Sunshine in the dark — Citrus is this month’s highlight for the Harvest of the Month program through Sierra Harvest | TheUnion.com

Sunshine in the dark — Citrus is this month’s highlight for the Harvest of the Month program through Sierra Harvest

Amanda Thibodeau
Special to The Union

In this, the darkest part of the year, we need a little sunshine. Something to brighten and boost us up. As we wait patiently for the days to lengthen, we need all the light we can get. Luckily, we've got tart, sweet, juicy local citrus to help us out when the darkness is just a little too dark.

It may sound hyperbolic, but just stop and think about what a miracle it is that tart, sweet, fragrant citrus even exists. And not only does it exist — but citrus comes into its own in the coldest, dreariest part of the year. We could learn a lot from these little fruits.

Thanks to Sierra Harvest, these little fruits are making the rounds. This month, 13,000 organic mandarins were consumed as part of the Harvest of the Month program. They were part of hundreds of school lunches, served as a side of sunshine at the hospital, as a juicy part of meals on wheels to homebound seniors, and of course in 300 K-8 classrooms all over Nevada County. The joy of citrus is spreading.

Easy to peel and even easier to eat, mandarins are an extra special citrus treat.

So what makes mandarins so extra special? The mandarins that were sampled through the Harvest of the Month program came from Sunset Ridge Fine Fruits out of Newcastle, Calif.

Sunset Ridge is a certified organic farm that is family owned and operated. The 20-acre ranch is located 30 miles east of Sacramento atop the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Their primary crop is the Owari Mandarin, but they also grow a variety of other types of citrus, and many other types of fruit. Their location boasts a perfect combination of warm days, cool nights and fertile soil, providing an ideal climate to grow the highest quality fruit.

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Oranges, lemons, tangerines, grapefruits … there are so many varieties of citrus available at this time of year. It can feel daunting to figure out what's what (although wouldn't it be fun to do a taste test of all of them?).

For your pleasure, our friends at Food Republic have compiled this list of seasonal citrus — which is by no means comprehensive.

Citrus in season

Blood orange: Crimson flesh bursting with staining juice is the trademark of this popular citrus. There are three types — Moro, Tarocco and Sanguinello — with a flavor that ranges from tart to semi-sweet depending on the type and season. Because of its unique color, the blood orange is often incorporated into recipes, from cocktails to preserves.

In season: December-April

Cara Cara: How many menus have we seen as of late featuring the cara cara? Many. Chefs love this pink-fleshed navel orange for its sweet juice accented with an underlying zip (though with lower acidity than other navel oranges).

In season: December-April

Clementine: The clementine is a cross between a mandarin and sweet orange, simple to peel and almost always seedless (as opposed to the seedy tangerine). The juice is sweeter than many oranges and there is far less acid, making it one of the most popular snacking citrus fruits available. Unlike much of the citrus listed here, clementine season is very short and typically peaks around the holidays, imparting the nickname "Christmas orange."

In season: November-January

Golden Nugget Mandarin: Smaller than the Murcott and classic Mandarin, but bursting with juice and sweetness. There are no seeds.

In season: March-June

Juice/Sweet orange: This is the real workhorse citrus. The Valencia or Hamlin is not always pretty (battered, faded by the sun, scuffed by poor handling), but the flesh is what's important. When squeezed and pressed, out flows the breakfast staple.

In season: January-November

Heirloom navel: Like the name suggests, this is the navel that made the citrus industry an industry in California. And unlike the standard navel orange, which you will find in grocery stores year round, the heirloom is available only in the winter and early spring months.

In season: December-March

Murcott Mandarin: A cross between a tangerine and a sweet orange. The rind is thin and peels easily. "The flavor is very rich and sprightly," notes the UC-Riverside Citrus Variety collection. It is sometimes called the honey tangerine.

In season: January-April

Ruby Red grapefruit: This grapefruit — closely associated with the Star Ruby and Rio Red — is mostly grown in Texas and is sweeter and juicer than other types.

In season: October-April

Seville sour orange: This variety is sometimes called the bitter orange and commonly used in the production of marmalade. The Seville is tart and grown throughout the Mediterranean. It's also the a key ingredient in the orange-flavored liqueur Triple Sec.

In season: December-April

Tangerine: As mentioned, the tangerine is a close cousin to the clementine. They're small, sweet and very snackable (which is why you likely found these packed in your lunch as a child). The big difference is sweetness — the tangerine has less — and seeds. The tangerine has more seeds. Many more.

In season: October-January

White grapefruit: It wasn't until 1948 when scientists classified the grapefruit as a cross between the pomelo (long native of Southeast Asia) and the orange — though the first groves were planted near Tampa in 1823. This is the most common grapefruit found in grocery stores and good for juicing or eating with a super cool spiky spoon.

In season: April-June

Satsuma Mandarin: Originating in Japan more than 700 years ago, they are a lighter orange, sweet, juicy, and seedless. They are also the easiest variety to peel. The most tender, easily damaged type of mandarin, Satsuma mandarin oranges are harder to find fresh in stores. These are the type that were featured in the Harvest of the Month tastings.

In Season: November-February

Amanda Thibodeau was the Director of the Farm to School program for six years and now writes the Harvest of the Month article each month for Sierra Harvest.