Using the whole lemon

It’s become trendy to talk about “using the whole chicken.” Tips for starting with one roast chicken and feeding yourself for a week are plastered over the internet. People are becoming aware that a chicken consists of more that just two boneless breasts. There are thighs, wings, necks, backs. Even bones to be used.

This is a good thing. If one is going to eat animals, every effort should be made to let none of it go to waste. Authors like Shannon Hayes in her book Long Way on a Little make clear the fact that thrift and ethics are bedfellows far more often than we assume.

And yet I rarely hear this same philosophy applied to other foods. While fruits and vegetables largely have the sentient suffering aspect removed, there are still costs associated with their production and distribution. For most products in the grocery store, there is the often mentioned “food miles,” the distance a particular food must travel from where it’s grown to your plate. Even the holy grail of organic, local, in season produce is hopped up on the farmer’s worry, sweat, consternation, and exhaustion. All food has cost someone something to get to you.

Maybe it’s my latent farmer resurfacing or my frugal midwestern gene, but I don’t take those sacrifices lightly. Though it may seem lip pursingly prudish, I genuinely try to use the whole of every bit of food that comes through my kitchen. I save my bacon grease in a jar in the fridge. Pickle juice hangs around in another jar long after all the pickles are eaten. Eggshells are baked and fed back to the chickens. My houseplants get regular infusions of day old herbal tea. And of course there is the alchemy of compost turning my coffee grounds into soil. I strive to make everything food for something else, whether for me or one of the dozens of other living organisms in our household.

Most of these processes happen naturally and under the radar. But there are some things that are so special that extra effort seems required to make full use of them. Winter citrus season is one of those times.

Every year during the darkest days of winter several boxes of jewel bright citrus is delivered to our doorstep. They come from  Beck Grove near San Diego. Helene and Robert Beck are responsible for these spicy blood oranges and zesty meyer lemons.

These beauties are precious. They come from far away and are the result of tremendous care. And they cost a pretty penny too. It seems a waste bordering on disrespect to squeeze out their innards and toss the rest in the compost.

These fruits have so much more to offer. Just like a chicken, lemons are made up of lots of different parts, all of them useful.

The anatomy of a lemon, in brief

The zest:
This is where most of the lemony flavor and scent reside, thanks to oils trapped in the skin. The zest is just the very thin topmost layer. There are lots of tools available to help you remove the zest only. My personal favorite is a microplane grater.

The pith:
This is the white layer directly below the intensely flavored zest. While on meyer lemons, the pith is relatively thin, other citrus have a much thicker pith that must be removed before eating the fruit. While it’s not exactly true that the pith is so bitter it will ruin your dish if any gets in, it is in the very least not flavor-ful. It is bland, spongy, and as better cooks than me have said, not good eats. Unprocessed that is. The pith contains natural pectin, much like apple peels and cores.

The fruit meat/ juice:
This is the part that most people are familiar with using. I trust it needs no other explanation.

The seeds:
Like the pith, the seeds are not particularly appetizing on their own. However, they are rich in natural pectin.

The carcass:
This is my homespun term for that leftover part of a citrus fruit that’s left after zesting and squeezing. It’s generally made up of large amounts of pith and rind with fragments of the meat and juice.

So how does all this come together? How does a cook use make use of all these parts?
There’s no tidy recipe I can give you. Different applications will lend themselves to different uses for each part. The best advice I can give is to get in the habit of looking at lemons (and indeed, most produce) as having many parts rather than just a single use. See the zest, the pith, and the juice as separate entities. Once you get used to doing this mentally, it will be much easier to break them down in you kitchen.


Here are some of the ways I’ve found to use the whole lemon:

  • Dry or freeze the zest for later use in recipes calling for it. I always make a habit of zesting my citrus whether or not the recipe calls for it or not. If I don’t use it in that recipe, I save it for something else. If you don’t have a lot of it, it dries quite well in a bowl on your counter. No dehydrator necessary.
  • Freeze the juice in ice cube trays to make lemonade during the summer.
  • Throw the carcasses in a jar and cover with white vinegar. Steep for a few weeks and strain. Dilute with water and use for cleaning. (Compost the spent carcasses!)
  • Freeze the carcasses in a single layer on a baking sheet. Once they are frozen solid, transfer to a freezer bag. Keep one or two in your water pitcher in the fridge. Or use as flavorful ice cubes in your glass. Admittedly they are not as posh looking as lemon slices, but they get the job done.
  • Make your own pectin from the seeds and  pith.
  • Make citrus candy from the peels.
  • Keep a pot of water simmering on the back of your stove with the carcasses and a clove or cinnamon stick. It makes the air smell nice and also adds a much needed dose of humidity to the winter air.
  • Make citrus salt by putting a few carcasses in a jar and covering with sea salt. Let it sit for a few weeks and then pull out the lemons.

