Saturday, February 9, 2013

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The Price of (Citrus) Perfection

Georgia O'Keeffe lemons show up with surprising frequency
In a major grocery store, whether it's Safeway, Ralph's, Tesco, or Albert Heijn, you're apt to find beautiful fruit on offer. Oranges so immaculate and perfectly spherical they could be ornaments. Eureka and Lisbon lemons so hefty, so perfect, that they each could stand as the very definition of "lemon." Down the line: perfect fruits and vegetables. Well, perfect to the eye, anyway. Relatively high prices reflect  culling of the oddballs, the defects, the grotesque, the undersized, and the unevenly ripened. Limes for 69¢ each, individual lemons for 89¢.

In a pinch, sure, I'll buy just enough at those prices to eek through whatever citrus shortage drove me to that particular store. But at the rate we burn through fruit — especially citrus for cocktails — I'd be a damn fool paying retail prices for perfectly formed specimens.

Enter the second-tier grocer. You may not know about them in your community, but even many small towns (and I've lived in a few) have markets that serve immigrant communities. I'm not talking about high-end specialty stores that cater to well-heeled world travelers (though those are nice, too). Rather I mean the small stores with ingredients imported from "back home"or made locally in a familiar style that less affluent shoppers nonetheless crave; curry blends, certain cheeses, particular breads, teas, syrups, sugars, sweets, pickles, etc. In Philadelphia, there's the 9th Street Italian market. In San Diego, my go-to place for such things is North Park Produce. The store clearly buys a lot of seconds — those fruit and vegetables that aren't quite up to snuff for display at the major chains, the ones that were culled. These are the fruits I tend to buy for cocktail and cooking.

Limes with a bit of wind blemish, oranges with a blush of green on one side, and lemons that can be, frankly, bizarre are what I'm after. Most of them are actually fine, just undersized. And the prices? Well, they fluctuate, but a single dollar will typically get me 4-5 pounds of oranges (pounds, mind you, not single oranges), 7-10 lemons, or anywhere from 8 to 20 limes. At those prices, we're almost never without the ingredients to crank out any one of hundreds of cocktails.

Of course, if drinkers or eaters will see the fruit as part of serving or prearing it, more seemly specimens may be in order. A big bowl of defects and seconds on the bar is not going to get you top dollar for your cocktails. But a hybrid approach is fine. Serving fresh lemonade from a huge see-though dispenser? Juice the cheap ones, but buy a bag of big perfect beauties to cut in half, ream, and float in the mix.

Customers, after all, do pay a premium for pretty food.

Goes well with:

  • Bitter oranges. The season is drawing to a close, but I scored a bunch at North Park Produce (3551 El Cajon Blvd, San Diego, CA) for $1.39/lb and used most of the batch for making vin d'orange. The rest is going into a cake later today.

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