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Homegrown citrus adds zesty taste

The Historic New Orleans Collection recently had a symposium on citrus. How can you have a whole day of discussing citrus? Priscilla Lawrence, president and CEO of the HNOC promised a ‘zesty symposium’ with ‘pithy conversation.’ Well, maybe.

The citrus comes from the southeastern foothills of the Himalayas. They probably traveled along the Silk Road in 2000 B.C. It appears in Greek literature in 30 B.C. Citrus came to the Americas with the first Spanish and French settlers. Today in the US citrus is gown in Florida, Louisiana, Texas, and California. We heard from a local Louisiana citrus grower who produces mostly for the local market but importantly his citrus is organic. They grow satsumas, navel oranges, Meyer lemons, grapefruit, and kumquats.

I have been trying to grow citrus for several years. Mostly I have grown them in pots. They need really a frost free environment but some can tolerate some sub-freezing temperatures for a short while. I have grown satsumas in the ground here in southern Mississippi but the last two years the winter has been too bad. In 2016 the satsuma tree defoliated with 2 days of temperatures in the teens. The tree lived but no fruit that year. Last winter the temperatures stayed low for too long and the tree died. I will try again. The kumquat and the satsuma are the more cold-hardy here. Plant in early spring after frost and let them settle in before the hot summer. Plant on a south facing slope if possible. Growing in pots is the next best thing. Citrus are not house plants. In pots be ready to move them to a frost free area on freezing nights. They tolerate cold but just not prolonged sub-freezing temperatures. A greenhouse would, of course, be ideal.

For me I like to have a kumquat. I like to eat them whole and we have a sweet one. Most are somewhat sour. They are used to make marmalade. We did hear at the symposium about the world’s most famous marmalade—the iconic Scottish marmalade from Dundee. The most famous from James Keiller & Sons. I think one should also have a Meyer lemon. They are sweeter than those in the store and are wonderful in the kitchen. If you don’t have a greenhouse, how much lifting and moving can you tolerate? Surely enough to grow one Meyer lemon.

Citrus came to New Orleans in the beginning. Professor Lake Douglas quoted a description of the garden of Jean Etienne de Boré, the inventor of the method of crystalizing sugar, from the turn of the 19th century—his residence “was quite attractive, surrounded by lovely gardens with magnificent lanes of orange trees loaded with abundant blossoms as well as with fruit…” In the late 19th century the main foodstuffs in the New Orleans port were sugar, coffee, lemons, and bananas. Sicily was the leading producer of lemons from the late 19th century until a tariff in 1921. This trade led to the influx of Sicilian immigrants to New Orleans.

Pierre Lazlo, a professor of chemistry at the Έcole Polytechnique and the University of Liége, and the author of Citrus, A History, came to town to start the symposium. His book also has recipes and he shared a couple with us.

From Pierre Laszlo’s talk:

Thai Stir-Fry Chicken Curry

Ingredients:

4-5 chicken breasts or thighs

2 bell peppers (red and green, or other colors)

1/3 cooking onion

Handful of fresh basil leaves (to serve)

2 tbsp. oil for stir-frying

The paste:

3 spring onions, sliced

1 fresh red chili

6-8 (Thai) lime leaves

4 cloves garlic

1 tbsp. lemon or lime juice

2 tbsp. fish sauce

½ cup loose cup fresh basil leaves

2 tbsp. olive oil

2 tbsp. soy sauce

1 tsp. dark soy sauce

1 tsp. brown sugar

Cut the Thai lime leaf away from the stem, discard the stem. Using a mortar and pestle: Cut the lime leaves into thin strips. Leave out the liquid ingredients. Pound all other ingredients until finely minced and mashed together, then add the liquids and stir to blend.

Place in a large wok or frying pan over medium to high heat. Add 2 tbsp. oil, swirl around, then add the onion. Stir fry for 1 minute, then add the chicken. Continue stir-frying for another 3-5 minutes, or until chicken is well cooked.

Stir-Frying Tip: Whenever your wok/frying pan becomes dry, add a little water (1 Tbsp. at a time) instead of more oil. This will save you unnecessary calories and fat.

Add the chopped bell peppers and continue to stir-frying another minute of two, until the peppers have softened slightly and are bright in color. Turn heat down to medium. Add the paste and stir in well. Taste-test the stir-fry, adding more fish sauce instead of salt, if needed. If too salty for your taste add more lime or lemon juice. If you like it spicier (hotter), add another ½ to 1 fresh-cut chili. If you would like more sauce add a few Tbsp. chicken stock, coconut milk, or cream.

The Crystal Hot Sauce Company sponsored the symposium and at the end of the day Brennan’s restaurant had a cocktail ready for us which was delicious and refreshing on that hot afternoon. It, of course, used Crystal hot sauce.

Crystallized Collins

2 ounces CatHead vodka

3 drops Crystal hot sauce

¾ ounce Combier peach liqueur

¼ ounce fresh lime juice

½ ounce fresh lemon juice

Club soda to top off cocktail

Fruit for garnish

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake well and pour entire contents into a large glass. Top with club soda to fill to top of glass. Garnish with fresh slices of local fruit. You may include strawberries, peaches, lemons, limes, or oranges.