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Citrus smarts

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Before Latin America became an agricultural powerhouse and began exporting a variety of fruit and vegetables, people living throughout the Midwest depended on the ripening citrus crops in Florida and California to brighten the dreary days of winter. An orange stuffed into one's Christmas stocking was considered to be a rare treat.

Citrus crops have been a part of the New World's agricultural palate since Spanish explorers planted orange seeds around St. Augustine, Florida in 1565. Since that time, citrus cultivation has spread westward through the Gulf Coast areas of Louisiana, Georgia, Texas and into Arizona and California. Oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit and some of the more exotic citrus fruit have become a significant source of revenue for these states.

Citrus fruits play a large role in culinary endeavors as well. Lemon juice is often used to enhance the flavor of meat and tomatoes, and it is noted for reducing the "fishy" taste of fish. Limes flavor both Hispanic and Asian foods. Orange juice and zest add interest to pork and poultry, salads and a variety of preserves and sweets.

Citrus also plays a role in good nutrition. Vitamins A, C, calcium and fiber are provided by citrus fruits. When citrus is eaten with foods high in iron or calcium, ascorbic acid helps the body to absorb these minerals more effectively. Many citrus fruits have medicinal value as well. For example, grapefruit can lower cholesterol; people who are on statin drugs are restricted from eating grapefruit because the combination of the drugs and the fruit may lower cholesterol levels to an extreme. The citron (Citrus medica) was used to calm tummy troubles in China, India and throughout Europe in ancient times, and the essential oil contained in its peel is regarded as an antibiotic.

This week we'll explore some fantastic recipes using readily available citrus fruits.

Monday: Lemon infused ham-pasta salad

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