January feels like the longest month. Until a few years ago, it was dreadful. Those cold days would not pass, a sequence of frozen mornings and dark nights without the Christmas sparkle. It was like a tiring watch, waiting for Spring to bloom.
Usually, around mid-February, at the first timid sun, I would declare winter was officially over. It didn’t matter if snow, rain, heavy coats, a red runny nose and shivers of cold down my spine were clearly stating a different season: Spring was there, at least for me.
Now things are different.
I appreciate winter days, I long for this apparently everlasting January, as this is when I slow down and tackle my long list of to-dos, a list I’ve been hoarding for almost a year. Actually, now January feels always too swift.
I work on my pantry in this buffer period of time in between the Christmas feasts and the beginning of the new season of cooking classes, which will start again at the appearance of swallows in the sky and wild fennel in the fields.
I try to limit my purchases to fresh ingredients.
A weekly pilgrimage to the butcher to buy good local meat, like organic beef cheek to make spezzatino alla fiorentina, chicken breast to cook with capers, olives and lemon juice, or free-range pork loin, to quickly pan fry with an orange and fennel dressing.
During market days, I buy fresh fish at the little stall that brings the daily catch from the Tuscan coast, mainly sardines, squids and mackerels. Then, I stop at my friends and buy basketfuls of fresh fruit and vegetables. Cauliflower, broccoli, all shades of bitter winter greens and radicchio, butternut squash and fennels are still welcome in my kitchen.
I pile up all the seasonal citrus fruits in my fruit bowl at home, rejoicing in their bright colours and their clean smell that pervades the house, but mainly in the zing they add to almost every dish I cook during these cold months.
My diet is now based on all those ingredients that make me feel satisfied, well-fed and bursting with energy.
Whole carbs are the pillars of every meal: whole wheat pasta, brown rice, spelt and barley for soups and salads, whole sourdough bread, oat porridge for breakfast.
Pulses are a pantry staple that suits my winter cravings. I’m going through all the odd bags at the back of my pantry before buying new ones. Apparently, through the year, I hoard lentils, so now they become soups with butternut squash, side dishes with brown rice, a stew with garlic and bay leaves, or the backbone for a minestrone.
Seasonal vegetables shine through at every meal.
I cook filling soups to warm me from the inside out, bowls of minestrone with cereals and pulses, rich dressings for pasta, trays of oven roasted vegetables as side dishes, like my lemony fennel wedges or heads of radicchio dressed with orange juice. I toss bright crunchy salads with extra virgin olive oil and some citrus juice, to add a kick of acid freshness.
As I’m omnivore, I include in my diet also organic meat, oily fish like our pesce azzurro (think about sardines, anchovies, mackerels…), many eggs laid by our chickens, and sometimes cheese.
Then, there are all the seasonal citrus fruits: clementines and mandarins, oranges – the sweet, the bitter and the blood ones –, the lemons from the Costiera, the elegant bergamots from Calabria, with their intoxicating aroma, the huge citrons I use to make my home made candied peels.
I cannot imagine winter without the freshness of citrus fruit. I love them fiercely, just like I adore fresh herbs in the other seasons. Citrus zest and juice are my basil and my thyme when the herb pots outside are already dead.
Let’s celebrate the citrus season
Today I am here to celebrate the citrus season, with its brightness, the joy they add to cold winter days, the liveliness they lend to rich dishes, or the depth of flavour they give to the simplest salads. This is how I use them, when I’m not munching on clementines directly from a paper bag coming home from the market, juicing oranges and bergamots in the morning, or zesting a lemon in a cake batter.
I would grate lemon zest almost on everything. I crave its zing, that cuts through the richness of many winter comfort foods. Think about lemon tagliolini, where the acidity of lemon perfectly balances the richness of butter, the fresh egg noodles and the cheese. We just filmed a new video recipe, if you want to add fresh lemon tagliolini to your cooking repertoire.
Lemon zest adds a fresh citrusy note to my favourite rabbit ragù. I’m sharing the new recipe at the bottom of this post.
Often risotto, another first course rich in butter or cheese, benefits from the tangy note of citrus fruits. In this spring barley risotto lemon complements fava beans and pecorino cheese, while I often appreciate orange when fish is involved.
If there’s one meat recipe that comes to my mind when I think about citrus fruit, that is faraona all’arancia, my mum’s guinea fowl cooked with orange juice and orange slices, and pancetta for good measure. It is her humble and practical version of the most famous duck à l’orange. It is said that the duck à l’orange, usually considered French, was actually created in Florence and brought to the court of Francis I by Caterina de’ Medici, who married his son Henry II. This is a legend, though, and probably both the French people and the Italians had already realised how the orange perfectly suits the fat duck meat.
