Nature has a wonderful habit of delivering to us what we need just when we need it. Take citrus, for example. Just when the doldrums of long, gray days set in and our health is threatened by winter sniffles, she gives us a cure. Tangy, bright, easy to peel mandarin oranges are a delight to have in the kitchen - their vibrant color and sunny fragrance are smile-worthy. They're even better to have in hand where a quick flick of the thumb nail opens a sweet little package of segments to snack on or add to recipes for a punch of flavor and a boost to the immune system and our spirits, both.
Mandarin oranges (Citrus reticulataand also Citrus nobilis) include a large swath of varieties and hybrid fruits that range in size, sweetness and availability. Satsumas, tangerines and clementines are all in the mandarin family; however, "tangerine" usually refers to the varieties bearing a more darkly colored peel. All mandarins are unified by a single, valued characteristic - their loose-fitting skin, which makes them a cinch to peel and enjoy.
A Brief History
Mandarin oranges are native to Asia. Their spread throughout the west is an interesting one, as the fruit was introduced, nearly seed by seed, by individuals dedicated to growing their favored varieties. In the early 1800s, two varieties were introduced in England and were adopted by growers in the Mediterranean region, particularly in Italy. Mandarins were first planted on American soil in the mid 1800s when the then Italian Consul planted two varieties on the Consulate grounds in New Orleans. Interest in the mandarin spread from there to Florida and to neighboring Gulf states, which became the center of commercial production. From there, the mandarin made its way to California which now grows over ninety percent of the nation's crop.
In the US, tangerines are a deeply colored mandarin that were originally imported to Florida from the Moroccan port Tangier, which lent the fruit its name.
The name "mandarin" is taken from the title of counselors in the Chinese imperial courts who wore bright orange robes and headpieces with buttons that resemble the fruit.
Mandarins are one of five original types of citrus from which all other citrus fruits are derived. The other originals include pummelos, citrons, kumquats and papedas (a primitive citrus grown mainly for its fragrant leaves).
Mandarin trees are grown commercially in orchards but do well in greenhouses and even thrive as potted patio plants in mild climates. Mandarin trees are a bit smaller than that of sweet orange trees, growing to a maximum height of up to twenty-five feet. Like many citrus varieties, the trees are thorny, which makes picking them without a citrus basket a bit tricky.
Since the 1970s, mandarins have become increasingly popular. Their easy-to-peel nature makes them a quick grab for a snack or to throw in a lunch box. The proliferation of seedless varieties has met eaters' market-driving preference for no-muss fruits. Branding and marketing of "Halo" and "Cutie" branded boxes of mandarins have furthered the fruit's popularity. Commercial growers focus on just four main varieties to fill those branded boxes. Smaller, independent growers, such as those in Ojai, CA, prefer to grow a more diverse sampling of varieties that highlight the fruit's appealing flavors and aroma.
Mandarin oranges are available in the cooler months. The exact time of fruiting depends on the variety but you can rely on a steady stream of fruit in the market from late fall through early spring.
Some orchards, particularly in California, have come under fire for irrigating their fields with oil field wastewater. While there is no evidence that any toxins in the wastewater make it into the growing fruit or in quantities high enough to impact health, the practice nevertheless raises serious concerns. Organizations such as Food and Water Watch are putting pressure on the industry and government officials to stop this practice.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) lists tangerines at #26 of their 48 most contaminated produce items in the marketplace. Consumer Reports ranks them as a "high risk" for pesticide exposure. Crop rotation, one of the key tools in low-spray growing techniques, is unavailable for mandarin oranges, as it is for all orchard fruit. Often the grower must rely on some sort of topical treatment in whole or in part to abate crop destroying pests and other farming plagues and mandarins are no exception.
Mandarins do not ship or keep very well. To extend their shelf-life, packers often spray the fruit with protective waxes. They also crate the mandarins with fungicide treated wraps or pads to retard spoilage. Over time, the fungicides can leach into the fruit.
To avoid exposure to pesticides, fungicides, and other potential toxic applications, look for fruit that is labeled "certified organic" or buy directly from the grower. Thoroughly washing and peeling the fruit will also limit one's exposure to agricultural chemicals.
Unlike other citrus, mandarins cannot remain on the tree after ripening or they will develop off flavors. Likewise, mandarins left on the counter will not ripen further but will, instead, tend to ferment rather quickly giving the fruit a musty taste.
Color may not always indicate ripeness. The fruit needs a good chill in the orchard to lose any green hue that may be lingering on the skin. If the fruit isn't subjected to a cold snap before harvest, it will still be sweet and juicy, even if the skin hasn't completely converted to a bright orange color. Some producers have been known to dye their oranges to increase their visual appeal in the marketplace. So don't hesitate to grab a heavy, sweet smelling fruit even if it is a little green, it may not be the prettiest mandarin, but it may be the better choice.
Nutrition and Effects on the Body
Mandarins are high in vitamins A and C as well as calcium and potassium.
What to Do with It and Cooking
Mandarins are usually eaten out of hand but can be processed for juice. They make a welcome addition to salads, but their small segment size makes them difficult to supreme away the pith to put into dishes. They are also used in marmalades and their skins are used to flavor liqueurs and confections and as key ingredients in cosmetics and perfumes.
It's best to eat mandarin oranges as soon as you can - no more than a week from bringing them home. Refrigerate the fruit to retard spoilage and preserve flavor.
The juice of mandarins can be frozen for future use. The fruit can also be preserved as jam or marmalade or candied slices. They make a lovely liqueur. The segments are gorgeous canned in sugar syrup, sometimes with a bit of lavender or rose water to flavor them.
Moroccan Mandarin Salad
I love to add fruit to savory salads. The easy prep of mandarins makes them a quick and accessible addition. Their sweet, tangy flavor takes an exotic turn when partnered with salty olives and feta, perhaps with a few pomegranate seeds sprinkled over top for color, texture and sparkle. You can serve this salad as part of a meal or top it with sliced cold chicken or lamb and enjoy it as a lovely lunch.
1 small red onion, sliced
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ cup good quality olives of any variety, pitted and halved
½ cup feta cheese, crumbled
1 tablespoon minced fresh mint leaves
2 mandarin oranges, any variety, peeled and separated into segments
3 cups spinach or Mache lettuce
2 tablespoons pomegranate arils (optional)
2 tablespoons slivered almonds (optional)
2 cups cooked, sliced cold chicken, lamb or eggplant (optional)
Soak onion in a small bowl of cold water while you make the dressing.
In a large bowl, whisk the vinegar, mustard and pinch each of salt and pepper until smooth. Add the oil in a slow, steady stream, whisking all the while, until incorporated. Drain the onions and add them to the dressing, along with the olives, feta and mint. Toss to combine. Set aside for ten to fifteen minutes to allow flavors to blend. Add the mandarin segments and toss to combine then add the spinach or mache and toss again. Divide between four plates and garnish with the arils and almonds, if using. Top with meat or eggplant if desired.