Citrus Magic: Lemons, Limes and Sour Oranges

It never ceases to amaze me how flavors come together in food preparation. In my opinion, cooking can be compared to alchemy. Like magic, ingredients and spices marry together to produce wondrous outcomes. A good cook seeks to balance flavors ranging from sweet, savory, spicy and acidic and transforms them into tasty delights. Too much of any one element can throw off the delicate balance and alter the flavor profile and outcome. It can take years of culinary experience to master flavors and techniques. There have been times when I thought that I knew almost everything about a particular ingredient; only to come across it prepared in a different and unfamiliar way that amazed me. My palate awakes and is excited to learn new tastes and I am then cast into absolute wonderment discovering something different. Isn’t it incredible that we can always learn new things once we are receptive to exploring? The discovery of world cuisines is like traveling to distant unknown shores. For me, one of the most important elements in cooking is the balance of sweet and sour. I love my food to taste fresh, light and bright and I often find that citrus is the perfect way to not only create that equilibrium but also enrich my flavors.

Citrus has always been a mainstay in my fresh food stocks. I always make sure that I have limes, lemons and sour oranges on hand. Citrus refers to a group of fruit which include oranges, lemons, limes, pomelos, mandarins and grapefruit. It seems that citrus varieties were first cultivated in the Himalayas and domesticated in South Eastern Asia. Citron was introduced to North Africa and the Arabian peninsula through the trade routes around the 10th century. Oranges were introduced to Europe from Asia by Portuguese traders around the 15th and 16th centuries. Oranges and lemons adapted and flourished in the Mediterranean climates of Spain, Portugal and Greece. The Spanish and Portuguese explorers carried limes and lemons to the Americas on their voyages in the early 16th century. The temperatures in the Caribbean and Florida were perfect for citrus plants to grow and thrive. In Europe during this period it was observed that those who consumed citrus regularly enjoyed better health and well being than those who did not. There was of course no knowledge of how nutrients worked in the body nor of how certain foods bolstered the proper functionality of metabolism. They just made a connection that among groups who had access to oranges, lemons, mandarins or limes were healthier than those who did not. This created a need and a marketplace for citrus.

Consuming citrus was seen as an elixir to ward off sickness and bolster the immune system. The high levels of ascorbic acid found in citrus were found to be a deterrent to scurvy. This sickness was prevalent among individuals who had limited access to sunlight or vitamin C. Common side effects of scurvy were lack of energy, depression as well as skin and bone deficiencies. Sailors often fell victim to scurvy which explains how important it was for sea travelers to procure stocks of citrus fruit on voyages. The Spanish and Portuguese planted citrus trees along their routes so that they could replenish their stocks during their voyages. The British Navy adopted the preservative measures of ensuring their sailors had a sufficient intake of citrus to ward off scurvy. This practice resulted in the moniker of British seamen being called “limeys”.

Lime, red hibiscus & catnip leaves to make a homemade tisane for a cold.

Limes and lemons are used intensely in Southeast Asian, Persian and Mexican cuisines. Indian, Thai and Vietnamese recipes commonly use the juice, zest, pulp and the citrus leaves in their dishes. Preserved limes and lemons are popular condiments in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines. Chutneys, salsas and sambals are all well known condiments in Asian and Latin cuisines. They all are made with the addition of the acidic flavors of citrus. Lime juice is a crucial ingredient in ceviche, guacamole or pico de Gallo. The tart fresh flavor is imperative in these well loved Mexican dishes.

The vibrant tastes and colors of pico de Gallo and guacamole

Limes are definitely more prevalent in my neck of the woods than lemons. The common variety grown in Haïti are the small tart key limes. All over the Caribbean region, limes are used in a multitude of ways. No seafood dish would ever be prepared without “liming down” raw fish, shrimp, squid, conch or lobster to remove all rankness. Fresh lime juice adds zing and brightness to dishes and makes seafood especially palatable. Don’t ever use bottled lime or lemon juice if it can be avoided, as there is little comparison with the taste of fresh squeezed citrus.

Miso salmon with sautéed eschallots enhanced with lemon

Limes and lemons are cousins and can sometimes be used interchangeably. However, if a recipe calls for a particular one, it is probably due to a specific level of acidity required for the dish. This is especially the case for desserts and baked goods. For example if you are making a lemon meringue pie, do not use green skinned limes in place of yellow lemons. The ratio and intensity of the lime juice versus lemon juice will be affect the outcome and tartness. The quantity of sugar will also have to be adjusted. The same goes for successfully making a key lime pie. Only the small green key limes can be used to achieve the eye squinting tart effect synonymous with this dessert. This sourness is paired with ultra sweet condensed milk making up the basics of the filling of the pie. This effect cannot be attained by using lemons.

