Denver Chefs Juice Up Winter Dishes and Drinks With a Dash of Citrus

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Many years ago, with the gusto of the newly-converted and a copy of Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle in hand, I decided to follow the 100-mile diet. I joined a winter farm share, stopped buying oranges and bananas, and tried to build meals out of the fruits and vegetables we’d put away during the summer and fall. Things were going strong until February, when the freezer starting running low and the storage crops I was picking up at the CSA distribution site grew strangely bendy, like a green Gumby toy.

We needed freshness. We needed spring. We needed greens and pea shoots and asparagus. What we got instead was something almost as good, something I never again took for granted: citrus. No, it wasn’t local. But neither was my coffee, and when you’re faced with three hungry kids and an increasingly impatient husband, you learn that rules are meant to be broken.

We’re no longer strictly local eaters, at least not in winter. But at home we try to eat seasonally, which means that this time of year we rejoice over things like cara cara oranges and pomelos. And I’m not the only one. At Mercantile Dining & Provision, which I review this week, the kitchen is clearly having fun with blood oranges, using vibrant red segments and puree to accent the exceptional bruleed bone marrow. Take a look at what these chefs and bartenders are doing and you tell me if they’re not rejoicing, too.

At Panzano, pastry chef Amy Sayles loves to make crème brulee, not just the standard vanilla but offbeat flavors such as lemon lavender and gingerbread spice. Currently she’s blending vanilla, orange and saffron to bring a touch of warm-weather fun to the plate. “I was trying to recreate the summer vibe of being a kid and having the ice cream man come around the neighborhood,” she says. “Really, what is more summer than a Creamsicle?” To accentuate the flavors, she runs the cream through a fine mesh strainer after it steeps, then uses a gloved hand to press out the saffron and orange oils. “This usually takes a few minutes, but that extra little oomph really makes a world of difference.”

Citrus is a year-round staple at Bistro Barbes, a French restaurant with a North African bent, given the popularity of preserved lemons in Moroccan cuisine, but other forms of citrus make appearances, too, especially this time of year. “It’s definitely a good season” for citrus, says line cook Jacob Leonard. “There aren’t a lot of other things available.” The kitchen finds ways to weave citrus into every course, from pork belly marinated with grapefruits, oranges and lemons to baklava scented with orange zest and juice. Soon, a new salad will make its way to the menu, with carrots shaved into long strands, blood oranges, toasted cumin and citrus vinaigrette. Similar to another Moroccan-inspired dish previously on the menu as an accompaniment to braised short ribs, this salad will stand on its own, with more of a spotlight on the orange.

Orange juice isn’t just for breakfast, as beverage whiz Randy Layman is quick to point out. In honor of Chinese New Year, which starts today, he’s rolling out a new drink at Ace. While it doesn’t use straight-up orange juice, the fruit’s bright profile is definitely at play. Named for the year of the ram (although depending on whom you ask, 2015 could be the year of the sheep or goat), this riff on an Old Fashioned pairs rye whiskey, strong chai sweetened with demerara sugar and Dram citrus medica bitters. “It’s bright and has a great aromatic quality and spice, but also richness from the whiskey,” says Layman. “It’s something to keep you warm and a little toastier.” I’ll drink to that.

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