How do you make the most of your precious foods? What is your favorite way to use citrus?

Posted 11 years, 4 months ago at 10:17 am. 1 comment

Meyer Lemon Curd with Cardamom

There are some kitchen activities that lend themselves to metaphor. Even if you are not a cook, you will likely know what I mean if I tell you about someone getting roasted at work. Or how I steep in the silence of the early morning before anyone else is up. Or how I have an idea percolating on the back burner.

But then there are other activities that only come to mean more through seemingly endless repetition. Whether specific recipes, chores, or rituals, these processes tend to become very personal symbols that are hard to communicate to anyone else. It goes beyond dog eared cookbooks and even beyond consciously recalling a recipe from memory. The process becomes some kind of psychic extension of yourself. You do them not just to have food in the fridge but because the making  feeds your soul.

Making lemon curd is like that for me.

Every winter I not so patiently wait for the email notice from Local Harvest that meyer lemons and blood oranges are in season. I quickly order several boxes, always afraid that my favorites from Beck Grove will be sold out before I get any. It’s how I imagine the people camping in line for the newest tidbit of technology feel. About a week later, I hear the boxes thud by the door. For the next several weeks my time is spent processing 20 pounds of meyer lemons and another 25 pounds of blood oranges. Dried orange and lemon rings, citrus vinegar, “bloody” marmalade, limoncello… each year I seem to run out of fruit before I’ve finished preserving.

I love everything about preserving these fruits. From lining them up on my window sill against the steely winter sky to the blood red stains on my counter.This year I had the privilege of sharing that joy with one of my favorite people. Theodore helped me haul the heavy boxes up the steps and into the kitchen. He helped open the boxes and wasn’t the only one that squealed when the glowing yellows were revealed. It was with a small sense of loss that I let him carry one around the house, knowing that it wouldn’t be salvageable for any recipe after he was done with it. But the loss was recuperated as I got to watch his curiosity lead him to knead, squish, poke, roll, and taste that lemon. Now whenever he sees the lemons sitting on the counter, he insists whoever is at home come smell them, even the cats. I hope to be the kind of parent that will protect and foster that pleasure into his adulthood. Someone who sees such a gift in just the scent of a lemon would truly be a gift to the world.

But the part that speaks to my soul is making lemon curd. Somehow, I become the eggs that break. The lemons that are squeezed so hard they bleed. The butter that finds itself melting away with no way to come back. And I feel the whisking. Endless whisking. As I stand over the pot, I feel the flame a little to close to my hand, but I keep whisking. I feel the disturbance in my soul. Beaten to a froth and then beaten some more. Constant constant motion. Never reaching equilibrium. Ceaseless whirling. I begin to wonder when it will end. How long? How long? I don’t know how much more I can take.


There’s a thickness that wasn’t there before.  The whisk moves more slowly, disturbing less with every stroke.  Things become still in the center of the pot. I can see the tracks of where I’ve been. The heat is removed. I can almost hear the curd take in its first breath. And I breathe more deeply too.

Is it any wonder that the result of this process is a food that I can’t seem to get enough of? Though it may be possible to point to all the good fats in the butter, the selenium in the pastured eggs, or the vitamin C in the lemon juice, I think there is more going on here than mere nutrition. It is soul food of a different dimension.

Meyer Lemon Curd with Cardamom
makes 2 pints

6-8 Meyer lemons
6 eggs
1/3 cup honey
1 stick butter
2 tsp ground cardamom

Zest the lemons and reserve the zest. Juice them into a measuring cup until you have one full cup. If you are on the cusp of 1 cup, go ahead and juice another lemon. It’s better to have a little too much than too little. Whisk the eggs and honey in a medium pot. Pour the lemon juice through a fine sieve into the mixture and whisk until it’s the color of the first sunny day in spring. Slice the butter into pats and drop into the mixture. Turn the heat to medium high and whisk in the melting butter. Keep whisking almost constantly to avoid the eggs cooking up into chunks. When it suddenly thickens and coats the back of a spoon, turn off the heat and stir in a generous pinch of zest and the cardamom. Pour into jars. Eat one jar straight with a spoon. Tell your family the recipe only made one pint. The curd keeps in the fridge for at least a week and freezes well, though it looses a bit of it’s satiny texture upon thawing.

