” reach peak harvest at the same time as citrus like blood orange, grapefruit and kumquats, and make for a spectacular pairing of flavors. NYT

No matter how you slice it, this has been an odd year for California citrus growers. In particular, king-sized navel oranges look and taste spectacular. But there’s not enough of them.

“This is one of the smallest (navel orange) crops in the last 20 years,” said Joel Nelsen, president of the California Citrus Mutual, which represents about 75 percent of the state’s commercial citrus growers. “There’s much less fruit on the trees.”

While the size of the individual navels is unusually large, growers are seeing a lot fewer oranges than normal, Nelsen said. Also, the season will be short with growers running out of fruit weeks before usual cut-off dates.

“We usually have fruit through the Fourth of July,” he added, “but this year, we’ll be done by June 1.”

According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture estimates, the average fruit set per navel orange tree was 273, down from 348 the previous season; that’s a 21 percent drop.

Nelsen expects the final crop total to be down 30 percent from normal.

“We anticipate that prices will be a little higher,” he said. “Prices will go up, but they can’t be too high. Consumers are looking for the best buy.”

Blame this odd season on California’s epic drought. Although 2017 was a “wet” year, the trees were still in a recovery mode, Nelsen explained.

“The trees worked really hard to produce normal crops during the drought,” he said. “Last year was a normal water year with a normal crop, but the trees are just tired. They have to rejuvenate. Across the state, we’re seeing navels down significantly, but it’s just the oranges; the other citrus seem to be about normal.”

California, the nation’s longtime leader in fresh citrus, recently became America’s No. 1 citrus state overall.

“We’ve surpassed Florida,” Nelsen said. “They’ve been hard hit by disease and weather. The hurricane just clobbered them. They’re off 70 percent (from a decade ago).”

A one-two punch of huánglóngbìng – HLB or yellow dragon disease – and Hurricane Irma decimated the Florida citrus crop, particularly juice oranges. September’s hurricane alone accounted for a $760 million loss to Florida citrus growers. That’s put more pressure on California growers to make up the difference.

Citrus growers have had to deal with more than weather and disease. Lemons survived a major wildfire scare in Ventura County, which accounts for 40 percent of the national crop. It could have been a lot worse, Nelsen said.

“We lost a small amount of lemon acreage in Ventura County (to December’s wildfires); about 1,500 acres,” Nelsen said. “The lemon growers got through the fires a lot better than the avocado growers. Lemons retain a lot more moisture in their leaves and branches; it’s not a dry wood. So, the trees may have been scorched, but they can come back quickly. But the avocado trees became fodder for sparks; that was terrible.”

Meanwhile, mandarins continue on an upswing.

“We saw so many acres of mandarins coming into production, it balanced out (any drought effects),” Nelsen said. “So, that crop is slightly higher.”

Locally, citrus growers are seeing excellent quality – and good supply, too.

The relatively mild and dry winter has spared Sacramento area growers from frost damage and other issues.

“Overall, it’s the best crop we have had,” said Chris Strutz of Strutz Ranch in Sloughhouse. “My trees have finally matured and are producing super good fruit.”

Strutz reports that his navel and blood orange trees produced light crops, but the fruit quality was good and flavor sweet. His mandarins started to ripen early, but are still coming in with good flavor. His larger citrus such as grapefruit and pomelo have ripened nicely, too, thanks to last summer’s heat.

Placer County’s citrus growers had a great season.

“Our navels hit it out of the park!” said Annie Bowler, owner of Flower Farm Inn in Loomis. “They’re the biggest ones we’ve ever grown. Our blood oranges are just amazing, too. They have beautiful color. Our mandarins also are good; not as spectacular as the navels, but very sweet.”

Started in 1905 as a plum orchard, the Flower Farm grows several kinds of citrus on 10 acres surrounding its century-old farmhouse, which doubles as a B&B. The farm also includes a 1-acre vegetable garden and year-round cafe.

“Our goal was to have enough citrus to use in our cafe as well as have enough so people could buy it,” Bowler said. “We serve fresh farm-grown citrus eight months a year. We also juice it and freeze it, so we have juice for the cafe year-round.”

Right now, plenty of that fresh citrus is finding its way into salads, Bowler said. The Flower Farm Inn cafe also uses citrus in muffins and even on top of a pizza.

“Remember to take the white pith off before chopping or slicing,” she said. “That way, the fruit is not bitter at all; it’s really more delicious.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Sunkist Meyer Lemon herb marinade

This full-flavored marinade adds a quick zing to everyday chicken breast, fish, shrimp, scallops or Portobello mushrooms. Get creative with the herbs and add in tarragon, oregano, or your favorite seasonal herbs.

