Zest: The wonder of naked fruit

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April 20, 2016

If you have a lemon tree in your yard I envy you. If you have an orange and a lemon tree in your yard I really envy you and if you have a lemon, orange and lime tree in your yard…well.

Citrus has always held sway over my tastebuds. I can remember sucking on lemons doused with salt as a child. It’s a wonder I have any enamel left on my teeth. But in the last ten years or so I have found a new fascination with sour fruit; their skins. The colorful, oily skin of citrus encompasses a world of flavor without the sour. And I’m crazy about it.

While writing my most recent book, Sweet and Tart: 70 Irresistible recipes with citrus, I discovered that the zest of mandarin, minneola and navel oranges are all distinctly different as is the zest of every day lemons from Meyer lemons. It seemed a shame to waste any of that flavorful skin when squeezing juice and so even if I didn’t need the zest in the recipe I would zest away with my microplane (more on that later) and save the colorful flecs to sprinkle over dinner. Not surprisingly it made almost everything taste more interesting.

I became a voyeur of citrus and found that their beauty was in fact, skin deep. When choosing citrus for juice, I chose heavy fruit with a thinner skin. When choosing citrus for zest I chose thicker skinned fruit which seemed to have a thicker layer of pith but also a more oily and therefore more flavorful skin. Color also came into play with bright orange minneolas at the top of the zesty flavor list and more mundane and sometimes slightly green tinged navels at the bottom.

You must purchase a microplane if you want to become really serious about zest. They are inexpensive and make the job super easy. Back in culinary school we rubbed the skin of oranges with sugar cubes until they were a saturated orange. This is a great way to capture the fruit’s essence if you are making something sweet or just dropping the orangey sugar cube into a cup of tea. This technique was probably the mode d’emploi for generations of French chefs but the microplane has definitely eclipsed that chore.

When I worked as a baker we would zest piles of oranges for the sour cherry scones that we made every day. I can remember an oily, orange haze spread over the white counter where we worked and how I would try to keep as much of that spray inside the mixing bowl, husbanding that flavor for the scones. We would make jokes about the naked lemons and oranges in the walk-in, trying to come up with ways to use all the juice when after all, it was the skin that we prized.


So the next time you are going to squeeze citrus, zest it first and save it for something like a gremolata to sprinkle over pasta, meats, soups and stews. A simple combination of zest, garlic and parsley, gremolata amps up the flavor quotient and adds sophistication to the most basic dishes. Plus it will make you look like a culinary superstar. Or just add a little lemon zest to chicken soup. It’s a game changer. Or shove it under the skin of a chicken before roasting. It’s like chicken perfume.

If you’re a baker, add zest to cakes, scones, cookies and pies. Really. Even chocolate loves orange zest and apples, cherries and pears adore a little lemon flavor.

The panna cotta recipe below is one of my favorites and a perfect dessert for the warmer months looming ahead. If you can’t find blood oranges just use navels or minneolas. It will be terrific either way.

Organic fruit is not always available, so scrubbing away the wax and residual pesticides is a must when using zest in a recipe. Hot water, a little dish soap and a scrubby sponge seems to do the trick but organic is the preferable route. Or plucked from a tree in your backyard, of course. Lucky you.

Classic Gremolata

2 tablespoons minced parsley
1 lemon or orange, zested
1 clove garlic, minced

Combine all ingredients and sprinkle over soups, stews and grilled meats or slip under the skin of chicken before roasting or grilling.

Sweet and Tart_Blood Orange Panna Cotta

Blood Orange Panna Cotta with Blood Orange Compote

From Sweet and Tart: 70 Irresistible recipes with citrus (Chronicle Books)

Start to finish: 5 hours
Hands on time: 45 minutes

Panna cotta is a creamy Italian milk based dessert held together with just enough gelatin to keep it from falling into a puddle on your plate. The best ones have good jiggle. It’s brilliant for infusing other flavors and here I’ve used blood orange. Tagged with an unfortunate moniker, the blood orange’s crimson colored flesh is almost raspberry-like with a deeper flavor than the more familiar navel orange.

To paraphrase The LA Times Food and Wine Editor, Russ Parsons, the best panna cotta is like a dream of cream held together by faith and just a little bit of gelatin.

It’s that easy: You can reuse vanilla beans. The flavor won’t be as strong but there’s still lots going on in the pod. Rinse and dry and 1) plunge ino a few cups of sugar to flavor it for a topping on sugar cookies, 2) plunge into a bottle of vodka, just keep adding beans as you have them, 3) Add to mulled ciders, 4) add to simple syrups for cocktails.

Serves 6

Vegetable oil for brushing the ramekins
Zest from 2 blood oranges
1/2 cup/120 ml blood orange juice
One 1/4 oz/7 g packet unflavored gelatin
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 cup/240 ml whipping cream
1/2 cup/100 g sugar
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
Pinch of salt
1 1/2 cups/360 ml buttermilk

Brush six 1 cup/240 ml ramekins with vegetable oil and set aside.

Set the orange zest aside and squeeze the juice into a small bowl. Sprinkle the gelatin over the top to let it soften for 10 minutes.

Heat the whipping cream with the sugar, vanilla bean, salt and orange zest to a simmer over medium heat. Remove the pan from the heat, pour in the orange gelatin mixture and stir until the gelatin has dissolved. Cover and let steep for 30 minutes to blend the flavors. Remove the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds from the bean into the cream. Discard the bean or rinse it off, dry it to use for another purpose (see It’s that easy).

Strain the mixture into the buttermilk and stir to combine. Divide the panna cotta among the prepared ramekins and refrigerate until set, about 4 hours.

To serve, run a sharp knife around the edges to break the suction, place a serving plate over the top and invert the ramekin so that the dessert settles onto the plate. If it doesn’t release, dip the bottom of the ramekin into hot water for a few seconds then try again.


1/2 cup/120 ml water
1/2 cup/100 g sugar
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
Zest of 1 blood orange
3 blood oranges, sectioned

Combine the water, sugar, lemon juice, vanilla bean and zest in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce the heat and cook until syrupy, about 5 minutes. Remove the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds back into the syrup. Discard the bean or rinse it off, dry it to use for another purpose (see It’s that easy).

Cool the syrup and add the blood orange sections. Chill and spoon over the blood orange panna cotta.

In my ears: Backyard Party


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