The best way to lighten things up? Citrus.
“It adds brightness, freshness, it accentuates other flavors,” says cookbook writer Michael Ruhlman, author of Ruhlman’s Twenty.
Whether it comes from orange, lemon or lime, the acid in citrus fruits balances fat, the way vinegar balances oil in a dressing. It invites salt and awakens the palate. Citrus zest offers bite with its intensely fragrant oils. Used together – as in the lemon-lime sweet potatoes here – the juice and zest create levels of sweet-sour-bitter that play out across your tongue.
“Citrus fruits have a double life,” says Niki Segnit, the author of The Flavor Thesaurus. “The juice is sour, the zest is bitter. You have two different flavors you can play with.”
Oranges are the world’s most popular citrus fruit, Segnit says, their broad flavor assuring that they play well with most others. Your everyday orange loves apples, fennel and chocolate, but it is so rich in undertones that it also offers surprising combinations, such as our asparagus recipe below.
The sharp, intensely sour juice of limes adds spunk to sugary items, but we often turn to lemons as the workhorse of the kitchen. Their bracing juice highlights almost any flavor, from sweet apple to piney rosemary, and lemon often is what stands between a chef and a one-note dish.
Trim and steam 2 bunches of asparagus until bright green and just tender, about 5 to 7 minutes. In a small saucepan over medium heat, whisk together 1/4 cup orange marmalade, 2 tablespoons lime juice, 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika and 1/4 teaspoon cumin. Bring to a simmer, then season with salt and pepper. Toss the asparagus in the glaze and sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds. Serves 6.
EASY CITRUS-HERB CRANBERRY SAUCE
Cut 3 clementines in half. Remove any seeds. In a processor, pulse the clementine halves until finely chopped. Add 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme, 1 teaspoon chopped fresh marjoram and 1 tablespoon chopped chives. Pulse to mix, then transfer to a bowl and stir in a 14-ounce can of whole-berry cranberry sauce. Season with salt and pepper. Serves 12.
In a small skillet over medium heat, melt 4 tablespoons of butter with the zest of 1 lemon and 2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary. Cook for 1 minute. On a lightly floured surface, roll out a 20-ounce ball of purchased pizza dough to a 12-by-18-inch rectangle. Cut into 1-inch strips. Brush with the lemon-rosemary butter, then transfer to a lightly oiled baking sheet, twisting if desired. Allow to rest at room temperature for 20 minutes. Bake for 20 minutes at 350 F. Serves 12.