Orange and lemon juices are often used to marinate meat, to soften it and give flavour, such in these beef skewers. Use their lemon, orange and mustard marinade to baste the meat during the cooking. You’ll have flavourful skewers with a hint of citrus, perfectly suited to these cold winter days.
I often pair lemon and clementines to chicken when I roast it, either whole or cut into pieces. Sometimes I add fennels, too. For example, in our book From the Markets of Tuscany, there’s a recipe for a roast chicken with lemon and vinsanto. You can read more about our book here.
Lemon is also my favourite choice when it comes to fish, like mackerel, sea bream or sea bass, especially when I roast them whole, either sprinkled with coarse sea salt or wrapped in parchment paper.
Have you ever thought about using seasonal citrus fruits to make a salad? It is a Southern tradition: I remember that my grandfather Biagio used to eat a blood orange salad often. I was mesmerised by the colours, slightly dubious about that drizzle of olive oil and the sprinkling of salt and pepper on the slices of oranges, that for me was just a fruit.
Now I make it quite often, adding some chopped pistachios, choosing different kind of citrus fruits, drizzling my best extra virgin olive oil and serving it as a colourful side dish. It is very common to use citrons, too, to make a salad. In this case, you would not peel the fruit, as you would do with oranges, but you’d use their thick skin, cut into chunks, which would soak up all the dressing.
Another classic from my cooking repertoire is a fennel and orange salad, my go-to side dish, especially when the main course is either grilled fish or pork chops.
When I forget that I have a meal to prepare, though, this salad welcomes other ingredients and becomes a main. My favourite addition is crumbles goat cheese, but I like to add also anchovies or herrings, or a buffalo mozzarella, if you listen to Tommaso. Have ready some crusty bread, and more olive oil.
They way citrus fruits play a role in a side dish is mainly as a dressing, though.
From the simplest salads, dressed with extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice – there was no balsamic vinegar when I was growing up, just olive oil and a reliable wedge of lemon to dress lettuce, or radicchio –, to more complex marinades to drizzle over vegetables, before roasting them. I’ve been eating tons of roasted fennels lately, seasoned with a garlicky lemon and olive oil dressing and baked until caramelized. Same for radicchio, that I usually drizzle with orange juice before roasting.
Until a few years ago, desserts were probably the course where I would use citrus fruits more often, with confidence and boldness. What would be a white chocolate cake without the touch of freshness of lemon zest? Who could resist dark chocolate and orange? My grandma would make thin, crisp candied orange peels and dip them in dark chocolate. She would keep them in a heavy glass jar in her living room, and I could not pass by that corner without stealing one, or more.
I still remember the first time I tried lemon curd, one of the reasons I started loving England and English food with all my heart. How to forget that first spoonful! It was at the same time buttery, rich, sour, refreshing and addictive, it turned my world upside down.
My favourite chocolate cake, though, has clementine juice and zest in it.
It is a chocolate cake made with extra virgin olive oil, a few cubes of dark chocolate, almond flour to give body and flavour and whole meal spelt flour to reduce the use of white flour, a good handful of raw cane sugar and the juice and zest of a couple of clementines to give a fresh citrus hint to each slice. You can find the recipe here.
Another traditional cake where citrus fruit play an important role is schiacciata alla Fiorentina, a Carnival treat from Florence. Orange juice and zest give the cake its traditional aroma, along with vanilla. Often the oranges in the traditional Florentine pastries used to be actually bergamots, very common in the area in the past times: as evidence, those round citrus fruit you can see in Della Robbia’s enamelled majolicas are actually bergamots.
In winter, I begin the new year by making a few batches of mixed citrus marmalade, changing every time the ratio of lemons, oranges, citrons, blood oranges, bergamots, and bitter oranges I use. Each year, my marmalade has a different taste, a distinctive vintage flavour. Slicing the thick, spongy citrus peels is my favourite kitchen meditation.
The days I spend making citrus marmalade are among the happiest of the season: I get slightly tipsy with the essential oils and I am mesmerised watching the jam simmering away. I feel I am something in between a modern alchemist and a witch, among jars, ladles and pots.
The bitter orange marmalade has an undeniable appeal: its bitterness makes it difficult to comprehend its charm, just like Woody Allen’s comic quality. When you get it, you fall in love, and there’s no coming back. The bergamot marmalade pushes the bitterness to an extreme level, balanced by an irresistible fragrance: open the jar and it’s like taking a bath in a cup of Earl Grey.
The mixed citrus marmalade is balanced and cheerful. You taste the sweetness, the bitterness, an incomparable freshness and the lemon acidity. It makes you love it, and for this reason it is perfect as a gift, because you can enjoy it on toast for breakfast, as a filling for a sponge cake or as an ingredient to glaze a piece of pork to caramelize in the oven.
