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Citrus and Seafood: Your Guide to the Perfect Pairings

Citrus and Seafood: Your Guide to the Perfect Pairings

The following information was provided courtesy of local cookbook author and chef, Carla Snyder. Learn more about Carla at 

Some foods just go together; peas and carrots, peanut butter and jelly, ham and egg and citrus and fish. That’s right! Citrus and fish have been partners for ages. Turns out, the acidic/sweet flavor of citrus balances the briny flavor in seafood and even acts as a neutralizer for the stronger flavors in some fish. So, how does one incorporate the plethora of bright, seasonal citrus and seafood in weeknight meals? Read on for inspiration.

The fact that citrus season happens in the middle of winter is one of nature’s more genius moves. There is simply no better time to add delicious and nutritious oranges, limes, lemons, grapefruit and all of their relatives into meals in the season we need it most. We are all familiar with the wedge of citrus served with a shrimp cocktail or a plate of fried fish, but this beautiful fruit is more than just a garnish. The flesh can also be incorporated into seafood dishes, as well as the skin (in the form of zest) and all that tangy-sweet juice. So, a few notes about how to handle citrus fruit are in order.

Zesting and Juicing Citrus

There are only one or two tools necessary to get the most out of your citrus. The first is a citrus press, which efficiently squeezes every last drop of juice. In lieu of a press, you could just use a reamer or a common fork, but the most important trick to getting the most juice from citrus is to juice warm or room temperature fruit. Just give the un-refrigerated fruit a firm roll on the counter to loosen things up and juice away.

The second tool is a microplane. Sold in most kitchen departments at big box stores, microplanes are best at removing the flavorful, oil-rich skin of citrus without dragging up the bitter white pith which lies directly underneath. Using a box grater to zest is way too time consuming (and knuckle scraping) so, if you don’t already have one, a microplane will easily inject a double dose of that bright orange, lemon or lime flavor into seafood dishes.

Microplane and Lime Zest
Photo provided by Chef Billy Parisi.

Citrus Varieties

Seafood actually loves more than just a simple lemon. In fact, there is such a wide variety of citrus that enhances fish that a little tutorial on citrus varieties will help expand your options.

  • Oranges: Valencia (for juice), Navel, Cara Cara, Blood Orange, Clementine, Mandarin, Tangerine, Satsuma and Tangelo (for flesh and zest)
  • Lemons: Eureka (or the common lemon), Meyer Lemon and Pink Lemon (for zest, flesh and juice)
  • Limes: Persian and Key Lime (for zest, flesh and juice)
  • Grapefruit: White, Star Ruby, Rio Red and Oro Blanco (for flesh and juice)
  • Pomelo: Use for flesh and juice
Orange, Grapefruit, Lemon and Lime Slice

Citrus + Seafood = A Match Made in Heaven

Chefs often use citrus to brighten flavors, but when it comes to fish, citrus is what makes seafood dishes sing. Remember, Julia Child’s first dish upon landing in France was Sole Meuniere (Sole with Lemon) – the dish that launched a culinary juggernaut. The truth is, adding citrus to seafood dishes is the easiest way to make delicious happen. See below for a few ideas to get started.

  • Vinaigrette is not just for salads! Whisk up simple citrus vinaigrettes to drizzle over grilled, broiled, baked or sautéed seafood. The basic ratio for vinaigrette is one part acid (or juice) to two or three parts oil. Start with a finely chopped shallot, juice, a sprinkle of salt and pepper, a drop of honey and Dijon mustard and whisk in the oil. To make it even more delicious, zest the citrus before juicing and sprinkle it over the top of seafood as a garnish.
  • Make salsa with the flesh of citrus to top seafood. Zest the citrus first, then slice off the top and bottom of the fruit and carve away the white pith. Section or slice the fruit into small chunks and combine with minced red onion, red bell pepper, jalapeno, salt and pepper with a drizzle of olive oil for a basic salsa, or add other vegetables such as diced cucumber, tomato, green pepper, radishes, green onion, avocado and herbs such as cilantro, basil, parsley, thyme, oregano and rosemary.
  • Serve seafood in a citrusy broth. Sauté onions and garlic in oil and add canned tomatoes. Allow the broth to simmer, then add citrus juice and taste and adjust with salt, pepper and fresh herbs. Serve in shallow bowls topped with grilled or broiled fish and crusty bread for dipping. Feel free to add other vegetables to the simmering liquid such as zucchini, yellow squash, potatoes, greens or canned beans to make it a more filling meal.
  • Make a citrusy salad to serve topped with seafood. Just about any type of salad is better with citrus, so think about a Chinese cabbage salad with shrimp, peanuts and mandarin oranges, a beet salad with blood oranges, grilled salmon and feta or a lentil or rice salad with grapefruit, scallops and walnuts.
  • Bake fish in foil packets with lots of thinly sliced citrus and quick-cooking vegetables such as thinly sliced zucchini, green beans, fennel, mushrooms, grape tomatoes and cooked rice or legumes.
  • Make a flavorful garnish of gremolata with equal parts citrus zest, minced garlic and parsley and sprinkle over the top of cooked seafood.