Recipe courtesy Sunkist

Makes 3/4 cup

1/4 cup fresh squeezed Meyer lemon juice

Zest from Meyer lemon

6 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic

3 tablespoons minced fresh thyme

3 tablespoons minced fresh chives

2 tablespoon minced fresh basil or rosemary

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

In a small bowl, whisk together all marinade ingredients. Store refrigerated for up to 3 days or freeze covered in a jar or plastic container for up to 2 months.


▪  Use about 1 tablespoon for each piece of meat/fish/poultry you are marinating. Season with salt and pepper before cooking.

▪  Toss with pasta for a quick lemony herb side dish.

▪  Stir a spoonful into a basic vinaigrette dressing.

Sunkist Citrus Salt

This salt is great to use as a zesty seasoning or finishing salt. It’s especially good sprinkled over vegetables.

Recipe courtesy Sunkist

Makes a generous 1/2 cup

2 tablespoons lemon zest

2 tablespoons orange zest

1/2 cup kosher or coarse flake sea salt

Combine ingredients together in a glass baking dish or other small shallow container. Let sit in a warm dry place, uncovered for about a week or until the citrus zest is totally dried. Crumble up to mix in the citrus. Store in a tightly covered container or jar.


▪  For a spicy salt mix add in 1/2 teaspoon crushed red chilies.

▪  Try adding 1 tablespoon of minced fresh thyme when drying the salt.

Classic Lemon Bars with Poppy Seed Crust

The classic lemon bar gets extra luscious with lemon zest added to the crust and extra juice in the filling.

Recipe courtesy Sunkist

Makes 16 bars

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened

1/4 cup powdered sugar

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon poppy seeds

2 teaspoons lemon zest

1 1/2 cups sugar

3 large eggs

1/2 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

Additional powdered sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a mixer cream together the butter and powdered sugar then mix in the flour, salt, poppy seeds and zest. Press evenly into a 8x8-inch non-stick baking pan. Place in preheated oven and bake for about 18 - 20 minutes, or until edges are golden.

Meanwhile, in a mixer mix the sugar, eggs and lemon juice until well combined, then add the flour and mix until well incorporated.

When the pastry is done, immediately pour the egg mixture over the hot pastry. Bake about 30 - 35 minutes or until golden and puffy. Cool and cut into 16 squares. Dust with powdered sugar before serving.


▪  Make with Meyer lemons for a fragrant lemon bar. Or substitute other citrus juice and zest such as grapefruit, lime or mandarin orange.

▪ Dust with “Donut Sugar,” also known as “Snow Sugar,” which is non-melting professional powdered sugar, available online.

Winter citrus and radicchio salad

A crisp colorful salad in the dead of winter can make a meal feel luxurious. Radicchio and its crimson cousins in the chicory family, Chioggia, Treviso and Tardivo, make an eye-popping display with red citrus like blood orange and ruby grapefruit. The combination of slightly bitter leaves and sweet juices is utterly refreshing.

Adapted from the New York Times

Makes 4 to 6 servings

4 blood oranges or Cara Cara oranges (red-fleshed navel oranges)

1 navel orange

1 ruby grapefruit

2 small heads radicchio, about 3/4 pound, or a mixture of red-leaved chicories such as Treviso and Tardivo

2 Belgian endives

2 tablespoons finely chopped shallot

Salt and pepper

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

6 kumquats, thinly sliced (optional)

¼ cup toasted walnut halves

Using a serrated knife and following the curves of the fruit, carefully peel the blood oranges, navel orange and grapefruit. Remove all the peels and the white pith, but keep the fruits as smooth and round as possible.

Cut the blood oranges and navel orange crosswise into 1/4-inch slices and place in a low bowl. Use knife to cut between the grapefruit membranes to form segments; add to bowl. Squeeze the grapefruit “carcass” over a strainer into the bowl with the citrus.

Separate radicchio into leaves and tear into large pieces.

Remove and discard a layer of exterior leaves from each endive so that only smooth and unblemished leaves are showing. Trim 1 inch from the bottoms and discard. Separate the leaves.

Place radicchio and endive leaves in a large platter or in a low-sided salad bowl. Arrange citrus slices and segments artfully over leaves, reserving the citrus juices.

In a small bowl, combine shallots and 3 tablespoons reserved citrus juices. Add a good pinch of salt and pepper. Whisk in olive oil and taste. Adjust the seasonings, whisk again, and pour dressing evenly over salad.

Garnish with kumquat slices, if using, and toasted walnuts.

Meyer lemon and thyme roasted chicken with marmalade sauce

This lemony roast chicken tastes like summer on a cold winter’s day.

Recipe courtesy Sunkist

1 roasting chicken (3 ½-4 pound) whole chicken

1 Meyer lemon, zest (set aside), and cut in fourths

1 scant teaspoon salt

1 lemon, zested

2 cloves garlic, skins removed and minced

1/2 teaspoon white pepper, freshly ground

1/2 bunch finely chopped thyme, stems removed.

