The Lebanese, we love citrus. If there is anything less than an extra-large bowl of lemons on the kitchen counter at all times, we start to get uneasy. Wouldn’t want to run out. Oranges are our little pets too, especially when it comes to candied peel. Any bitterness is leached away by boiling water, and when steeped in simple syrup, the end result is a sweet with pure citrus essence. (My favorite Lebanese mouneh maker, organic Mymoune, makes a special jar of bitter orange peel in syrup.)
There is another citrus, kumquats, that I found myself eating often for the first time this past winter on my visits to Florida, where there were kumquat trees along the pathway to the pool. When we picked them, along with the blue flowers growing nearby, the bounty was so beautiful (especially in my mama’s hands) I hated to actually eat the kumquats. But that didn’t last for long.
Perhaps because they are so small, kumquat peel is tender and sweet. There’s no peeling a kumquat; the little orange fruit can altogether be popped into the mouth, skin and all, and eaten whole.
It’s a mouthful of contrasts, the sweet citrus exterior giving way to an intensely tart, sour flesh—nature’s Sour Patch Kids. But in reverse, because with the candy you get sour outisde, then sweet inside. Yes, I know it’s strange that I would have such a nuanced understanding of a candy for children. But I hang around kids a bit and when they eat Sour Patch Kids at the movies, so does Aunt Maureen.
Kumquats come to us from Japan, by way of Europe, where they were introduced in the mid-19th century. Sometimes they are classified as a citrus, and sometimes not. You’ll see two types of kumquats typically, one of which is rounder and yellow in color, and the other more common type, which is bright orange, oval, and wonderfully sour.
When choosing yours, either from the market or the tree itself, look for plump, unblemished skin that is firm and bright. Kumquats can be made into all sorts of wonderful things to eat, sweet or savory, when you’re not popping them into your mouth whole. They will last a couple of weeks on the counter, where they’ll make good friends with the lemons in an extra-large bowl.