Kids today aren't likely to be quite as excited by holiday fruit as Pete Napolitano was as a child.

Fifty years ago, it was Napolitano family tradition to stuff Christmas stockings with citrus wrapped in brightly colored foil.

"It was Italian tradition," recalled Napolitano, also known as Produce Pete on his weekly New York-area television segment about what to buy at the market. "If I did that to my grandkids, they'd look at me and say, 'Poppy, we want a Game Boy.' It would be like putting coal in their stocking."

Fruit may not cut it anymore as an acceptable stocking stuffer, but the tiny, vibrant globes called clementines are a growing part of the winter food season.

Sometimes called "Christmas oranges" because they peak in supermarkets between Thanksgiving and early January, these small, slightly flat mandarins generally are sold in five-pound boxes.

Thin-skinned, easy to peel and (most pleasantly) seedless, intensely sweet clementines stand out as snacking fruit, especially for children.

Americans are expected to eat more than 180,000 tons of clementines this year, according to U.S. government and industry figures, most of them from Spain and California.

Domestic growers have only recently plunged into the more than $69 million industry. Clementines first came to the United States in 1909 from Algeria and were grown sporadically in Florida and California, said Tracy Kahn, curator of the Citrus Variety Collection at the University of California, Riverside.

But Americans first developed a real taste for them in 1997, industry executives said, when a crop-crushing freeze in Florida forced buyers to import tons of citrus, including clementines.

"This has been an explosion within the last five to seven years out of California," said Scott Owens, vice president of sales and marketing for Delano, Calif.-based Paramount Citrus, which along with partner Sun Pacific grows 74 percent of all U.S. clementines.

Paramount harvested its first trees in 2004, and this season, Owens said, the American industry is expected to produce 135,000 tons of clementines. Their popularity has grown so fast, and so suddenly, that 2007 marks the first year the government has tracked them separately from other citrus.

"There are a lot of people out there planting them," he said. "It's a segment of the citrus industry that's really growing now. And the industry overall is flat. So it's nice to have something new and fresh."

Sometimes said to have been an accidental hybrid discovered by French missionary Father Clement Rodier in the garden of his orphanage in Algeria, clementines are generally considered by scientists to be a type of Chinese mandarin, according to Khan. There are dozens of varieties, all very similar.

The one grown most often in the United States is the clemnule. Clementines also are naturally seedless as long as they remain isolated from other types of trees and are not cross-pollinated.

Clementine season runs from late October through April. But Napolitano recommended sticking to the window between Thanksgiving and early January for the best quality. Select fruit that is shiny and free of spots, smells fragrant and feels heavy in the hand.

"If it feels like a feather, it's going to taste like a feather," he said. "You're looking for the juice in there." Store them in a cool place for up to two weeks.

Organic clementines are sometimes available. Even though the skin isn't consumed, conventional clementines will be sprayed from blossom to harvest, Napolitano said, something for organics devotees to consider.

PEARS STUDDED

WITH CLEMENTINES AND DATES

3 tablespoons butter

6 ripe pears, preferably Anjou or Bosc, peeled, halved and cored

1 cup mascarpone cheese

1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 cup pitted dates, chopped

3 clementines, separated into

sections

2 tablespoons honey

1/4 cup roasted almonds, finely chopped

Preheat the oven to 350. Put the butter in a 9-by-13-inch cake pan and place it into the oven to melt.

Once the butter has melted, place the pear halves core-side down in the pan and spoon some of the melted butter over them. Roast for about 1 hour, basting with butter from the pan every 15 minutes, or until the pears are caramelized on the bottom. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl mix the mascarpone and cinnamon. Let it come to room temperature.

When the pears are still warm but not hot, place two halves each in serving bowl, core-side up. Stuff the center with the mascarpone mixture. Scatter dates and clementine sections on top, then drizzle with honey and sprinkle with almonds.

Makes 6 servings.