After one sample of these tiny, bright orange citrus fruits, you will undoubtedly be singing Percy Montrose’s popular song “Oh My Darling, Clementine.” Though to be fair, he was professing love to a woman, not the fruit. No matter: This bright, easy-to-peel food has our heart. “It is like eating the perfect orange that has the correct balance of sweetness, tart and sour,” says Jaleo’s head chef, Ramón Martínez, who is 100 percent correct. Whether you like them as a quick snack, thrown into a salad or as garnish for a meat dish, there is more than meets the eye when it comes to this little fruit.
Where it’s from: Despite the purity of this happy citrus’s flavor, it’s actually a hybrid of a mandarin and a sweet orange that was largly cultivated in California in 1914. But although the Golden State helped the fruit gain popularity, it has two origin stories. According to the most accepted tale, a French monk named Father Clement Rodier stumbled on the fruit at a mandarin orchard in Misserghin, a village near Orà in Algeria around 1902. He named the sweet orb after himself, naturally — ironic given that the tree is a sterile hybrid and produces no pips, just as the good priest produced no children. The other narrative holds that the clementine came from China and is a variation of the mandarin orange, a claim that’s easy to believe when you compare the two citrus. Either way, it’s a fruit steeped in exotic lore that’s sweet enough that most people eat it with gusto. Today, most clementines are grown in California (where Cuties are from), Morocco and Spain.
When it’s in season: Known as the Christmas fruit, clementines get harvested toward the end of November. Their season lasts through the cold months; you can still get these tiny, tasty citrus at the end of February.
What to look for: You want bright orange orbs that feel full yet have a little give when you gently squeeze them. “Check the weight and make sure it’s not too light, which means it’s dry inside,” says Martínez. “The heavier the fruit, the more juicy on the inside.” Also, make sure the skin isn’t too loose. If it is, chances are the fruit is old and has lost a lot of its scrumptious succulence. Avoid any clementines with browning or other discoloration.
How to store it: Make sure to keep the fruit out of a bag and either in the classic crates they come in or in the refrigerator. If you choose the former, make sure they are in a cool, dry and sunlight-free space. And when faced with a whole box of the fruit, eat the softest ones first.
How to prepare it: The best thing about clementines is that they are so easy to eat. You just peel and pop in your mouth; none of that hard-to-get-off pulp that regular oranges have or pesky seeds to avoid. However, if you want to get creative with the fruit, take a page from chef Martínez. “There are so many ways to use clementines: You can make juice, granita, ice cream, drinks, savory sauces and more,” says the chef, who personally likes to serve them seared at the restaurant. “During their peak season, we celebrate the clementine at Jaleo with our Clementina Festival in December, but luckily these are in season all winter long.”
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