Posted 11 years, 4 months ago at 10:15 am. 1 comment

On my counter

This week my kitchen counter has

:: played host to a beautiful bouquet of fresh herbs from our greenhouse- sage, parsley, cilantro, and oregano. Having them in a cream pitcher close at hand, instead of in a bag in the fridge, reminds me to use them.  My cooking has been better for it.
:: witnessed a revival of my commitment to soaking my grains, nuts, and legumes. It has also witnessed the stench of the bowl of beans I forgot about and hence left in their soaking water for four days. My cooking has been worse for it.
:: finally seen the last of the purple haze carrots. Until spring at least. This has been the first season that I’ve deigned to actually cook with them. In previous years, they’ve been too precious and were reserved for eating out of hand, barely making it home from the farm. This year though, they’ve been sauteed with mint and coconut oil, stir fried with bok choy and lemon, and added to the most glorious rainy day beef stew.
:: dribbled with Meyer lemon juice and salt as I made Moroccan preserved lemons. I now know where each and every nick and crack is on my hands.
:: not told a soul that I licked the pot, spatula, and funnel clean when I made lemon curd no less than three times.

Posted 12 years, 4 months ago at 7:40 pm. 1 comment

Bok Choi with Ginger and Lemon

I am sadly less than proficient when it comes to Asian vegetables. You’d think all the time I spent in Asia would have up-ed my skill level (or at least awareness) a bit, wouldn’t you? But alas, during my years there if I thought about food at all, it had to do with how many “weird” things I could eat in order to impress people back in the States. Therefore, while I certainly ate my fair share of traditional Filipino food, I missed out on the finer points of what the vegetables actually were and how they were prepared.

Today, my co-farmer, Ben, alerted me to the fact that we will be harvesting baby bok choi on Friday. As far as Asian vegetables go, I know bok choi is pretty mundane, but even so I wasn’t familiar with it. Like most brassicas, bok choi gets sweeter with the colder weather. Because of all the frosts (not to mention snows) we’ve had this winter, the bok choi leaf I sampled was as sweet as any summer corn I’ve tasted. Sweet and almost lemony but with a definite cabbage-y twang, like a farm girl who can’t quite banish the drawl from her voice. As delicious as it was raw, Ben counseled that they are even better cooked– but not too much. Bok choi, also like other brassicas, gets extremely bitter when over-cooked.

After doing my “new vegetable encounter” Wikipedia search, I learned that in traditional Chinese thought bok choi is a cool vegetable. In order to counter balance the coolness, a warming ingredient is added, such as garlic or ginger. I figured that was as good a place to start as any. That, combined with my first impressions of the raw leaf as having distinct lemony undertones, gave birth to this dish. While I served it with beef, I think it would make a fantastic bed for some fresh fish from the farmer’s market.

Bok Choi with Ginger and Lemon

1 bag bok choi (about 1/3 lb.)
1 TBS butter
1 in piece of ginger, peeled
zest from one lemon

Using a fine grater, grate the ginger and lemon zest; set aside. Cut the ends off the bok choi, wash in cold water, and dry well. In a medium sized pan, heat the butter over medium-low heat. When it just barely sizzzles, add the ginger. After a few seconds (when the gingery aroma reaches your nose), add the bok choi and lemon zest. Stir with tongs until its evenly coated in butter, ginger, and zest. Cook until mostly wilted (about a minute). Turn off the heat  when most of the leaves are wilted. Continue stirring as the residual heat cooks the rest of the leaves.

Posted 13 years, 4 months ago at 9:23 pm. Add a comment

Chopped Citrus and Cranberry Nut Salad

I love citrus. While most cookbooks and online recipe forums seem to think that citrus is best enjoyed in the dog days of summer, I love that it’s true season is actually the mid- winter months. Like a doting grandmother who slips you a bright little foil wrapped piece of candy in that long half hour before dinner, citrus waits till the dark days of winter to ripen.

