The cook's year can be divided in two: tomato and not-tomato. But sometimes, even the best-intentioned, most locavore-crazy among us so crave a sweet, tart bite in our salads that we break down and grab one of those cottony out-of-season tennis balls. You've done it too. Don't try to deny it.
In some cases, though, there's an easy alternative. Because happily for us, beneficent nature has ensured that the not-tomato months pair up perfectly with the drowning-in-citrus ones. And in a lot of dishes, a little bit of citrus will give you just what you were hankering for — certainly a lot better than an out-of-season tomato.
This is not a universal solution by any means. I'm trying to picture laying a slice of grapefruit on top of my hamburger. But it does work out often enough that it's worth exploring.
The first time I tried it was more or less by accident. It was dinner time, and I had some lettuce and some cheese. And not much else. But wait, my neighbors Don and Carol had dropped off a sack of tangerines from their tree — perfectly balanced between tart and sweet. What if I put some of those in the salad along with some hazelnuts?
I tried it first with crumbled blue cheese, which seemed kind of a natural because they are so often served together. Wrong. The citrus seemed to bring out every bit of bitterness in the Gorgonzola. And when you taste the cheese that way, there is actually quite a lot.
Then my wife suggested trying the same salad with some fresh goat cheese. Amazing. The combination, dressed with a vinaigrette made with hazelnut oil and Champagne vinegar, harmonized perfectly. (Hint: When making a vinaigrette with hazelnut oil, cut it with an equal amount of canola or another neutral oil — it's just too rich on its own.)
And then my little cook's mind started racing. What other combinations might work? There's the now-classic combination of beets and blood oranges, of course. Though you're just as likely to see navels, Cara Caras or even grapefruit, all used to great effect and demonstrating that, though all citrus are different from each other, they're not that different. For recipe purposes, use what you have, they're fairly interchangeable.
A couple of nights later, faced with the happy dilemma of having some leftover Dungeness crab (I have no idea how that happened), I shaved some fennel very thin and made another salad with wedges of pink grapefruit and some torn-up arugula from my garden.
The only trick to this salad is cutting the grapefruit — it's called "supremeing" in kitchen parlance (you have to say it like a Frenchman or it sounds like you're doing a Diana Ross imitation). You slice off the top and bottom of the whole fruit, then cut off the rest of the peel, carefully following the line of the flesh. Then you slice free each grapefruit segment, separating it from the tougher membrane. This isn't necessary with more tender citrus, such as tangerines, but with grapefruit and oranges, it's a good idea. And once you get the hang of it, it's a nice little Zen exercise.
Those are just a couple of examples. I have to admit that at this point I have the feeling I've just scratched the surface. I'm sure I'll find some more. We've still got a couple of not-tomato — er, citrus — months left.