June 15th, 2009
Last week Michelle broke the mold for these “Dig In” posts by writing about Chinese Five Spice—and I loved it! I hope you did, too, because I’m focusing on flavor again this week. Instead of spices, though, I’ve decided to dig into lemons. Seem strange? Maybe. It was certainly inspired by a strange sight: a pile of Meyer lemons at a farmer’s market I visited in Boston this weekend. (In June?) This glitch in the “seasonal” matrix aside, lemons are an integral part of cooking in many cultures. And—to me, at least—they represent a fundamental principle of cooking: balance.
So, with a sack of Meyer lemons in tow, I wondered…
What’s the scoop on lemons?
Lemons are an extremely versatile citrus fruit used around the globe. While the pulp and rind are often included, especially in baking, lemon juice is the most common ingredient in cooking. The juice is about 5% citric acid, which gives lemon their tart/sour flavor. And it’s this flavor that makes them a culinary powerhouse.
Excuse me while I digress for one second. Good flavor is built on balance between our our five basic tastes (sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and umami), as well as spicy, aromatic, and creamy elements. Salty balances sweet. Sour (bright) balances umami (earthy). Fatty balances sharp. And so on. Truly great dishes perfect this balance, creating flavors that sing equally on all parts of our tongue. And, in my humble opinion, some of the most exciting flavor sensations are ones that push these careful balancing acts almost—but definitely not—out of bounds. Like a delicious bowl of hot, sour, aromatic tom yum soup.
Nothing perks up a dish like a little acid (and I’m not talking about “magic” brownies, people). And what acid element is more convenient to have on hand than lemons? Vinegar is great, too, but can lend other flavor elements depending on the kind you use. Sometimes this is a good thing, sometimes it’s not. Lemons are simply the quickest, easiest way to brighten most any flavor. Just keep in mind that acidic notes, especially citrus juice, do their job best when added towards the end of cooking. Otherwise, they mellow with long exposure to heat.
Regular vs sweet lemons
There are two types of lemons: acidic and sweet. The Meyer lemons I carried out of the farmer’s market are a sweet variety made from a cross between a “true” lemon and mandarin orange. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t sour. They are. Certainly enough to be used as an acidic element in cooking, so long as your dish can benefit from a little extra sweetness and doesn’t need that lemon bite.
The sweet kind are best used in baking; in recipes that play with sweet and tart, like preserved lemons and tangy compotes; and used with the skin on, like with roast chicken and veggies or with a roasted whole fish (the skin of sweet lemons is much thinner and without as much bitter pith as regular lemons).
Why are lemons good for you?
According to the World’s Healthiest Foods, lemons and limes have unique compounds that have antioxidant properties. And everyone agrees that they are an excellent source of vitamin C, one of the most important antioxidants. Nutrition Data reveals that lemon juice is also a good source of folate and potassium.
On the (perhaps) less scientific side of things, lemons are thought to have health benefits far beyond what can be measured by nutrition data. You’ve probably heard about several cleanses that use lemon juice—it’s thought to be a powerful digestive aid, diuretic, and liver cleanser. Many also claim that lemons have antibacterial, antiviral, and immune boosting powers thanks to it’s combination of citric acid, calcium, magnesium, vitamin C, bioflavonoids, pectin, and limonene content. Ayurveda has long valued the power of lemons.
Not bad for a little yellow fruit that you can get at any supermarket! There are so many wonderful dishes that make great use of lemon that I had a hard time choosing. Especially since I had sweet Meyer lemons at my disposal! But, after a long drive home from Boston yesterday afternoon, my big ideas for baking, roasting, and cooking into the night quickly became the stuff of kitchen fantasy. Or at least ambitions for another day. Instead, I made this dish, which took all of 20 minutes.
This is definitely a keeper. Totally delicious, full of simple flavors that both kids and adults love, and works great with both regular and Meyer lemons. If using Meyer lemons, like I did, don’t skip the salt on older kid and adult portions. Remember: salt balances out sweetness. If you use regular lemons, you may end up finishing with a little more olive oil—or even a bit more butter. Remember: fat balances sharpness. Once centered, enjoy!
Lemon Pasta with Ricotta and Basil
(can be served to kids 12+ mos)
1 lb organic pasta (i like spaghetti or linguini, but cut pasta works if that’s easier for your little ones)
3 tbsp organic butter
1/4 c freshly squeezed organic lemon juice (about 2 Meyer lemons)
2 tbsp organic olive oil, plus more for finishing
3/4 c fresh, organic or all-natural ricotta cheese
organic parmesan, grated
1 (heaping) c organic basil chiffonade, loosely packed
lemon zest, optional
salt and pepper
1. Put a large pot of salted water on medium-high heat (about 6 qts water to 2 tbs salt). Bring to a boil. Add pasta and cook until al dente. Drain, saving about a mugful of cooking water. Set pasta aside.
2. Melt butter over low heat. In the meantime, whisk lemon juice and olive oil. When butter is completely melted and just a little cooled, mix with the olive oil/juice mix.
3. Put drained pasta back in pot and turn heat to low. Pour butter mixture over the pasta and toss to coat. There should be enough liquid to get all of the pasta wet. If not, add a little bit of cooking water.
4. Stir in fresh ricotta cheese and grated parmesan to taste. If you want to thin out the cheese a little, add a bit of cooking water. Gently stir in basil and salt and pepper to taste (separate out younger kid portions before adding salt). Finish with a drizzle of olive oil and, if you like, lemon zest.
Note: Toss steamed peas or asparagus pieces with finished pasta to keep this a one dish meal and boost nutrition. Summery perfection!