While it’s true that citrus isn’t necessarily local, unless you happen to live in Florida, California, or parts of Texas, it is a seasonal fruit, just like anything else. So, while most of us can’t buy citrus from one of our farmer friends, it is still possible to buy it at the peak of its season when it’s freshest, imported the least number of miles, and most importantly– tastiest. For me, that means taking advantage of the natural down time that winter gives us and chowing down on all the grapefruits, tangerines, oranges, clementines, lemons, limes, pomelos, and tangelos I can eat. Peggy Bourjaily wrote an excellent piece for NPR’s Kitchen Window series about this practical locavorism.

Citrus in winter is also a nostalgic thing for me. Truth be told, I would probably eat it in the winter even if it wasn’t in season then. (Conveniently enough though, I get to keep my moral high ground.) As kids, we would always get an orange in the toe of our stocking at Christmas. I don’t know how often we actually ate the orange, but it was of utmost importance that it was there. Since starting our own Christmas traditions, Mr. Quotidian and I have dispensed with the usual stockings filled with odds and ends that end up getting lost or broken in a few weeks. Instead, we leave a pad of paper and pencil by the stockings and write down memories of the other person, then put the memory in the other’s stocking. So, by Christmas morning, we have stockings stuffed with memories. I love the tradition, but obviously an orange would feel rather out of place in such a situation. However, a Christmas without citrus seemed hollow and dull. I realized the easiest way to solve the situation was to serve citrus at one of our Christmas meals. Since citrus doesn’t do well with a cheese fondue, Christmas Eve was out. However, when I remembered a recipe for a salad using oranges and cranberries, Christmas brunch seemed the ideal way to include this jolly, festive fruit. New Year’s brunch would be delicious too…paired with a mimosa perhaps? Continue Reading…

Posted 13 years, 5 months ago at 6:52 pm. 1 comment

Cucumber Boats

IMG_2300aLike a delusional castaway on a deserted island, I’ve been seeing boats everywhere. Ever since writing about Zucchini Boats, my mind seems to have been opened to all the possibilities. Bananas, melons, bell peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes. It seems almost anything can become a “boat.”

Cucumbers seem especially suited to boat-ness. Many people already make them without knowing it by scraping out the seeds. What’s left behind is the perfect cavity to fill with something delicious. In this recipe, I chose to fill it with a salmon salad. A nice addition to my recipe would be some grated Parmesan cheese. I didn’t add it this time because we were also having goat cheese stuffed squash blossoms, and I didn’t want a cheese overload.

I think I like these better than the zucchini boats. They are crisp, fresh, and easy. Perfect for summer because they require no oven. I suppose they are raw? If you consider canned salmon raw, I suppose . . . ? I’m not up on the rule book for Raw Foods. At the very least, these boats don’t require any actual cooking, only assembly.

And the best part? They are best eaten like a hot dog.

Cucumber Boats

2 cucumbers
1 can salmon, sustainably harvested if you can find it
1 lemon
2 Tbs capers
1-2 small bell peppers, any color
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese (opt.)
salt and pepper

Put the salmon in a medium bowl and break it into pieces. You can pick out the bones if you want. Zest the lemon over the bowl. Then roll it under you palm a few times to release the juices. Cut it in half and squeeze the juice into the bowl, straining the seeds through your fingers. Add the capers. Chop the peppers into small pieces and add them the to bowl too. If you’re using cheese, add it now too. Cover the bowl and set it in the fridge to chill for a bit. Cut the cucumbers in half lengthwise. Use a spoon to scrape out the seeds. Fill the cavity with the salmon salad. Eat with your hands, like a hot dog.

Posted 13 years, 9 months ago at 6:34 am. 3 comments

Lemony Shrimp Soup

IMG_2024I felt like Snow White while making this soup. While I hummed about the kitchen, ingredients seemed to wing out of the fridge and into the soup as if little adorable doe eyed woodland creatures were helping them along. Before I knew it, I had a beautiful soup that seemed to have created itself.

I love those days.

Continue Reading…

Posted 14 years, 3 months ago at 7:23 am. 1 comment

Roasted Broccoli

I love roasted vegetables.  Roasting intensifies flavors instead of seeping them into water, the way boiling does. Of all vegetables that I’ve roasted, broccoli comes in second only to potatoes.  Broccoli just seems to be meant for the oven. The whole stalk caramelizes and all of the little “leaves” get crispy. Add Parmesan cheese to that, and what not to love?  Velveeta cannot compare. Continue Reading…

Posted 14 years, 6 months ago at 12:58 pm. Add a comment