Pass the acid test with ver­sa­tile in-sea­son cit­rus

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In praise of lemons

When­ever you taste a dish and think it tastes a bit flat or dull, chances are it’s ei­ther salt or acid that’s miss­ing. Think about it — a spoon­ful of tangy yo­ghurt over Moroc­can ke­babs, a squeeze of le­mon juice over a crispy fish fil­let, creme fraiche dol­loped over a wedge of ap­ple tart, black vine­gar on a shang­hai dumpling, lime over a taco, a tea­spoon or two of sherry vine­gar in a rich beef stew, or rice vine­gar tossed through sushi rice — it’s the acid that gives each of these dishes a zing that is so pleas­ing on the palate.

Ev­ery cul­ture has its own reper­toire of pre­ferred acids, be they wine, beer, ver­juice, cider, tamarind, cul­tured dairy foods, such as yo­ghurt and but­ter­milk, tangy cheeses, cit­rus and a world of dif­fer­ent vine­gars. Tangy fruits, such as pineap­ple and pas­sion­fruit, also de­liver acid tones, as do toma­toes and pick­les.

Out of this vast reper­toire of acid flavours, lemons are prob­a­bly the one in­gre­di­ent I couldn’t cook with­out. It’s not just the clean, bright jolt of fresh­ness that their juice de­liv­ers, but also their fra­grant zest, which im­parts an ap­peal­ing depth and tone to dishes both sweet and savoury, a taste that is less about acid and more about giv­ing a dish a lay­ered depth.

To re­tain the bright fresh­ness of le­mon juice, al­ways add it at the last minute, rather than while a dish is cook­ing. When it comes to grat­ing the zest, us­ing a mi­croplane en­sures you don’t cut into the bit­ter pith that sits just un­der the skin. Don’t be tempted to grate a whole lot of zest for later use, as the volatile oils will dis­ap­pear into the air.

I’ll of­ten put le­mon zest into a pesto, but not the juice, so that it will stay fresh and green. Le­mon juice, along with other acids, takes the ver­dant colour out of green veg­eta­bles and herbs and quickly turns them a dull, sad brown. On the other hand, the colour of red veg­eta­bles is en­hanced by acid, so dishes made with beet­root, red cab­bage or toma­toes become more vivid with its ad­di­tion.

Le­mon pith can be bit­ter, es­pe­cially in va­ri­eties other than wildly juicy Meyer le­mon. The Meyer is my favourite le­mon va­ri­ety — its acid­ity is gen­tler than other lemons, and it’s a softer fruit that’s eas­ier to squeeze.

Clever Mother Na­ture de­liv­ers these ver­sa­tile fruits dur­ing the win­ter months, ex­actly when we need their burst of vi­ta­min C in our di­ets, so now is the time to stir the juice into a le­mon and honey drink to ward off win­ter ills.

Come mid­sum­mer, lemons will be hard to find, and we will have to rely on sprayed and waxed im­ports. Luck­ily, lemons and their juice freeze well. I of­ten freeze le­mon seg­ments on trays then freeflow them into bags, or freeze the juice in ice-cube trays. On a hot sum­mer’s day these stand in for both ice and lemons in a cool­ing gin and tonic. Why wait till sum­mer?


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