Tired of throwing out citrus peels, our columnist figured out an ingenious process to use them to flavor sugar and make beverages.
Winter citrus is a small, affordable luxury. Citrus brings a burst of sun-filled energy and a taste of warmer climates to the dreariest of winter days.
It only seems right that the coldest months are the best ones for buying citrus fruits. Every batch of groceries I now purchase usually includes a bag or a box of clementines. In the bleakest months, my family seems to live off of those small, sweet yet tart, thin-skinned mandarins, as well as the occasional blood orange, kumquat and grapefruit.
I took note, however, of the peels being swept off the counter day in and day out. There must be something to do with them besides throwing them away. (Theyre no good in compost, where the acidity is bad for worms and they take too long to break down.) With the weak winter afternoon sunshine trickling through my kitchen windows it seemed criminal to throw away these flavorful fruit skins.
The problem is that I never have many peels at one time, which rules out many of the traditional uses for them, including candying or dipping them in chocolate.
One day, as I was munching a clementine, I started thinking about making oleo- saccharum to put all of these good citrus peels to use. Its an age-old idea in which you extract the essential oils from the citrus into sugar. (Usually, you just mix a couple cups of sugar with the peel of a lemon, let it all sit overnight and let nature do the work.) The resulting flavored sugar is a key ingredient in traditional punch, maker of excellent lemonade and bedrock of a mind-blowing Old-Fashioned. But my daily little piles of peels never seemed like enough to make a substantial batch.
There are certainly no cocktail parties in the time of corona and without cocktail parties its really difficult to justify the peeling and zesting and squeezing of piles of fruit. I like to imagine myself with a bottle of brandy and a bottle of rum tipped up and glugging into a punch bowl, but like cooking for a group of eight, its going to stay a figment of my imagination for the foreseeable future.
Fortunately, he didnt think it was a crazy idea and just advised that I only use the zest and no pith. To be exact, he said shave the pith off of em! He could see no reason why I couldnt build an oleo over the course of a week in an old-school mason jar.
That day I started one.
Thinking of how I might build a lasagna, I put a layer, maybe a quarter of an inch thick, of good turbinado sugar at the bottom of a wide-mouth 16- ounce mason jar and then carefully fanned out a single layer of well-trimmed clementine peels across it.
Trimming the zest turned out to be a breezethose leathery skins are so easy to work withand since I was dealing with a byproduct, I didnt mind tossing the pieces that werent easy to trim. The pith makes things bitter, and while I dont mind some pithy bitterness in a cocktail if Im drinking it right away, Im pretty sure that over the course of a week the bitter pith would become overwhelming in my oleo.
Having spread my peels out, I spooned a little more sugar on top and slid it into the fridge. Whenever my wife and I shared a couple of clementines in the kitchen I would repeat the process, pushing slightly on the top of the sugar, but not really muddling it, just sort of packing it in. When I made a salad, I added the zest of half a lemon. Within a few days, the jar smelled wonderful and had a thick extraction of citrus oils on the bottom. I kept going, adding more until the jar was a little more than half full.
I didnt wait long to start digging spoonfuls out of the jar. The espresso I drink every afternoon is now kissed by a subtle citrus fragrance.
Soon after that, the bottle of Old Overholt Bottled-in-Bond fairly leapt into my hand, and I mixed a few dashes of Scrappys Aromatic Bitters into the citrus sugar at the bottom of an Old-Fashioned. The citrus played a background note, but it was there, adding complexity and intrigue.
The citrus oils of the mandarin are to my nose reminiscent of the bergamot aromas in Earl Grey Tea. That realization led me to think I should make some tea with my special concoction, so I did. I put about a third-of-a-cup of orange sugar in a pitcher with two tea bags and poured in 16 ounces of hot water. I drank a little bit hot and then slid the rest into the fridge in a bottle. That decision led to my favorite use of the oleo so far.
Delphine Adburgham / Alamy
The resultant punch-for-one has hints of caramel and tobacco. Floating around on the nose is this beautiful citrus rush, which not only makes me think of warmer days but also of the sort of household economy celebrated in M.F.K. Fishers magnificent book, How to Cook a Wolf.
My jar of citrus sugar is almost empty now. Im going to grind up the rest of it and the leftover peels in my food processor. Ill use that in my morning pancakes.