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Bite into spring with fresh citrus
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Fresh Tangerine Cake features tangerine juice in the cake batter and icing. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

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Rebecca Touliatos, executive chef for the test kitchen at the magazine Cooking with Paula Deen, talks about how to make candied tangerine pieces for garnish.

Adding tangy oranges, sweet tangerines or a tart grapefruit to a recipe adds a boost of flavor and vital nutrients to your diet.

Plus, right now is the height of citrus season.

"Temples are available through March, Valencias are available until June, honey tangerines are available," said Karen Mathis, director of public relations for the Florida Department of Citrus. "Those would be the primary ... of course grapefruit is still available right now."

The Temple variety is one of Florida's finest oranges, according to www.floridajuice.com. It has a rich, juicy flavor with few seeds. The fruit is easy to peel and section and it's in season during March. The Valencia also is available through June and has a smooth texture with a thin peel.

The honey tangerine is available through April and has a sweet, honey flavor.

Mathis said adding citrus to your home cooking gives it more depth of flavor.

"First and foremost it really adds a great flavor," she said. "Whether you are using orange or tangerine, where you are getting extra sweetness or if you are looking for more of a zesty flavor; grapefruit is wonderful to add to recipes."

Because we know everyone has a bit of a sweet tooth, we thought we would find a dessert that featured citrus flavors.

One example is the Fresh Tangerine Cake that has been featured in Southern cooking goddess Paula Deen's magazine, Cooking with Paula Deen.

"I think it's very unusual. I have not seen many tangerine cakes out there and it was delicious. It was very moist and full of spring," said Rebecca Touliatos, executive chef for Cooking with Paula Deen's test kitchen.

The Fresh Tangerine Cake is moist, using a cup of tangerine juice mixed with sour cream in the batter. Tangerine zest is added for extra flavor, and the cream cheese icing also incorporates tangerine juice and zest.

Touliatos said the tangerine flavor in the cake also could be interchanged with other citrus fruits.

"You could use orange juice, orange zest," she said. "I don't think I would use that much lemon; I think that would be overpowering. But grapefruit might be good, too."

But bringing cakes and other confections to life is only one way to use the fruit. Touliatos said citrus works well in savory dishes, too.

"Citrus really brightens up recipes, especially savory dishes," said Touliatos, who said she uses a lot of citrus as home. "You could add a teaspoon of lemon juice or lime juice and it really brightens up the flavor with the sauce or with chicken. I do a lot of chicken or fish with lemon juice or lemon zest. I love Mexican food, so there is lime in everything."

Don't forget the marinade, too.

"When I marinate things like flank steak I use lime or lemon juice," she said. "But when you use something very acidic with meat you can only marinate it for about 30 minutes or an hour because it will start cooking the meat. You'll get that gummy taste."

William Hurst, a professor and extension specialist with the Department of Food Science & Technology at the University of Georgia, said to make sure you have an extra "kill step" while cooking with citrus juice just to make sure any bacteria is gone. But, "if you squeeze it directly from an intact tangerine, then there should be no problem," he said.

But along with the flavor, there are many health and nutrition benefits, Mathis said.

"So by adding citrus to a dish, you're actually then boosting the vitamin and the nutrient content of that particular recipe."

That includes vitamins A, C and B6, along with magnesium, thiamin and potassium.

"If it's an orange, you are going to have extra folate being added. Grapefruit, especially pink grapefruit, you're going to get a vitamin A added," Mathis said. "Because you are adding the flavor, many times you can also reduce fat in your recipes. So if you are using citrus for example in a salad or a salad dressing you can eliminate some of the oil ... You can actually use it as a replacement."

There are a few things to be aware of in order to choose the perfect citrus fruit.

First, remember that looks aren't everything.

"It's actually what's on the inside that counts because they may not be picture perfect," Mathis said. "You may see what's called wind scarring on the outside, the little brown spots, and that is where the leaf had been blowing against the piece of fruit, so it doesn't look quite so perfect.

"There may be a little wind scarring or a greenish tinge, but that orange is completely ripe and ready to eat to use in a recipe."

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