For marmalade:

2 medium red onions, peeled and sliced into half inch circles

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Salt to taste

Fresh ground pepper

2 shallots, peeled and sliced thin

2 sprigs thyme or savory, stems removed and minced

2 tablespoons butter

2 ounces (1/4 cup) Grand Marnier or cognac

3 cups chicken or other poultry stock, preferably dark brown and rich

2 tablespoons lemon, lime or orange marmalade or a combination

Salt to taste

Fresh ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Combine 1 teaspoon salt with sugar, lemon zest, garlic, pepper and thyme and mix well.

Dry the skin of the chicken thoroughly with paper towels. Rub the spice mixture all over the skin of the bird, including wings, legs and thighs. Place the chicken on a rack in a shallow roasting pan, breast side down in a preheated 400-degree oven. Roast for 30-35 minutes; the skin should be turning golden brown. Turn the bird breast side up and roast for an additional 40 minutes until the internal temperature reaches 160-165 degrees F. when measured with a meat thermometer, and the skin is golden brown.

Let the chicken rest for 10-15 minutes before carving, preferably in a warm oven. Serve with citrus marmalade sauce.

For sauce: Preheat oven to to 400 degrees F. Place the onion slices in a shallow roasting pan and drizzle with the olive oil, season with the salt and pepper and cover with foil. Place in a preheated 400-degree oven and roast covered 15-20 minutes, remove the foil and roast a few minutes more until edges are caramelized. (You can do this while the chicken is roasting.) Keep warm.

In a 2-quart saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat and saute the shallots and herbs. Cook until the shallots are very tender, stirring occasionally; a slight bit of browning is OK. Deglaze with the Grand Marnier or cognac and cook until the alcohol is reduced by half.

Add the chicken or poultry stock and keep at a simmer for 20 minutes. Add the marmalade and keep warm. Just before serving, taste for salt and pepper and add as needed. If you prefer a richer sauce bring the sauce to almost boiling and swirl in an additional tablespoon of butter.

To serve, carve the roasted chicken and place on a warmed plate, arrange some of the onions over each portion and ladle a small amount of sauce. You don’t want to drench the crispy skin so serve remaining sauce in a container at the table.

Tip: If using chicken stock from a box, in a sauté pan caramelize onions, add the stock and reduce to about half, scraping up the onion bits until a rich, brown color.

Blood orange and maple-roasted winter vegetables

Napa Valley chef Cindy Pawlcyn created this side dish, a beautiful combination of citrus and root vegetables that looks as good as it tastes. It also works with navel or Valencia oranges.

Recipe courtesy Sunkist

Makes 3 to 4 servings

1 small red onion peeled and sliced in thick circles

1 small rutabaga peeled and sliced in 6-8 wedges, depending on size

3 rainbow carrots (various colors), peeled and sliced length-wise

Sea salt

Fresh ground black pepper

Extra virgin olive oil

1 blood orange, peeled, pith removed and separated into segments discarding the membrane

1 blood orange, zested and freshly squeezed for juice

1 tablespoon maple syrup

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Mix together the onion, rutabaga, and carrots. Season with salt and pepper.

Dress liberally with olive oil and place in a roasting pan and roast in a preheated oven for 30-35 minutes until the vegetables are starting to get tender.

Add the orange juice, zest, orange segments and maple syrup and combine well. Continue to bake until the vegetables are fork tender, the juices have reduced and coated the vegetables.

Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve.

Tangelo maple lemonade

You can make this refreshing lemonade any time of year.

Recipe courtesy Sunkist

Makes 8 servings

2 cups warm water

1 1/2 cups sugar

1/2 cup real maple syrup

3 cups cold water

1 1/2 cups freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 cup freshly squeezed tangelo juice

Place the warm water, sugar, and maple syrup into a large pitcher. Stir with a spoon until sugar is dissolved. Add in the cold water, lemon and tangelo juices; stir. Serve over ice.

Store refrigerated for up to 5 days.

Grapefruit panzanella salad

This simple salad brightens up winter meals.

Recipe courtesy Sunkist.

Makes 6 servings

4 cups 1-inch-cubed bread (Italian Style or Rustic French)

1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons fresh garlic, minced

3 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese

1 grapefruit

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion

1 large tomato, diced

1 large fresh mozzarella ball, diced

2 cups greens (arugula, baby spinach, etc.)

1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh basil

Preheat oven to 475 degrees F.

In a large bowl, toss the bread with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, garlic and parmesan cheese. Spread the bread cubes on a baking sheet and place in the oven for about 8 minutes or until lightly crisped and golden. Remove from oven.

While the bread cools, peel the grapefruit and then dice. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together the mustard, vinegar, 1/3 cup of olive oil, salt and pepper. Add grapefruit, onion, tomato, fresh mozzarella, greens, basil and toasted bread. Toss together to coat ingredients and serve.