Lemons Every Which-A-Way
I will now write about lemons.
And you will recoil, saying something like, “What the heck is a Chicago local food advocate doing talking about lemons?!”
True, I eat locally. I buy from farmers I know at the market and I grow my own. When I choose a restaurant, I try to have it be a farm-to-table place. And citrus does not grow around here.
So here are my justifications right up front:
- Some n0n-local things are simply kitchen staples and I have no problem buying them: salt, pepper, coffee, chocolate, lemons and limes. No one is going to be growing pepper or lemons in the Chicago foodshed anytime soon and I can’t imagine cooking without them.
- Many of these ideas below can also be done with local fruit, the shrub especially!
- My friend in California has very local lemons in his yard and he needs help.
There are some really great things to do with lemons. If you don’t have a tree in your yard, hit the local grocery store for a bag of organic lemons and don’t feel guilty at all!
Lemon zest. Get a lemon zester and use it to peel beautiful shavings of the outer lemon peel. The white part is bitter, so just peel the outside. Toss this into salads – may I recommend a local kale salad – and if you grate up enough, mix it with salt, sugar and vodka and pack it onto a beautiful piece of salmon. Wrap and place in the fridge for a day or so. Voilá, delicious cured salmon!
Lemon juice. Most sauces can benefit from a small squeeze of lemon right before serving. Rich tomato sauce or meaty ragú? Take it off the heat, squeeze in a little lemon juice, stir quickly and serve. This bit of acid brightens and separates all those other flavors. You may not even taste the lemon, but it will brighten things. Try it!
Lemon oil. Back to your zester. Run through a bunch of lemons so you have a cup of zest. Pop it into hot grapeseed oil (has little or no taste on its own) and let it steep an hour or two. Strain. Compost the zest and save the flavored oil in the fridge. Drizzle this onto fish, into cucumber soup or over a salad. It’s a great feeling to have a home-made oil like this in your larder.
Lemon shrub. Grant, surely the word “shrub” is some kind of typo, right? Nope, a shrub is a delicious vinegar/sugar/fruit drink and it would be a great way to use up a few lemons. I’m obsessed with shrubs – lemon/lovage, rhubarb, strawberry/basil are all lurking in my fridge and I am dreaming about cherries and peaches and apricots. Here’s the recipe. I highly recommend Bragg’s Organic Apple Cider Vinegar, but I learned from Sonja of North Shore Distillery recently that she uses white balsamic in her peach shrub to maintain strong peach flavor. Her peach shrub and aquavit cocktail was fantastic!
Lemon confit. This is my all-time favorite use for lemons. The word confit refers to preserving foods. Duck confit is cooked in its own fat and left submerged, it will last for months in the fridge. In the case of lemons, you preserve them with salt and their own juice. Here’s how: quarter a lemon lengthwise without cutting through the end. This gives you a sort of flower. Pull it open gently and pour in course kosher salt. Pack this and others into a wide-mouthed jar and then pour in more salt to completely cover. Close, and put in the fridge for at least a month. They’ll last for months. Now, when you’re cooking and need an incredible punch of salty lemony goodness, you reach into your jar, pull off a quarter, peel away (and compost) the flesh, rinse and dice up the rind. This tasty rind is great mixed with onion and tomato and served over a rich, oily fish like salmon or bluefish. It would be great minced with parsley and served over a big chunk of roast pork shoulder. Any place you need a brightener, lemon confit is the answer! If you’d like to knock down the saltiness a little (particularly when it doesn’t get cooked at all) you can blanch it briefly. For me, a jar of preserved lemons in the fridge is a wonderful thing!
I have one more fun justification for talking about lemons here in the Midwest. Dana Benigno is the Executive Director of the Green City Market and therefore chief promoter of all things local. In the recent EdibleChicago magazine, she starts her article about eating seasonal fruits and vegetables with this:
“This time of year you only need four things to be the most phenomenal cook: olive oil, salt, pepper and fresh lemon. All of the fruits and vegetables are at their peak and they barely need cooking at all.”