Yes, we know we need El Niño, and the deluge is good. But in the midst of winter's misty, gusty bluster, we could use a little sunshine.
While peaches evoke languid summer afternoons and English peas carry a certain springlike panache, citrus is California's produce-aisle sunshine. And there's nothing like a blood orange margarita, citrus-drenched roasted beet salad or orange-rosemary cake to banish the blues.
Los Angeles food stylist and cookbook author Valerie Aikman-Smith knows all about both the citrus and the fog. She worked at San Francisco's Greens and Berkeley's Chez Panisse before relocating to Southern California. And her new cookbook, "Citrus: Sweet and Savory Sun-Kissed Recipes" (Ten Speed Press, $20), is a collaboration with a friend, photographer Victoria Pearson, who lives in Ojai, surrounded by citrus groves.
"We cook with citrus all the time," Aikman-Smith says. "We squeeze it and zest it. It's part of our daily (routine), like salt and pepper. It's what's particular to Californians. You walk out your door and you can get anything -- yuzu juice, blood oranges, Meyer lemons."
The book is drizzled with citrusy splendors, from the orange wine Pearson made for her wedding to Aikman-Smith's favorite Meyer lemon hearth bread, jewel-toned orange-rosemary polenta cake and an icy blood orange margarita served in glasses rimmed with a citrus-pink salt blend.
"I love blood oranges," Aikman-Smith says. "I get very excited when it comes to blood orange season. They have that wonderful earthy taste -- and they're so glamorous. As soon as you cut one open, you have this aah factor. I use them in vinaigrettes, salads, squeeze them into mimosas."
Citrus is a natural in baked sweets, but it works beautifully in savory applications as well. At Gjelina, Travis Lett's critically acclaimed Cali-Mediterranean bistro in Venice, fresh lime juice adds a fresh brightness to yams, tossed with honey, then roasted to a crispy-edged state of caramelization. The recipe, he says in his new cookbook, "Gjelina: Cooking from Venice, California" (Chronicle Books, $35), "plays salty against sweet, and spicy against creamy. The lime and green onions provide the high notes."
Lett adds oranges and avocados to a roasted baby beet salad with a sherry vinaigrette. The beets soak in the vinaigrette just long enough to slightly pickle them, which adds palate interest and gives the vinaigrette itself a jolt of color.
Consider these dishes a citrusy, colorful wake-up call in the midst of dreary winter.