Kids today aren't likely to be quite as excited by holiday fruit as Pete Napolitano was as a child.
Fifty years ago, it was a Napolitano family tradition to stuff Christmas stockings with citrus wrapped in brightly colored foil.
"It was Italian tradition," says Napolitano, also known as Produce Pete on his weekly New York area television segment about what to buy at the market. "If I did that to my grandkids, they'd look at me and say 'Poppy, we want a Game Boy.' It would be like putting coal in their stocking."
Fruit may not cut it any more as an acceptable stocking stuffer, but the tiny, vibrant globes called clementines are a growing part of the winter food season.
Sometimes called "Christmas oranges" because they peak in supermarkets between Thanksgiving and early January, these small, slightly flat mandarins generally are sold in 5-pound boxes.
Thin-skinned, easy to peel and (most pleasantly) seedless, intensely sweet clementines stand out as snacking fruit, especially for children.
Americans are expected to eat more than 180,000 tons of clementines this year, according to U.S. government and industry figures, most of them from Spain and California.
Domestic growers have only recently plunged into the more than $69 million industry. Clementines first came to the United States in 1909 from Algeria and were grown sporadically in Florida and California, says Tracy Kahn, curator of the Citrus Variety Collection at the University of California, Riverside.
But Americans first developed a real taste for them in 1997, industry executives said, when a crop-crushing freeze in Florida forced buyers to import tons of citrus, including clementines.
"This has been an explosion within the last five to seven years out of California," says Scott Owens, vice president of sales and marketing for Paramount Citrus, based in Delano, Calif., which, along with partner Sun Pacific, grows 74 percent of all U.S. clementines.
Paramount harvested its first trees in 2004, and this season Owens says the American industry is expected to produce 135,000 tons of clementines. Their popularity has grown so fast and so suddenly that 2007 marks the first year the government has tracked them separately from other citrus.
"There are a lot of people out there planting them," he says. "It's a segment of the citrus industry that's really growing now. And the industry overall is flat. So it's nice to have something new and fresh."
Sometimes said to have been an accidental hybrid discovered by French missionary Father Clement Rodier in the garden of his orphanage in Algeria, clementines are generally considered by scientists to be a type of Chinese mandarin, says Khan. There are dozens of varieties, she says, all very similar.
The one grown most often in the United States is the clemnule. Clementines also are naturally seedless as long as they remain isolated from other types of trees and are not cross pollinated.
Clementine season runs from late October through April. But Napolitano says stick to the window between Thanksgiving and early January for the best quality. Select fruit that is shiny and free of spots, smells fragrant and feels heavy in the hand.
"If it feels like a feather, it's going to taste like a feather," he says. "You're looking for the juice in there." Store them in a cool place for up to two weeks.Organic clementines are sometimes available. Even though the skin isn't consumed, conventional clementines will be sprayed from blossom to harvest, Napolitano says, something for organics devotees to consider.
PEARS STUDDED WITH CLEMENTINES AND DATES
Start to finish: 1 hour 15 minutes (15 minutes active)
3 tablespoons butter
6 ripe pears, preferably Anjou or Bosc, peeled, halved and cored
1 cup mascarpone cheese
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup pitted dates, chopped
3 clementines, separated into sections
2 tablespoons honey
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
Put the butter in a 9-by-13-inch cake pan and place it into the oven to melt.
Once the butter has melted, place the pear halves core-side down in the pan and spoon some of the melted butter over them. Roast for about 1 hour, basting with butter from the pan every 15 minutes, or until the pears are caramelized on the bottom. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl mix the mascarpone and cinnamon. Let it come to room temperature.When the pears are still warm but not hot, place two halves each in serving bowl, core-side up. Stuff the center with the mascarpone mixture. Scatter dates and clementine sections on top, then drizzle with honey and sprinkle with almonds.
CARROT CLEMENTINE SOUP
Start to finish: 8 hours (20 minutes active)
1 pound carrots, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/4 cup chopped red onion
1 quart low-sodium chicken broth
2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
2 cinnamon sticks
1 cup milk or cream
Salt, to taste
4 tablespoons butter (optional)
1/4 cup pine nuts (optional)
Using a vegetable peeler, remove the zest from 1 clementine in 1-inch wide strips and set aside.
Use a zester to remove the zest from the remaining 4 clementines. Juice all 5 clementines to produce about 3/4 cup of juice. Refrigerate the juice and fine zest for use later.
Place the carrots and onion in a slow cooker or heavy bottomed pot and add the broth.
In the center of a 10-by-10-inch square of cheesecloth, place the ginger, cinnamon sticks and inch-wide strips of zest. Tie it tightly and add to the pot.
Set the slow cooker to low and cook for 8 to 10 hours. If using a pot, cover and simmer very gently for 3 to 4 hours, or until the carrots are soft and the broth has a rich flavor.
Remove the spices. Using a hand blender, puree the soup until very smooth. Stir in the reserved zest and juice. Stir in the milk or cream and bring the mixture slowly back to temperature. Add salt to taste.
When the soup is hot, add 2 tablespoons of the butter, stirring until melted.
In a small skillet, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Add the pine nuts and toast, stirring constantly. Cook until the butter and nuts are browned, about 1 minute.
Serve in soup bowls. Garnish with toasted pine nuts and butter and a pinch of parsley.