Now that you have a little background in how citrus can accompany seafood dishes, let’s focus on a few of our seafood favorites and the citrus that best suits them.

Grilled Mango Orzo Salad with Orange Glazed Salmon
Grilled Mango Orzo Salad with Orange Ginger Salmon

Salmon/ Tuna & Orange

Rich and fatty, salmon and tuna shine with a bright pop of orange.

  • Top with orange salsa
  • Top with an orange vinaigrette
  • Serve on top of a zesty salad of orange, fennel, white beans and olives
  • Sprinkle raw fish with orange gremolata (see above) and grill, or sprinkle over cooked fish as a garnish
  • Combine equal parts soy sauce and juice and marinate fish, refrigerated, for 30 minutes before cooking
Orange Glazed Salmon
Orange & Honey Glazed Salmon

Shrimp & Lime

Shrimp and lime are a classic combo.

  • Limey Bloody Mary shrimp cocktail
  • Shrimp taco with cabbage and lime salsa
  • Shrimp ceviche cooked in lime juice
  • Toss shrimp in lime, cilantro and olive oil to top rice bowls
  • Marinate raw shrimp in lime and olive oil and thread onto skewers for the grill
Citrus Shrimp Ceviche
Citrus Shrimp Ceviche

White Fish & Lemon

Encompassing cod, tilapia, halibut, grouper, snapper, mahi mahi, haddock and flounder, you can’t go wrong with this classic seafood pairing.

  • Grill halved lemons and squeeze the sweetened juice over the fish
  • Cook the fish in foil packets with fast-cooking vegetables and thinly sliced lemon
  • Bake white fish on a sheet pan tossed with thinly sliced lemon, potatoes, carrots and broccoli
  • Sauté fish in a little butter and, when almost finished, add the juice and flesh of a lemon to the pan and cook briefly to make a chunky lemon sauce.
  • Serve grilled fish with a Meyer lemon salsa featuring thinly sliced fennel, watermelon radish and fresh parsley
Baked Cod with Lemon and Herbs
Baked Cod with Lemon and Herbs

Scallops & Grapefruit or Pomelo

The sweetness of scallops pairs with sweet/tart grapefruit and Pomelos, making each better with the addition of the other.

  • Perfectly pan-fried scallops paired with pink grapefruit salsa is beautiful and delicious
  • Sauté scallops, remove them from the pan and add minced shallot, a splash of wine, a splash of grapefruit juice and a sprinkle of salt to the pan. Reduce and pour the sauce over the scallops and top with sliced grapefruit
  • Thread scallops and grapefruit slices onto skewers, brush with oil and grill for a pop-in-your-mouth appetizer
Grilled Lemon Scallops
Grilled Scallops with Lemon Chive Butter

The most compelling reason to cook these meals is their juicy, zingy flavor, but these citrusy seafood ideas have plenty of color, vitamin C and minerals to allow us to dine happily through the drab winter months.

Whether for family meals or entertaining, these citrus and seafood pairings are sure to add sunshine to your winter table.

Carla Snyder

By Carla Snyder

Carla has spent the past 30 years in the food world as a caterer, artisan baker, cooking school teacher, food writer and author of 6 cook books including the James Beard nominated Big Book of Appetizers. Her passion is sharing fresh, cooked-from-scratch weeknight meals that cut prep time and practically eliminate that nightly sink full of dishes.

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