Celebrating Citrus

The versatility of citrus fruits knows no bounds, and there are plenty more unusual varieties to discover beyond the ubiquitous oranges and lemons.

Few scents are as intoxicating as that of a Kaffir lime leaf. Crush one in your hand and out bursts an intense sweet perfume that instantly transports you to sultry South-East Asian evenings.

Smelling this for the first time on a friend’s balcony in George Town, where the Kaffir plant sat among various potted herbs and peppers, it got me thinking about the fantastic profusion of citrus fruits; their sharp, evocative fragrances, and how each world cuisine has its stars from the family, whether it’s the tangy limes integral to Central American cooking, or the orange and lemon groves of the Mediterranean. What cook could survive without citrus?

Kitchen staples

“They are simply the most helpful ingredients you can have in your kitchen,” says Catherine Phipps, the author of best-selling cookbook “Citrus: Recipes that Celebrate the Sour and the Sweet.” “They make ingredients sing… lifting even the flattest of dishes. They can ‘cook’ and tenderize fish and meat. They can even help milk become buttermilk, cheese and yogurt.” Cutting through spice, sweetness and saltiness, they create a more balanced, brighter flavor profile.

Think of how a simple squeeze of juice and zest can pep up cooked green veg, or cut through the creaminess of a dessert. Salsas, salad dressings, cocktails, curries… the list of recipes that cry out for citrus is seemingly endless.

More than just a condiment or finishing touch, citrus is a fundamental building block of flavor, as essential as salt in a chef’s arsenal. “Our palate comprises various receptors, so to speak – salt, sweet, acid, umami – and this is the way I think when seasoning; I want balance but also to excite the palate,” explains Chef Harriet Mansell, who cooks for private clients on superyachts around the Caribbean and Mediterranean. “When it comes to acidity, we have our arsenal of vinegars, fermented juices and such, but really the most versatile is the juice of citrus.” She adds: “Only fresh will do – none of that long life, off the shelf stuff.”

Yara’s Head Chef Dylan Benoit points out that there is vast variety within the citrus family: “Each kind is so incredibly unique, and in many cases, they are not interchangeable. You wouldn’t make a margarita with lemon (if you could help it) and I doubt most would put lime in their Sunday mimosa. You would be hard pressed to find a hollandaise finished with blood orange zest… although I might have just given myself an idea there!”

Exotic twists

With world cuisines cross-permeating in kitchens like never before, and supermarket aisles stocked with an array of exotic ingredients, consumers are getting to sample many more unusual varieties and hybrids of citrus.

Cayman is no exception. Browsing the fruit aisle at Kirk Market lately, the familiar lemons and limes have been joined by blood oranges, the Sicilian specialty with deep rosy flesh and hint of raspberry sweetness; Meyer lemons, a citrus fruit native to China thought to be a cross between a lemon and a mandarin; and the lemon-grapefruit hybrid, Tangelo.

Meanwhile, herbs such as lemongrass, lemon verbena and sorrel, while not officially part of the family, provide some of those citrussy flavor notes. The same goes for the sour-tasting Middle Eastern spice, sumac.

The assortment of globe-trotting, overseas chefs coming to work in Cayman also brings fresh uses for citrus to the table. Andres Davila, sous chef at Anchor & Den, is inspired by how citrus is used by food vendors in the markets of South America: “In Ecuador, my homeland country, we use different varieties of citrus on both sweet and savory preparations, such as limes, lemons, tangerine, citrus limonia [a mandarin-lemon hybrid], and sweet and bitter oranges. Citrus fruits are an important ingredient for our Latin cuisine, as a garnish or a flavor base inside adobos or marinades – our first layer of flavor.”

This has shaped signature dishes on Anchor & Den’s menu such as the Shrimp Ceviche. “The citrus element in this dish really brings out the flavors of the seafood and ties all the other elements together,” Andres says.

Yuzu, a Chinese hybrid of lemon and tangerine, has become a favorite of on-trend chefs in the West. It appears on the menu at Yara in three different guises – as a mayonnaise to accompany togarashi prawns, a zesty curd on cheesecake and in pearls of gel around a tuna tartare.

Fragrant Kaffir lime leaves also make an appearance on Yara’s menu – in an Asian-inspired twist on the traditional Key Lime pie with the addition of toasted coconut semifreddo, mango pearls and guava puree.

“The Kaffir lime leaves we use are actually local,” Dylan reveals. “A friend of mine has a Kaffir tree in his yard so I buy them directly from him. Kaffir limes are difficult and expensive to import whole, so we’re very lucky to have a small amount available locally.”

The recipes in Phipps’ cookbook similarly draw on a plethora of world cuisines to reinvent culinary classics or offer unexpected pairings. For example, her burrata and freekeh salad is enhanced by slivers of blood orange and bergamot, while lamb meatballs are given a fresh, tangy edge with preserved lemons.

The original superfood

Then there are the health benefits of citrus. Many already know that these fruits are packed full of immune-boosting vitamin C, but besides that they offer a lot of soluble fiber, which helps lower cholesterol and regulate glucose levels; potassium, linked to reducing the risk of heart disease or stroke; and flavonoids, which reduce inflammation and protect the body’s cells from harmful free radicals. What’s more, citrus fruits deliver tons of juicy flavor with virtually no fat, sodium or calories.

Whatever the seasonal or local variety of citrus at your fingertips, there is a myriad of ways to preserve them. Made into marmalades, curds, liqueur, oils and candied peels, or even preserved whole using a simple salt-curing method, these fruits are a gift that keeps on giving.

Citrus Know-how

Selecting

Pick blemish-free fruits that feel heavy for their size. Fruits with thinner, smoother skins are easier to juice, while unwaxed fruit with thicker, rougher skin are best for zesting. If you can’t find unwaxed, scrub away the fruit’s shiny protective coating with hot water and a stiff brush.

Zesting

Remove only the colored skin of the fruit, leaving behind the soft, white pith underneath (this part has a bitter, unappealing taste). Use a very fine touch and a microplane to get the best results. For long strips of zest, use a zesting tool and scrape it across the fruit in firm strokes.

Juicing

Yes, there’s a wrong way to juice citrus: Too much pressure releases the bitterness from the pith. To encourage the juice to flow without over-squeezing, before cutting try rolling the fruit sideways over the countertop, or microwaving for 20 seconds.

Cutting

Choose a small sharp knife. Top and tail the fruit, then cut it in half lengthways from end to end. Once you have divided up your wedges, use the knife to trim away the pith and pick the seeds out.

Storage

While citrus fruit will keep for a couple of days at room temperature, the best way to store it is in the refrigerator. The vegetable drawer is the optimal spot; it should keep there for several weeks.