Local key limes

Lemons are great for seafood and poultry dishes as they enhance without the strong tartness of lime. I personally prefer a limes for seafood and lemons for poultry. I love the brightness of Meyer lemons married with garlic and olive oil for roast chicken. When comparing the juice content per fruit, lemons definitely give a greater yield than limes. Lemon zest is not bitter and gives a clean fresh taste to foods. I love to add fresh zest to salads and dressings, to fruit desserts, vanilla cakes as well as porridges or custards. A little lemon juice balances out sweetness perfectly. Homemade fruit preserves that may be too sweet can often be balanced by the addition of some lemon juice.

Rosemary Lemon Roast Chicken; recipe posted in previous post.

A slice of lemon is a perfect addition to a cool glass of water and adds a really refreshing twist with absolutely no guilt. Try adding a squeeze of lemon to steamed broccoli, Brussel sprouts or green beans along with a bit of fresh zest. You will be presently surprised at how much of a flavor booster this can be. A bit of lemon juice added to green vegetables helps to keep the colors bright and vibrant. Lemon juice can also prevent apple slices and avocado from turning brown.

Here are a few other great things to do with lemons or limes when they are in season and you can stock up on them.

1. A great warm beverage which is excellent for colds or a sore throat, add few slices of lemon into boiling water and sweeten with honey. Lime juice can be used but the skins should not be left to steep as they have a tendency to become bitter.

2. Make some lemon curd when lemons are in season. It’s the perfect addition to layer cakes, make pies, eat on pancakes or waffles.

Homemade Lemon Curd

3. Add lemon rind to your simple sugar syrup for a lovely flavor addition to your cocktails.

4. Lemons and limes are great for cleaning brass and chrome. Make a paste of the juice and baking soda or salt. Coat the surface, leave for 5 minutes, rinse and dry.

5. Put squeezed lemon or lime halves into your sink disposal and grind them up. This refreshes and sanitizes the area and makes the sink smell clean.

6. Clean your cutting boards with a cut lemon or lime. Especially good after chopping pungent ingredients like onions and garlic.

7. Make a simple vinaigrette with lemon juice, crushed garlic, sea salt, freshly ground black pepper and olive oil instead of a bottled salad dressing. It’s lighter, tastier and better for you.

Steamed artichokes with lemon garlic vinaigrette

Here’s my recipe for one of my quick and easy salad dressings. I love this one for green salads or crudités like steamed artichokes. It’s also very good with quinoa.

Tangy citrusy quinoa salad

Bright and Tasty Lemon Garlic Vinaigrette

2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice

¼ cup red wine vinegar

2 tbsp dijon mustard

1 clove garlic, minced

½ tsp sea salt

¼ tsp black pepper

1 tbsp honey

½ cup olive oil

Grated lemon zest

Directions

In a bowl, add the minced garlic, salt, black pepper, honey, lemon zest & dijon mustard. Mix together to incorporate.

Add the red wine vinegar and lemon juice and stir together well.

Slowly add the olive oil and beat vigorously with a whisk to emulsify.

You may also shake the vinaigrette in a jar or a cruet to emulsify.

Serve with your favorite salad.

Keep refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.

A platter of Griot, fried pressed green plantains and spicy Haitian slaw

Spicy Haitian Slaw

Ingredients

½ head cabbage thinly sliced

1 red onion thinly sliced

1 carrot julienned

2-3 radishes julienned

1 scotch bonnet pepper finely chopped (plus more if you prefer)

½ cup lime juice

½ cup white vinegar

Salt & black pepper to taste

Place all prepared vegetables in a large bowl.

In a small bowl, mix together vinegar, lime juice , hot peppers, salt and black pepper.

Pour over the cabbage mix and combine well. Allow to sit and macerate for at least an hour.

Limes are tarter and add the real acidic sour factor to foods and drinks. They are an astringent and are full of vitamin C. A tall glass of ice cold lime juice or lemonade is so refreshing and delicious on a hot day. In the caribbean, a Planter’s Punch is made with freshly squeezed lime juice, rum and simple syrup as its base ingredients. This can be jazzed up with orange or pineapple juice, grenadine syrup, a few dashes of angostura bitters and a fresh grating of nutmeg for a true taste of the islands. A “Ti ponche” is common in the French islands and is basically made with fresh quartered limes squeezed into individual glasses along with brown sugar and Rhum agricole or clairin made from freshly pressed cane juice as opposed to rum made from molasses. Both are delicious rum drinks and are ubiquitous caribbean libations. A sore throat remedy called a grog is made with lime juice, honey or sugar cane syrup and rum.

Limes are used in everyday cooking in the Caribbean and is a kitchen and household necessity. Poultry and seafood are washed and cleaned with lime before cooking. Yes I know in many developed countries most people buy their meats and poultry and cook them straight from the pack without washing them off, but in the Caribbean, we clean off all of our meats before seasoning them. Often they are rinsed with lime juice, sour oranges or vinegar.

