This is the start of a new series on the blog, looking at just one ingredient and what it adds to cooking, food and health.
Lemon, Citrus limon
Lemons were the first thing that came to my mind when I thought of this series. They are one of my favourite ingredients, adding refreshing, bright, zesty flavour to such a wide range of dishes, both sweet and savoury. I love their fresh smell and sharp taste and most often use them just as they are, squeezed over lightly poached salmon fillets, rice dishes or salads. They will always very simply and easily liven up a dish.
Lemons are thankfully abundant in supply. The lemon tree is native to Asia but is also grown in the warmer European countries, North West America and the Middle East, and in these climates produces fruit all year round. For cooler and more changeable climates, such as here in the UK, when winter descends they give us an air of summer to lift the dark days a little. Just looking at them is cheering and a glass bowl of them on the table can be as brightening as fresh flowers, and their zesty scent is awakening and enlivening. It is this uplifting element that is used in aromatherapy to help with low moods, and it is also said to be detoxifying (although there is no scientific evidence to support this). Lemons, like other citrus fruit, are well known for their health benefits, being rich in vitamin C and antioxidants, both of which help to strengthen the immune system, which is why your wise mother or grandmother will suggest hot water with honey and lemon when you’re under the weather. Whilst oranges contain more vitamin C, lemons have less calories and sugar, making them a great choice, particularly if you are watching your sugar intake (but perhaps avoid the honey!).
Aside from the huge array of recipes lemons are used in, one of the great culinary benefits is that lemon juice prevents certain foods from browning when oxidised, such as apples and avocado. So no brown apple sauce or avocado salad dressing. The juice is great whisked with extra virgin olive oil and seasoning for a very simple salad dressing, or as the base for a dressing with other ingredients such as garlic and herbs. I use lemons most with fish, squeezed over freshly cooked fish or smoked salmon, or sliced and stuffed into whole fish before baking. I also sometimes like to pair them with chicken.
Of course lemons are as crucial to beverages as they are to food, their juice being used for squash and lemonade, and the fruit is great sliced and added to drinks such as Coca Cola, Pimms or vodka and a mixer. Plain water is transformed into something quite different and much more inviting when served in a glass jug with ice and lemon slices. In the summer I like the combination of lemon slices and ripe strawberries to infuse and flavour the water.
Lemons really are one of the most versatile ingredients you can keep in your fridge, so be sure to always pick up a lemon or two with your weekly shop!