by Maria Reidelbach
It’s the depths of winter! I’ll bet you didn’t need me to tell you that. One of the juiciest antidotes to the
dark and frigid days are oranges, lemons, grapefruit, tangerines, even kumquats and all the other variations on citrus that are shipped to us from sunnier climes. I even got a type of citron shaped like a grotesque octopus—it’s called Buddha’s hand. It’s now infusing in a jar of vodka on my windowsill where it looks like a scientific specimen, though the vodka tastes wonderful. Compared to that weird red and green citron found in fruitcake it’s a fantastic surprise.
Well, it’s too damn cold here to grow citrus trees outdoors, but we absolutely can enjoy locally grown citrus-flavored plants, at least during the warmer months. In fact, there are a bunch of herbs that mimic the scents of citrus. How is this possible? And, supernerd bonus question: are smells made of particles or waves?
It all starts on a chemical level. The lovely aromas—and the nasty ones—emanating from plants and fungus are mostly generated by their volatile oils, oils that are so light that the molecules easily break free by evaporation and ride the air currents right up into our noses. Citrus fruit contains a wide variety of volatile oils—ten major and countless minor types. Unique combinations of these oils form the complex and distinct aromas of each citrus fruit.
The aptly named limonene contributes the classic citrus base scent; it’s found in virtually all citrus fruit. Second most popular is pinene, surprisingly, a piny scent, found in oranges, tangerines, lemons and limes—but not grapefruit. There’s terpinene, contributing an herbacious, green quality in tangerines and lemons; flowery linaloolin oranges, tangerines and grapefruit; and lemony citral in lemons, naturally, also grapefruit, tangerines and oranges. Other oils in lesser quantities add musky, thyme-like and spicy aromas. It’s fun to do a tasting and try to discern each one.
Robust amounts of the very same volatile oils in citrus are also found in locally happy plants. It’s fun and yummy to use these in cooking, and just a dozen leaves contain major amounts of the phytonutrients and antioxidants that we are finding out are essential for good health. Edible herbs are nature’s tonic! Some of these flavorful greens even have medicinal properties.
Lemon is the scent found most. Lemon balm, from the mint family, is a garden escapee gone wild (it happens in the best families). Lemon basil and lemon thyme provide nice alternatives to the common varieties. Furry-leafed lemon geranium grows beautifully in pots and is a great houseplant, too. Lemongrass is one of very few herbal grasses. It grows into a big poof; both the leaves and the pulpy base can be used. My favorite is lemon verbena—to me it smells like lemon custard. And lemon catnip is a delicious treat you can share with your favorite kitty.
Other citrus flavors are rarer. An incredibly heady floral-limey scent can be found in the blossoms of the linden tree (aka lime tree or tilia)—I am crazy about this smell; you just want to dive into it. And honeybees love lindens, too.
If you love orange, check out bergamot, a mint family herb with a beautiful red flower. The name bergamot comes from the type of orange used to flavor Earl Grey tea. During the American Revolution it was called Oswego tea and used as a replacement after English tea got dumped in Boston Harbor. This fragrant beauty is also called scarlet bee balm, and there are wild and cultivated varieties.
These herbs are so much fun to cook with! You can make hot or iced tea simply by soaking some leaves in water, a few minutes for hot, several hours for cold. Soak bruised leaves in sugar syrup or neutral spirits like vodka and you’ve got an exotic cocktail ingredient. You can create a delicious pesto with the tender herbs, either mixed with others or solo. Just whirr the leaves in your blender with some olive oil, garlic, and maybe a little water if it’s too thick. Add toasted nuts if you like, and salt and pepper. Keep tasting! You can serve the pesto on pasta, but also swirl it into soup, mix with rice, or use as a sauce with vegetables and meat. The lemony pestos are great with fish, especially lemon catnip. Sub any of them for other herbs in recipes (perhaps with the exception of lemon geranium—the leaves are a bit strong). Plus, use the pretty flowers that some of these plants sport as an on-theme garnish.
How many more days ’til spring?
Hudson Valley Seed Library (SeedLibrary.org): our own local seed company—all their seeds thrive in our area.
Richters Herbs (Richters.com): large selection of lemon, orange and lime herbs, plus books and materials in this Canadian company’s catalog.
Maria Reidelbach is an author and applied artist who lives, works and eats in Accord, NY.
Photo caption: A grotesque Buddha’s hand citron infusing in vodka.