Getting Zested: Cooking With Citrus

Any chef will tell you that it takes (at least) two things to balance the flavors in a dish: salt and acid. Yet there is an ingredient often underutilized in the balancing act of culinary artistry: citrus.

Using fresh citrus fruits in your home cooking is one of the cheapest, easiest, and calorie-friendly ways to perk up recipes. All varieties of oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruits can make any dish, sweet or savory, more colorful, flavorful, and nutritious.

Citrus doesn’t have to be reserved for only fruit dishes. Meats, grains, pastas, and vegetables all benefit from the addition of fresh citrus. Here are some great way to utilize the whole fruit in your next meal:

Zest: The zest is the term used for the peel of any citrus fruit, with the bitter white part removed. Think of the zest as the essence of the citrus fruit. It stores all the volatile oils — that’s where you find the most aroma and flavor of the whole fruit. Zest adds a tart, sharp fruity flavor and a bright color to recipes, and it works great cooked into hot dishes or used as a finishing garnish. To get the zest, use a vegetable peeler to remove the skin from the fruit, then separate the bright outer skin from the bitter, inner white part (called the pith) with a sharp knife. Finely slice or chop the zest into tiny bits and use it as you like.

Citrus segments are the individual wedges of fruits that you find in canned mandarin oranges, for example. Citrus segments are a great way to add a bit of natural sweetness to any tossed salad , and they are delicious added to a fresh vegetable salsa or served atop grilled fish.

How to segment citrus fruits:
1. Slice a little off the top and bottom – This gives you a stable cutting surface and will also make it easier to trim away the rest of the peel.
2. Trim away the skin and pith – You can use any knife you feel comfortable with for this step. Start at the top and slice downwards following the curve of the fruit. Try to cut away all of the skin and the pith without also taking too much of the fruit. We usually err on the side of caution and then go back afterward to trim up spots that we missed.
3. Cut into one of the segments – Use a paring knife for this step and have a bowl ready to catch the citrus juices. Slip the knife between one of the segments and the connective membrane. Cut until you reach the middle of the orange, but don’t cut through any of the membrane. Go slowly and keep your fingers out of the way!
4. Scoop out the segment – Use a scooping motion to turn the knife back on itself, hook under the bottom edge of the citrus segment, and pry it away. The side that is still attached to a membrane will peel away, leaving you with a perfect wedge.
5. Repeat with all the other segments – Continue on with the next segment. Slide your knife between the membrane and the segment, and then pop the segment out.

Juice: There is nothing quite like fresh citrus juice to complete any recipe at home. Added to olive oil and spices, it makes for a simple and healthy salad dressing. Create an unbeatable sauce for sauteed meats and seafood by adding fresh citrus juice and butter to the pan and adding seasonings. Perk up any soup with a squeeze of lemon or lime. Finish any steamed, baked, or sauteed vegetable with fresh citrus juice and sea salt (and perhaps a drizzle of olive oil) for a simple, artisanal side dish.


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