cucina bene; mangia bene (the versatile lemon)
I love lemons and I love cooking with them. I always have a bag of organic lemons (in wintertime the Meyer variety) in my fridge just waiting to be used in some dish, dessert, or drink I am making. Lemon trees are part of the evergreen family and are thought to have originated in Southeast Asia. The Arabs introduced lemons to Europe and the Spaniards brought them to the Americas. Lemons are almost a universal ingredient, used in many ways, throughout the world. In Morocco, you can find preserved lemons (which have become a staple in my house) which are fresh lemons that have been preserved for about a month in salt & its own juice. They are used mostly in Tagines, but I’ve found they can be substituted for lemon zest in just about any savory dish; they (the peel in this case) are softer and more mellow in flavor than regular lemon zest and they lend added complexity whatever they are used in.
In Greece, you find avgolemono, the famous egg lemon combination which I wrote about in a previous post; in India, you can find pickled lemons which are served as a condiment. The Italians make a refreshing liqueur from lemons: limoncello or limoncino depending on where you are in the country, and in many countries lemons are used to marinate or cook various proteins. Ceviche is one where lemon or lime juice is tossed with various seafoods to ‘cook’ it.
Lemons are also found in many household products: cleaners, room fresheners, wood oil, and furniture polish.
OK, back to food…..lemons are also very nutritious. They contain vitamin C, B and many minerals. The vitamin C in lemons (or any citrus) helps the body absorb the iron in leafy greens like spinach and Kale. Just a squeeze of lemon juice over the greens just before serving, cooked or raw, does the trick. I like to roast greens in the oven with olive oil, salt and pepper for about 30-40 minutes and squeeze lemon juice and/or add preserved lemon peel to the finished dish. Roasted greens are delicious and if you haven’t tried them, you should….tomorrow.
I also like to make gremolata (finely chopped garlic, parsley, and lemon peel) which is an Italian condiment that is traditionally served with Osso Bucco, the famous braised veal shank dish. I have found, just like preserved lemons, there are many other delicious uses for gremolata. It is delicious served with fish like salmon or halibut. It compliments grilled chicken, or can be tossed with roasted shrimp just before serving.
Lemons are just as important in desserts. We have lemon meringue pie, lemon bars/squares, lemon poppy seed muffins, lemon sorbet, lemon cake, pudding, curd, cookies, and the list goes on. In Italy lemon peel and juice is served in a delicious ricotta torta (cake). The acid in the lemon lifts the neutral taste of the ricotta and makes the torta a refreshing summertime dessert. I leave you with the recipe and the hope that you will keep a bag of fresh lemons in your fridge now too….never know when you might need one.
Lemon Ricotta Torta:
3 eggs, separated
3/4 cup sugar
4 1/4 cups ricotta cheese, preferably whole milk
1/4 cup rum
3 tbs. flour
Zest of 1 lemon
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
Unsalted butter and breadcrumbs for lining the cake pan
1/4 cup lemon juice
2 tbs. sugar
Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a 9-inch spring form pan and coat with the breadcrumbs. Beat the egg yolks with the sugar until light and creamy. Process the ricotta in a food processor until smooth, combine with the egg mixture, and beat until smooth. Stir in the rum, flour, lemon zest, and vanilla. Beat the egg whites and salt in a separate bowl until they form soft peaks. Fold into the egg-cheese mixture with a rubber spatula. Pour into the prepared spring form pan and smooth the surface. Bake until the top is golden about 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes. The cake should still be slightly jiggly in the center. Let cool for 5 minutes. Mix the lemon juice with the sugar and spoon over the top of the cake. Let cool to room temperature and serve. Buon Appetito!