Thursday, August 9, 2012

Ingredient of the Month: Limes

Raise your margaritas and mojitos in a toast to a key ingredient in both of these libations, an ingredient that has sublimated its way across the spectrum of culinary courses: the lime.

Limes bear a similar shape to lemons, but are not as thick-skinned as their Crayola yellow cousins and they are a bit rounder and smaller.  The outer skin is green, a shade not that different from the inside of a peeled kiwi.  These citrus fruits, which are an excellent source of vitamin C, are grown in subtropical and tropical climates such as Florida, Mexico, South America, the Caribbean and India. There are two varieties of limes with which we are all familiar.  Persian limes are the limes that we routinely find in our nation’s supermarkets.  Key limes are grown in Florida.  While readily available in Florida, you will have to peruse the specialty gourmet markets elsewhere to find these smaller, rounder, yellowish-green specimens.

Limes made their trek to the New World stowed away on Columbus’ ship.  In subsequent years, the availability of limes in the Caribbean made them the preventative of choice for British sailors and explorers who were at risk for contracting scurvy.  Scurvy results from vitamin C deficiency, which threatened these shipmen who were cooped up at sea for lengthy durations.

Although the ubiquitous Persian limes can be purchased all year around, like most things they too have a season for peak flavor, beginning in the month of May and continuing throughout August.   When selecting limes, choose those that seem heavier than they should for their size.  Those will yield the most juice.  Avoid those with hardened or shriveled skin as well as those with excessive brown patches.  If you intend to use the limes within a week, they can be stored decoratively on the counter in a basket.  If you simply want to keep limes on hand for garnishing or last minute recipes, they can be stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

My favorite characteristic about limes is the ease of use: they don’t have any seeds!  Granted, I use a citrus juicer when a recipe calls for a significant amount of juice from a lemon or lime, which strains the lemon seeds out for me.  However, when I need a quick tablespoon or two of lemon juice, I don’t bother to pull out the juicer, only to have to hand wash the parts that are not dishwasher-safe after use, and I therefore have to hand pick all of those lemon seeds out of the juice I just extracted.  Not so with limes.  I also find limes to provide that perfect balance of sweet and sour, right in between the sweet oranges and the sour lemons.

The versatile lime is used in an array of cooking projects.  Limes feature prominently in Thai and Mexican dishes.  The juice can be used to marinate seafood for a ceviche.  Limes are used in such cocktails as the Mexican margarita and the Cuban mojito, as well as in a refreshing summer pitcher of limeade for a change of pace from the traditional lemonade.  In desserts, the highly celebrated Key Lime pie has become a sought-after indulgence, particularly in the hot summer months.  Combining limes with lemons and oranges makes a winning triple citrus combination that stars in just about everything, from cheesecakes to pasta sauces.  Here’s a dish I came up with for a summery pasta for two, featuring shrimp, tomatoes and a citrusy cream sauce.

Angel Hair with Shrimp, Tomatoes and Triple Cream Sauce

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large shallot, very thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, minced
½ cup seafood stock (Kitchen Basics makes one)
½ cup heavy cream
¼ cup white wine
2 tablespoons orange juice
1 tablespoon lime juice
½  tablespoon lemon juice
¼  teaspoon finely grated orange zest
¼  teaspoon finely grated lime zest
¼  teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced

4 ounces dry angel hair pasta

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 pound large shrimp, peeled, tails removed
1 pint grape tomatoes (red, yellow, orange – use what you like!)
½ teaspoon additional finely grated orange, lime and lemon zests, combined

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the shallot and garlic and sauté for about one minute.  Add the stock, heavy cream, wine, juices and zests.  Stir to combine, allow to boil gently for about ten minutes, stirring occasionally.  Stir in the basil.  Set sauce aside.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat.  Add the angel hair and stir.  Boil for about five to ten minutes, drain.

Meanwhile, in another skillet, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium high heat.  Add the shrimp and the tomatoes.  Saute until the shrimp have turned completely pink.  Stir into the sauce mixture.  Stir in the cooked pasta and toss well to combine.  Divide among two pasta bowls, very lightly sprinkle with the remaining ½ teaspoon zest combination.  Serves 2.

Personally, I love freshly made limeade as much as lemonade in the summertime.  It makes for a refreshing change and it’s just as easy to make – just swap out the lemons for limes.  With the help of a citrus juicer, it’s no trouble to make your own.  It only takes three ingredients, and you can actually pronounce, I’ll even daresay spell, every one of them!  Leave those instant powdered mixes on the store shelf.


1 ½  cups fresh lime juice
1 ¼ cups sugar
6 ½  cups water
1 lime, thinly sliced

Vigorously stir the lime juice and sugar together in a 2 quart pitcher, until combined.  Stir in the water, stir for several seconds.  Serve in tall glasses with ice cubes and slices of lime.  Makes 2 quarts.

For lemonade, swap out the limes for lemons.  For that ‘limon’ flavor that a certain soft drink company touted of their product back in the 70s, use a combination of lemons and limes.  Whichever variation you choose for this refreshing summer libation, be sure to taste for sweetness and add more sugar if desired.  Also give the mixture a good stir before each pour.

Tools and Tips of the Trade

When you embark on cooking with citrus fruits such as limes, there are a few items of note to keep in mind to make these dealings go more quickly.  Two key tools that every kitchen needs are an electric citrus juicer and a microplane.  The juicer will make quick work of making the limeade recipe above.  There are juicers available for about fifty dollars.  They usually have a nifty little pour spout that shoots the juice right into your measuring cup.  They also have a strainer insert to keep the seeds out of your recipe.  Most have two sizes of reamers to accommodate lemons and limes as well as larger oranges.  As I mentioned earlier, when your recipe calls for more than a tablespoon or two, cut the time and labor dramatically by calling in the juicer for help.  A microplane is a long, narrow grater used to finely grate things like zests or chocolate.  It’s a little more ergonomically friendly to work with than the traditional box grater and it seems to work better for shaving off fine gratings of citrus zest.  A couple of additional tools that you may want to pick up are a handheld wooden reamer, ideal for juicing just one lemon or lime for those times when hauling out the juicer seems like overkill, and a zester.  The zester differs from a microplane grater in that it will peel off strips of the peel.  Unlike a knife, removing strips of peel with a zester will avoid including the bitter white pith that lies just beneath the thin brightly colored skin.  These strips are commonly used in confections, marmalade and for garnish.

When you know that citrus fruits are going to be juiced, take them out of the refrigerator several hours ahead of time.  Room temperature fruits will give up more juice then chilled ones.  Before juicing, roll the fruit back and forth on the counter with your palms, applying gentle pressure.  This will also get the juices flowing, so to speak.  While this next tip should be obvious, you would be surprised how often it gets forgotten until it’s too late: if a recipe calls for both zest and juice, make sure you grate the zest BEFORE you cut the fruit in half for juicing. 

1 comment:

  1. As you alluded to, Thai cooking really runs with lime as an ingredient and does all sorts of interesting things with this fruit.