I also collect the peels to candy, taking pride in the shimmering pots aligned in my pantry: crescents of translucent peel suspended in thick, amber-coloured syrup, ready for my Christmas cake production.
Then, I also make my precious orange powder.
Every year I fill a jar with this fine powder with an intensely orange scent and use it sparingly since the end of the orange season in biscotti, cakes, but also in risotti and with fish to substitute the freshly grated orange zest, one of the most celestial smells in the world.
Paccheri with rabbit ragù
Ten years ago, when this blog was barely one year old, I made a rabbit ragù where lemon zest had apparently just a marginal role: a final zesting before serving the pasta. Yet, it was so refreshing and unexpected that, after so many years, I still recall the joy that pasta gave me. As the recipe was practically lost among the pages of this blog, I made it again, perfecting the method and tweaking the ingredients. It was as satisfying as I remembered.
I call it a ragù, a meat sauce, even though it is made without tomato sauce and with a meat which is typically eaten pot roasted, fried or even alla cacciatora, with meaty black olives. Rabbit is a common courtyard animal for families in Tuscany, a meat which we usually cook almost on a weekly base, and even for children, for their first attempts at eating solid food. It makes a tasty, white meat sauce for a Sunday meal, an alternative ragù with the zing of lemon zest and the richness of lardo.
Read more about lardo, the fat from the back of the pig which is traditionally cured for months in marble basins with salt, pepper and a mixture of herbs and aromatics, here.
Paccheri with rabbit ragù
- 1 rabbit, about 1,3 lb of meat, once deboned
- 100 g (3.53 oz) rabbit liver
- 1 carrot
- 1 stalk celery
- 1 white onion
- 1 clove garlic
- 10 sage leaves
- 1 sprig rosemary
- 2 bay leaves
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 200 ml (1 cup) dry white wine
- 200 ml (1 cup) hot water, slightly salted
- freshly ground black pepper
- 1 organic lemon
- 8 slices lardo, very thin
- 500 g (1.1 lb) of your favourite short pasta, I used paccheri
- Debone the rabbit with a sharp knife, or ask your butcher to do it for you. Finely chop the rabbit meat, but keep the liver whole. Set it aside.
- Now make a battuto. Finely chop carrot, celery, onion, garlic, sage leaves and rosemary needles. This is the beginning of your rabbit ragù, a mixture of finely chopped vegetables and herbs that will give depth of flavour and body.
- Cover the bottom of a pot with extra virgin olive oil. Add the battuto and the bay leaves, then season with a generous pinch of salt. Sauté the vegetables on low flame for about 10 minutes, until soft.
- Now add the chopped rabbit meat and the whole rabbit liver. Stir thoroughly to mix it into the vegetables. Season with salt and pepper and cook on medium flame for about 25 minutes, stirring often the rabbit to break the liver into small pieces. Cook until golden.
- Now pour in the white wine in three times, reducing it every time before pouring more.
- After the wine, pour in the hot water, move on the lowest flame and simmer for about 30 minutes. Taste to adjust the seasoning.
- When the rabbit ragù is ready, cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water.
- Cook the pasta until al dente, then drain it and toss it into the rabbit ragù.
- Zest an organic lemon directly on top of the pasta, as it was grated cheese, then add the thin slices of lardo torn into pieces. Toss the pasta to evenly distribute the lemon zest and the lardo and serve immediately.
- The Land where lemons grow. It is not just a cookbook, but a charming excursion through history and through Italian citrus groves, from the giardini of the Medici’s villas, to the lemon terrazze in Amalfi or Lake of Garda limonaie up until the Conca d’Oro in Sicily. This book explores the diffusion of lemons, oranges, bitter oranges, blood oranges, citrons and bergamots in the Italian life, culture and culinary heritage.
- Citrus, a cookbook by Catherine Phipps, with the beautiful photos of Mowie Kay, with 150 recipes for all of us citrus lovers. Through fresh salads, soups, seafood, Asian and Mediterranean-influenced meat dishes, preserves and pickles, to the world of sweet pies, cakes, and cocktails, Catherine Phipps explores the myriad uses of oranges and lemons, and all things in between.
- Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is an informative, amusing, illuminating cooking manual. Samin’s idea is that we can cook consistently well if we learn to master these four cornerstones: salt, fat, acid and heat. The acid chapter is extremely interesting when it comes to using the full potential of citrus fruits. Obviously not all of them, but limes, lemons, bitter orange and grapefruit definitely add an interesting acid note to your dishes. Listen to the Cooking with an Italian Accent podcast episode we recently released with a review of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.
- If you are a marmalade lover like me, do not miss this article, it will make you dream (of making even more marmalade this year!): The Secret Society of Marmalade Makers.