I grew up in Australia with a big lemon tree in my backyard, and I picked lemons whenever I wanted—which was often, since I added them to almost everything I cooked. Although I no longer have the lemon tree, lemons still play a starring role in my cooking. Nothing perks up my mood and my meals like a bowl of sunny yellow lemons, especially in late winter and early spring. The way I see it, a little lemon (or a lot) brings out the best in almost any dish. Perhaps you’ve noticed it, too. When you put lemons in the spotlight, your cooking has a little more edge, a little more interest.
There’s nothing tricky about using lemons as a main ingredient. It can be a simple matter of using more lemon juice or zest or both in a recipe. Or of using the whole lemon—juice, pulp, peel and all—to flavor a dish. Or of using lemons in a different way: for example, caramelized lemon slices as a garnish for meat.
Whichever approach you choose, you’ll highlight a different, delicious attribute of lemons: the bright, refreshing qualities of lemon juice, or the intensely citrusy flavor of the zest, or the combined appeal of a whole lemon. And in the recipes that follow, you’ll discover lots of ideas for putting lemons at center stage.
Getting the most zest...
Thick-skinned lemons, which tend to have pebbly-textured skin, are easiest to zest.
Before zesting, scrub the lemon’s skin well to remove any residues (a soak in warm water can help remove any wax coating).
Remove just the thin yellow layer of rind, not the white pith below.
Zest a lemon before you juice it.
I use a vegetable peeler when I want wide strips of zest for adding to slow-cooked dishes.
A channel zester gives you long, skinny strips of zest, but this tool doesn’t give you as much zest as a grater does.
I think a rasp-style grater is the ideal tool for finely grated zest. It’s so easy to use and it gives you the most zest. (Try a Microplane 40000 Series grater/zester, available from Cutleryandmore.com.)
Save the flavor: You can freeze lemon zest in a sealed container for up to 3 months.
...and clever ways to use it
• Add grated zest to breadcrumbs and use for coating cutlets and topping gratins.
• Mix grated zest into ground meats when making meatballs and hamburgers.
• Stir grated zest with chopped capers and parsley to top cooked meat and fish.
• Add a long, wide strip of zest when braising vegetables or meat or when making stock.
• Make lemon sugar by putting strips of zest in granulated sugar. Use in cookies, cakes, or tea; sprinkle on French toast, or wherever.
• Make lemon vodka by steeping strips of lemon zest in regular vodka. Taste the vodka regularly and remove the lemon strips when it suits your taste. Or, infuse white wine with zest for aperitifs.
• Add a strip of zest to your favorite cocktail.