Squeezing a bit of fresh lemon juice over a savoury dish adds a bit of brightness and helps balance out any overpowering richness, but there’s another portion of the lemon you should be sprinkling all over your culinary existence: the peel or, if you’re a regular barefoot count or countess, “zest”.
Of course, when I say “peel”, I’m talking about the bright yellow, very outer portion of the lemon, not the bitter, white pith. This golden plant matter is brilliant whether finely grated with a microplane or sliced into thin strips. Where lemon juice cuts through other flavours with an aggressive hit of acid, the oil contained in zest takes much more nuanced approach, gently balancing other flavours while releasing the aroma of a freshly-peeled lemon.
It’s bright, warm, a tiny bit floral, and ever-so-slightly bitter. Here are some of my favourite things to finish with the stuff.
- Any and all vanilla-forward or cream-based desserts: Cheesecake, pound cake, rich vanilla custards, and pretty much every other rich, creamy dessert benefits from a sprinkling of fine zest, particularly if they are studded with a complimentary fruit. (Banana is the only fruit I can think of that you probably shouldn’t pair it with.)
- Salads, particularly if they’re rockin’ some salty cheese: I’m especially fond of a shredded Brussels sprouts salad made with lots of Parmesan and sprinkled with generous amount of lemon zest. Not only are the flavours destined to be best friends, but there is nothing prettier than a big pile of finely shredded cheese studded with little golden bits of zest.
- Creamy pasta dishes: It’s a fact that balancing out unctuous dishes with a bit of citrus keeps your palate from getting over-saturated, allowing you to eat more of said dish. This is particularly true of pasta that is accompanied by cream-based sauces, which is great, because eating lots of pasta is one of my main goals. If you want a recipe that really capitalises on this maxim, try this one from Serious Eats.
- All sorts of seafood: Though my pairing-lemon-with-seafood practices are firmly rooted in squeezing wedges over whole, fried catfish, I prefer a sprinkling of zest when dealing with more delicately treated seafood, such as scallops, broiled fish, or sauteed shrimp.
- Most cocktails: This is one of those instances where you need a big ol’ strip, rather than a mess of grated zest, but the oils contained within will add the perfect finishing touch to almost any cocktail, whether it be whiskey-based, gin-forward, or amaro-heavy.
- Roasted vegetables: From starchy root vegetables to hearty, bitter greens, there are few roasted veggies that don’t benefit from lemon zest, particularly if you get some fried herbs involved.
- A whole lotta chicken: Grilled chicken, roasted chicken, chicken salad, and even fried chicken is made a little more finger-licking good with a bright hit of grated zest.
Obviously lemon bars, lemon poppyseed anything, and any other lemon-based dish deserve a bit of the zest, but I don’t need to tell you that. That’s a pretty obvious.