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Lemons & Limes

Fine Cooking Issue 55
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Lemons and limes are so readily available that we don’t often think of them as having a season, but they do. As with all citrus, the winter months are the height of the lemon and lime season, and this is a good time to take advantage of plentiful fruits at good prices. At my house, hardly a meal gets cooked that I don’t reach for a lemon or a lime, whether it’s just to add some zing to a dish or to use it as a major flavoring ingredient.

Lemons and limes star in sauces and garnishes

Gremolata makes a zesty garnish for meat and pasta. Chop together the zest of a lemon with plenty of parsley and  garlic until everything is finely minced. Add a generous grind of black pepper and strew over roasted or braised meats, pasta dishes, and just about anything grilled.

Make a finishing sauce for broiled or grilled fish by mixing minced anchovies, grated garlic, lemon zest and juice, a little olive oil, and some freshly ground pepper. Drizzle a couple of teaspoons over each serving of fish.

Stir up a simple vinaigrette of olive oil and lemon or lime juice, and season it well with salt, freshly ground pepper, lemon or lime zest, and a pinch of cayenne. Use it as a basting sauce for roasted or grilled pork.

For a fresh and healthy tropical salad, arrange slices of mango and avocado and thin slivers of red onion on a plate, and then squeeze a little lime juice over all.

For the best roast chicken, add lemons. I stuff the cavity of a whole chicken with lemon quarters and herbs before roasting. Then I stir the lemon quarters through the pan drippings before making a pan sauce. For a different kind of lemon chicken, scatter lemon slices or small wedges around a roasting pan, along with a few cut up onions and herb sprigs. Lay seasoned chicken pieces in the pan and squeeze a lemon overall. The slices and wedges are so deliciously caramelized when roasted that you can save any extras, dice them up, and use them as garnish for pasta, rice, or meat dishes.

Zesting and juicing

My favorite zesting tool is a Microplane grater, which easily turns the rind into a pile of tiny, feather-light bits without digging into the bitter white pith beneath (the zest is just the colored part of the rind). I also like a citrus zester with four or five small holes for making long, thin strips. Lacking a special tool, you can use a sharp vegetable peeler and a knife to make strips or to mince zest.

Zest from a Microplane.

For juicing, a plastic or wooden reamer is a fine choice, but a citrus press is an even more efficient tool. I also like the old-fashioned glass, ceramic, or plastic juicers (a popular fleamarket item) with a lip to catch the juice. If you roll your fruit on the counter with medium pressure before cutting and juicing, it will yield more juice. On average, a medium-size lemon or a large lime yields about 1/4 cup juice

Zest from a zester.
Zest from a vegetable peeler.

Add a quick boost of flavor with zest or juice

  • Add a squeeze of lemon or lime to brighten up a dull soup, stew, or braise.
  • Give starchy foods a blast of citrus. Fold a teaspoon of grated zest into a rice pilaf, risotto, pasta, or lentil dish to add zing.
  • Add minced lime or lemon zest to softened butter for a quick garnish for grilled or roasted fish or meat.
  • Give just the right boost to plain vegetables, whether boiled, roasted or grilled, with a squeeze of lemon juice.
  • Stir a little lemon juice into the pan sauce after sautéing chicken breasts, pork chops, or fish.
  • Enhance the flavor of a lackluster vinaigrette with some minced zest.
  • Make sure a dish of lime wedges is on the table when Southwestern, Mexican, or Caribbean fare is on the menu.
  • Add sparkle to fruit salads and desserts with a little lime or lemon juice.
  • Brighten plain shortbread, butter cookies, and pound cakes with freshly grated lime or lemon zest.

Shopping and storing

I look for lemons and limes that seem heavy for their size, promising more juice. I also keep an eye out for plump, glossy skin—indications that the rind will be rich in flavorful oils. Because I use these tangy fruits daily, I normally keep them in a basket right on my kitchen counter. For longer storage, I hang them in a net citrus bag in the cool garage. Good air circulation prevents molding, so if you store citrus in the refrigerator, don’t crowd it.

Small citrus trees make great houseplants

Citrus plants take well to growing in pots, and they can be kept small with yearly pruning. Together, these attributes make them perfect container plants for just about any climate. Pot your lemon or lime tree in a 3- to 5-gallon container, using a blend of three parts commercial potting mix and one part sand. During the frost-free season, keep the tree outside in full sun. When temperatures drop to the 30s, move the plant in to a sunny window. Water regularly, whenever the top inch of the soil becomes dry, and feed with a timed-release, high-nitrogen fertilizer.

To buy Meyer lemon or kaffir lime plants, contact Acorn Springs Farms (903-668-1461; www.acornsprings.com) or Edible Landscaping (800-524-4156, www.eat-it.com).

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