Cooks Look for Answers to Citrus Freeze California is the nation's number-one producer of fresh citrus, and this winter it has taken a frosty beating! The freeze is having an effect on the lives of cooks everywhere.
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Cooks Look for Answers to Citrus Freeze

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Cooks Look for Answers to Citrus Freeze

Cooks Look for Answers to Citrus Freeze

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

You have probably seen the unlikely photos by now - citrus fruits, those symbols of sun and warmth, dripping with fearsome icicles. The big California freeze has been so destructive - losses total nearly a billion dollars - that big price hikes are expected in avocadoes, oranges and especially lemons. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has asked the federal government for help, but you may start finding some empty bins in your grocery store's produce section. To get some ideas on how to cope, we visited Cathal Armstrong. He's the owner and chef of Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Virginia.

Mr. CATHAL ARMSTRONG (Owner, Restaurant Eve): We haven't seen the shortage yet, but it's definitely going to come. About 85 percent of the lemons in the United States are grown in California. And that'll be a massive one. That'll be more significant for us probably than oranges. You know, because there are other sources for orange fruits. But lemons are going to be - is going to be a big issue. You may be having a cocktail with something else this year.

ROBERTS: Like what? What do you think?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: You know, we'll have to look towards Spain for clementines, and you know, there's a big orange crop in Israel. You may see some of that. And probably from South America you're going to see more citrus fruit come from there. But there's a lot of other things that are going to be drastically affected. Strawberries are going to a big issue for Valentine's Day, of course, and there's going to be a big shortage on that crop. And lettuce - the lettuce crop was drastically affected by the freeze, so you know, we're going to have to look for different salad options this year, too.

ROBERTS: So you're going to start garnishing cocktails with bananas or something?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Anything. And when I say anything, anything is possible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARMSTRONG: It could be anchovies.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Yuck. How much citrus do you use on your menu? Are there certain dishes that are really going to be hit?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah. You know, this time of year, it's the citrus season, and we'll just use something else, you know? And the big effect that we're going to see really is a price hike. Everything is going to become much more expensive. Already, oranges have doubled in price, to about $25 a carton, you know. So, and it's only going to get worse. I think the damage is really not completely understood yet, and it will probably be another week or so before we really know the effect that this storm has had. But you know, there's a billion dollars in losses to farmers and that's really going to hurt the consumer in the end, at the end of the day.

ROBERTS: So take me through a dish that might use a citrus right now, and what sort of things are you looking for as a substitute? Is it another acid? Is it something else sweet? How do you substitute for something you can't get?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Well, you know, there are wide varieties of citrus fruits across the world, and we often look for different, more interesting things outside of the lemon and the lime. You know, you have the lemon meringue pie and, you know, the lemon curd tart, and, you know, all those classic desserts. And you know, we just start substituting things like the kalamanzi, which is a citrus fruit indigenous to the Philippines, or yuzu, which is an Asian citrus fruit. And the juices of those are more readily available that the whole fruits themselves. We look for that acid balance in food that we're going to replace, and much more so in dessert. It isn't as much an issue with savory food because we can always substitute vinegars in savory food. But vinegars don't have that same sweet tart effect that you get with citrus fruit for desserts.

ROBERTS: And what about for a home cook? Do you recommend using bottled citrus juices as a substitute?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: No. I mean, I really can't recommend those, because although they're okay, when you taste the difference between fresh lemon juice and any bottled lemon juice - although there are some quality ones on the market - they just have a dull, stored, lackluster flavor. It's just not the same thing.

The best quality products that we have found are, you know, imported frozen juices, like the kalamanzi and, you know, they are readily available. And you know, kalamanzi is a really exciting fruit. It has a sharp, acidic, more lime-like quality, but you know, really fun to work with.

ROBERTS: What does it look like?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: It's a small, round, green - green-yellow fruit.

ROBERTS: Huh. And I know that you have always promoted using seasonal ingredients, trying to use local producers. So your diners are probably used to you messing around with the menu pretty regularly, depending on what's in season.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah, very much so. You know, like, you know, if there aren't strawberries available locally, we're just not going to use them. We'll use something else. And you know, that'll be a fun challenge for us. If there aren't strawberries for Valentine's Day, we'll just have to figure out something that's red that's different and we'll find it and we'll find it locally, and you know, we'll be inventive and creative.

ROBERTS: I think Valentine's diners are probably pretty forgiving of almost anything dipped in chocolate.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Absolutely. Absolutely. When you do the chocolate, they're happy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Cathal Armstrong, thank you so much.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Thank you. Pleasure talking to you.

ROBERTS, host: To try a couple of Chef Armstrong's citrus alternatives, go to our Web site, npr.org.

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