Acobalt blue glass bowl sits on my dining room table. Year-round I keep it filled with lemons. The cheerful burst of yellow always reminds me that when life gives me lemons, maybe that's a good thing.
This burst of sunshine in the kitchen somehow clears the gray skies of these dogged days of winter. Though lemons are abundant in our markets all year, I appreciate their salutary effect most when I sniff spring around the corner. I crave having my palate awakened from its winter comfort diet of soft braised meats and muted flavors.
Although lemons keep best under refrigeration, I find that a dozen or more of them keep just fine as my table centerpiece -- giving off their clean citrus scent -- for a couple of weeks at least. As they start to get soft, the frugal me squeezes them and freezes the juice in pint jars, for lemonade any time. (My favorite lemonade starts strong, and can be diluted for those who want less punch: In a saucepan, bring 1 cup each sugar and water to a boil, stirring constantly, and cook just until the sugar dissolves. Pour this syrup into a large pitcher and add 2 cups cold water, 2 cups freshly squeezed lemon juice and lots of ice cubes. Taste and, if its "pucker" is a bit much, add more water. During the summer, I add a big handful of cleaned mint leaves from the garden to the sugar syrup and I strain them out after heating the syrup.)
Chefs know that one of the keys to creating a perfectly balanced dish is to judiciously weigh the sour-to-salt ratio. In these savory lemon dishes, pay attention to the sour as you season with salt. Handy cooks' information about lemons: One large lemon, about 8 ounces, will yield about 1/2 cup of juice and 2 to 3 teaspoons zest.
The everyday abundance of this hard-working citrus may have us taking lemons for granted, but not for long. Add one of the following savory dishes to your kitchen repertoire and discover the power of sour.
Lamb Skillet Supper
This simple skillet supper is a mildly spiced combination of Middle Eastern spices, lamb, lemon and instant couscous that can be tossed together in less than half an hour. I serve it alongside a yogurt-based cucumber salad and pita bread.
1 pound lean ground lamb
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
2 teaspoons crumbled dried oregano
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
2 cups (or a 141/2-ounce can) chicken stock or broth
2/3 cup raisins
10-ounce box instant couscous
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup finely chopped parsley
1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced (optional)
In a large, deep skillet over medium heat, cook the lamb, using a wooden spoon to stir and crumble the lamb into small pieces, until no trace of pink remains, about 7 minutes. Remove and discard the fat from the skillet.
Return the skillet to medium heat, add the garlic, oregano, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and pepper and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, stock or broth and raisins, increase the heat to medium-high and bring the mixture to a simmer. Add the couscous, stir to combine, cover and remove from the heat. Set the skillet aside, covered and without stirring, for 5 minutes.
Transfer the lamb mixture to a serving bowl, sprinkle with the lemon juice and parsley and immediately toss to combine. If desired, garnish with scallions. Serve immediately.
Per serving: 706 calories, 31 gm protein, 83 gm carbohydrates, 28 gm fat, 85 mg cholesterol, 12 gm saturated fat, 718 mg sodium, 6 gm dietary fiber
The light, lemony flavor of this risotto makes it equally well suited as a first-course or a light entree.
About 4 cups (or two 141/2-ounce cans) low-sodium chicken stock or broth
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1 cup short-grain rice, such as Arborio or Carnaroli
1/2 cup dry white wine
4 ounces fontina cheese, grated
2 teaspoons grated or minced lemon zest
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup thinly sliced chives
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Freshly shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese for garnish
In a medium pot over medium heat, bring the stock or broth to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer gently.
Meanwhile, in a large pot over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the rice and cook, stirring constantly, until the rice is completely coated with butter, about 1 minute. Add the wine and cook, stirring almost constantly, until the wine has been absorbed. Using a ladle or measuring cup, add about 1/3 cup of the hot stock and cook, stirring constantly, until the stock has almost been absorbed. Continue to add more stock, about 1/3 cup at a time, stirring almost constantly, letting each addition of stock be absorbed by the rice before adding more stock. Continue until all of the stock has been added and the rice is creamy and tender, about 20 minutes.
Remove from the heat. Immediately add the fontina cheese, lemon zest, lemon juice and chives and stir to combine. Taste and season accordingly with salt and pepper. Cover and set aside to rest for a couple of minutes.
To serve, transfer to soup bowls and garnish with cheese. Serve immediately.
Per serving: 315 calories, 11 gm protein, 37 gm carbohydrates, 12 gm fat, 38 mg cholesterol, 7 gm saturated fat, 278 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber
(Makes about 1 cup)
The citrus in this creamy vinaigrette enlivens many an entree or side dish, whether tossed salad greens, broiled fish, boiled new potatoes or steamed vegetables.
1 to 3 teaspoons Dijon-style mustard
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 crushed garlic clove, finely chopped
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon sugar
3/4 cup olive oil (may use extra-virgin)
In a small bowl, whisk together the mustard, lemon juice, garlic, salt, pepper and sugar until the sugar and salt dissolve. Whisking constantly, slowly add the oil in a steady stream and continue to whisk until thickened. Taste and adjust the ingredients accordingly. (May cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. Let dressing come to room temperature and whisk to recombine before using.)
Per 1-tablespoon serving: 94 calories, trace protein, 1 gm carbohydrates, 10 gm fat, trace cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 114 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber
White Bean and Tuna Salad: In large bowl, toss together a 15-ounce can rinsed and drained white beans, a 6-ounce can drained tuna, 1 seeded, chopped red bell pepper and 1/2 cup chopped scallions. Drizzle with some Lemon Vinaigrette and toss to coat. Serve atop chopped salad greens with French bread. Serves 2 to 4.
Green Bean and Feta Salad: Boil 1 pound fresh green beans until bright green and still slightly crisp but almost tender. Drain the beans and toss with 1 cup halved cherry tomatoes, 4 tablespoons chopped, dry-cured black olives, 4 ounces crumbled feta cheese and some Lemon Vinaigrette. Serves 4.
Chicken, Pear and Walnut Salad: Core and slice two ripe pears. Toss the pears with 4 tablespoons toasted walnuts, 3 bunches cleaned, stemmed watercress, 2 ounces crumbled blue cheese and some Lemon Vinaigrette. Meanwhile, saute about 11/2 pounds chicken breast halves or tenders in oil until cooked through. Thinly slice the chicken, fan the slices on plates and top with the pear salad. Serves 4.
Robin Kline, a food writer in Des Moines, last wrote for Food about braising. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.