Spice blend for making Griot

Sour oranges

Sour oranges or Seville Oranges are larger citrus with bumpy exteriors and thick white rinds which have a very tart, sour, acidic flavor. They are staples in a Haitian, Cuban and Latin American cuisine. The juice is not usually used for drinking like lemons, limes or oranges, but is sometimes used in herbal medicines. Meat marinades are made from the juice of the sour orange and mixed with garlic and herbs. A classic meat marinade called a Mojo is commonly used in Cuba, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and is the way to season meats and poultry giving a vibrant delicious flavor to food. In Haïti sour oranges are grown extensively as they are key in meat preparation as well. Some famous and beloved Haïtian dishes where sour orange juice is the key ingredient are the famous Griot (fried pork), beef tassot and Grilled Goat (kabrit boukanyè). Please never try these with lime or lemon juice as the outcome would not be the same. The sour orange flavor balances perfectly for these dishes with no strong sour residual taste.

Grilled goat Haitian style. The marinade is made with my green seasoning and the juice of sour oranges.

Here is a Cuban recipe which is a great homemade marinade for meats. I love the citrus marinade which is the quintessential cooking basic for Latin American food. The difference in flavors with this blend and the Haitian marinade is the addition of cumin and oregano. In Haïti we use leeks, thyme and hot peppers along with the sour orange juice. I have previously published my Haitian green seasoning recipe if you’re interested in exploring the seasoning base.

Classic Mojo Seasoning

Ingredients

2 tbsp crushed garlic

1 tsp salt

1 tsp black pepper

¼ cup sour orange juice

4 tbsp fresh orange juice

¼ cup olive oil

½ tsp oregano, chopped

¼ tsp ground cumin

Mix all ingredients together in a bowl. Use on chicken, pork or beef. Perfect marinade for grilled meats or as an all purpose marinade for meats for stews or roasts.

Did you know that two world renowned liqueurs are made from Haitian Sour orange peel? Grand Mariner which is a French spirit is made from Cognac infused with Orange peels to give the famous orang flavor of this delicious liqueur. The liqueur has been made since the 1880’s and always with Haitian sour oranges, as they are well known for their quality and distinct flavor. This is the quintessential digestive drink and very popular worldwide. Grand Marnier is also a key ingredient of the famous French dessert Crêpes Suzette. Triple sec is also a clear orange flavored liqueur made from white alcohol and sour orange peels. It is used in many cocktail recipes such as Sangria, Long Island ice tea or Kamikaze or can be drunk neat or on the rocks. The Marie Brizard company has been fabricating this delicious liqueur made also from Haitian sour orange rinds for over 100 years.

Sangria is a delicious fruity drink made with wine, triple sec and citrus juices.

So I am most thankful that citrus found its way across from Asia to the shores of the Caribbean over 400 years ago. Today it seems like it has always been a native crop in this part of the world, but in actuality the seeds were dispersed by our ancestors many, many centuries ago. It’s just fascinating to think about our food sources and how they have become integrated into a cuisine and culture far away from the area where they were first cultivated and perhaps used in ways far different from the original use.

Happy cooking and best wishes to you.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Ain says:

    Woaw! This is yet another excellent read! Great info and tips. I will try the tangy grilled goat (lamb chops is easier to get here) but is there a substitute for sour orange?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey, there is no real substitute for this. However in this case you can try to find sour orange juice from Latin American supermarket if possible. I have used the badia brand in a pinch and it’s okay. Lam chops would work, but if you can source goat, it’s really worth it.

      Like

  2. kikaduval says:

    Hello Mrs. BrunYou may or may not remember me. I am Frederika Laraque Duval, I worked with Michael and Pascal at Ecole Montessori d’Haiti. I wanted to tell you how I enjoy reading and experimenting your recipes, I love discovering new and old dishes from your Instagram account also ( I follow you from my account, koukiloso). Thank you so much for sharing your delicious recipes. Not everyone shares those, and I am always grateful to read yours. I am very happy to see how the boys have grown into happy , successful men ! Congratulations on a job well done! Have  a wonderful mother’s day, and thanks again for sharing your knowledge with us !Frederika.Sent from my Samsung Galaxy smartphone.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Frederika,

      Of course I know you and I appreciate your support in my blogging. Thank you so very much for reaching out to me; it affirms my work all the more. I am so happy to hear that you have been trying recipes and finding helpful tips.I am working on a book. Hopefully I can get it done this year.

      My boys are well and I am so very proud of them i am so thankful for their work and characters. It is always good to celebrate Mother’s Day and to have them in my life…even though sometimes the celebrations are from a distance. Happy Mother’s Day to you as well. I truly enjoyed hearing from you. Wishing you all the very best. Xo

      Like

  3. Carol Ann says:

    Loved today’s blog. Very informative. Seville oranges difficult to find here. Liked how you differentiated the uses of limes vs lemons vs sour oranges.

    Like

    1. Thank you Carol Ann. A,ways happy to hear back from my readers. I thought the sour oranges/ Seville oranges where available in Guyana.

      Like

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