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Produce Profile by Mark "Guido The Gardner" ® Ferro
Mandarins
True produce confession! Before I started in this career produce gig, I didn't know a mandarin from a mandolin or a tangerine from a tennis ball.

Anything resembling a dinky orange was automatically a tangerine. Oh, the public produce blunders I must've committed. But Produce Profilers, after reading the following paragraphs you should be spared any similar social embarrassment.

First, as to mandarins versus tangerine, forget what the signs say! All those cute, pixie-like members of the citrus clan found in the markets are all mandarins, at least in the botanical sense. In reality, it doesn't matter what exactly they are. What's important is that you find one you like, and then stick with it.

Last week a woman asked me if the certain fruit in her hand was a mandarin or a tangerine because, according to her, "Tangerines are seedless and mandarins have seeds." I gently tried to explain to her that she was off the mark, but she'd have nothing to do with that. I just made sure she walked away with a seedLESS fruit, which is what she wanted.

Another thing. These fruits are called by different names by different packers and retailers. For example, the Murcott orange and the Honey Tangerine are the same fruit. Same as Royal Mandarin and Temple Orange. Given the success of the Honey Tangerine, a Kinnow mandarin packer now calls his the Honey Mandarin. Hey folks even WITH a scorecard it's a tough go.

Now, let's meander down Mandarin Lane...

There are three classes of mandarins. The first is what we commonly call tangerines, second are tangelos and the third is a tangor.

The earliest and most common tangerine is the Fairchild. The burnt orange skin loosely covers a sweet, but very seedy pulp. These are quickly leaving the produce stage, so sample them while they are here.

Similar to the Fairchild in flavor is the Dancy variety. This used to be the top tangerine dog but is now losing its spot to the Fairchild.

The thin skinned Lee mandarin is not very common but is an excellent piece of fruit. It tends to size up smaller than most of its competition but it has a subtle, but pleasing characteristic. The seedy, deep orange pulp is more tender than most others. To enjoy this pleasant texture, slice one like an orange.

Satsuma mandarins have such a loose skin the flesh almost rattles around like a BB in a tennis ball. These tend to be flatter in shape and more yellow, as opposed to orange, in color. A big plus for this candidate is that it is virtually seedless. Again, the Satsuma season is winding down-when you see 'em, eat 'em.

Tangelos are a cross between tangerines and pomelos (the ancestor of the grapefruit) Given their grapefruit background, they are very juicy. The Minneola is the size of a small orange with a easily recognized knob on the stem end. The flavor never gets over the hump of tart/sweet but it is very juicy and contains few seeds. These have a growing season that will last into spring.

The other common Florida born tangelo is the Orlando. It is smaller in size but sweeter than its cousin. The thinner skin lends this variety to go under the knife rather than just peeling it.

The most common variety of tangor is is actually called a honey tangerine (This is confusing even with a scorecard) The flesh is a beautiful burnt orange with a rich, lingering, almost syrupy sweetness. This is THE sweetest tangerine / orange / mandarin etc. available.

They are very seedy, fairly large, but flatter in shape, with a thin skin that does not lend itself to a quick peel routine. Here's the best way to get around the seeds of this satisfying fruit. Cut it in half east/west, NOT through the stem. Take the half and then make one cut to the side of the core where all the seeds are hiding. Turn the fruit and make another cut to the side of the core. Lastly nip off the core. Any seeds that are left are easily flicked out with the tip of your knife. But this is a minor bit of labor for a major reward.

Do NOT shy away from this treat just because of appearance. The skin often shows light brownish flecks and splotches, and the color can lean to the green side. So compared to other cosmetically perfect fruit clones, it's pretty darn ugly ... but very tasty! These are cranking right now in your favorite produce stands.

What is the best way of selecting mandarins? First, close your eyes. Then give each fruit a bounce or two in your hand. If it feels heavy for its weight that indicates juice which in turn will equal great taste. Yes, a deep color is a judge also but one that I use secondarily. Looking good does not always = tasting good.

Mandarins are more perishable than your navel orange types, so beware of soft spots during this scientific selection process. Store them in the refer right quick when you get home.

It is easy for checkers (and shoppers) to get confused by these citrus look-alikes so most stores carry a limited number at one time. Nose around for a more varied selection. Also, some of these varieties do not lend themselves to mammoth scale mandarin production. More often they are organically grown on a smaller scale. So stores that feature more organic produce generally have a more varied selection.