The humble lemon wedge alongside a plate of fried calamari offers just a glimpse of the myriad ways citrus fruits can perk up savory dishes.
This article first appeared in the 1 January 2010 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.
By Kate Leahy, Senior Associate Editor
Abdellah Aguenaou is a citrus enthusiast. As the executive chef at Café Promenade inside Washington, D.C.'s Renaissance Mayflower Hotel, he finds myriad ways to incorporate citrus on the savory side of the restaurant's menu, from using preserved lemon in beurre blanc to squeezing fresh wedges over entrées just before serving them.
"With citrus, a bouquet of aroma explodes," Aguenaou says. "Other ingredients are not going to give you the same flavor, the same level of acidity."
That's why wedges accompanying plates of fried calamari and raw oysters are such a familiar sight in foodservice kitchens, while zest is a go-to ingredient for brightening not only seafood but also sautés and stews. The juice alone gives balance to vinaigrettes, sauces and soups, and seasoning savory foods with a few drops of juice or a pinch of zest instead of salt is a healthful way to brighten and enliven dishes.
"It's not about pushing the flavor of the lemon or lime to the front," says Chef-owner Matt Gordon, who relies on citrus to enhance seafood and chicken dishes, in particular, at Urban Solace, his contemporary-American restaurant in San Diego. "It's about creating a canvas of flavors."
Andy Little, executive chef of Sheppard Mansion in Hanover, Pa., often turns to citrus juice as a flavor booster, sometimes in place of salt. "Salt is there to make flavors pop," he says, "but citrus can make flavors bounce, too."
When a veal-stock-based sauce, such as bordelaise, tastes flat, he perks it up with lemon juice. To complement roasted salmon, he makes a jus from roasted beets puréed with orange juice. Just before the dish is served, the sauce is heated with a dollop of butter and an extra splash of orange juice.
At Black Cat in Boulder, Colo., Chef-owner Eric Skokan accents recipes with citrus juice instead of pepper. "The little lemon makes an ingredient taste more like itself," he explains. When seasoning the braised leeks that he pairs with duck or fish entrées, for example, he uses salt and lemon juice exclusively.
Though vinegar often helps balance flavors with a touch of acidity, some chefs, such as Chef-owner Greg Neville of Lugano in Salt Lake City, find it too tart. For that reason, Neville often uses citrus juice instead, keeping a squeeze bottle of lemon juice, olive oil, basil, black pepper and garlic on the line to finish fish coming out of the wood-burning oven. "Using citrus with olive oil is wine-friendly as well," he says.
Neville also employs citrus in salads and vinaigrettes. To accompany a seared-scallop appetizer, for example, he dresses a salad of arugula, shaved asparagus, and blood orange and grapefruit segments with grapefruit juice, olive oil and cracked black pepper. It's a "great, bright spring dish," he says.
Packed with aromatic oils, citrus zest gives a wide assortment of dishes a fragrant finish. At Lugano, for instance, Neville adds zest to an herby gremolata that tops dishes such as braised lamb shanks or pork belly.
It also can play a more integral role in recipes. At Urban Solace, locally raised chickens are brined in water, salt, sugar and lemon and roasted with a lemon-zest-and-salt crust.
"The dish features lemon all the way through, from the brine to the plate presentation," he says.
Executive Chef Aran Essig doesn't waste any part of the citrus fruits he uses in a line of healthful, allergen-free foods at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. For instance, lemon juice is added to rice, while orange juice is reduced to a glaze for tofu. From those same fruits, Essig's staff candies the zest to mix into starchy grains such as amaranth.
To make the candied zest, before juicing the fruits, cooks peel the zest and julienne the strips. The zest is simmered in simple syrup, strained and dried on sheet pans.
"You get the citrus flavor and the sweetness, but you're not adding a whole lot of sugar," he says.
Preserved lemons-a Moroccan staple made by curing lemons in salt-yield especially robust lemon flavor and are a favorite of Café Promenade's Aguenaou. "Fresh lemon has more acidity," he says. "When you preserve the lemon, the salt drains the juice out so the skin gets a stronger flavor."
Aguenaou incorporates preserved-lemon rinds-that he has soaked in water to remove excess salt-into beurre blanc, which he serves over grilled chicken or fish. To make the sauce, he reduces white wine, vinegar and shallots with the preserved-lemon rinds and cream and then whisks in cold butter until the mixture is emulsified.
"You get the creaminess of a beurre blanc, the smoothness of butter, and also the flavor of lemon," he says.