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A friend recently mentioned how much he loves lemon zest, adding that he typically uses two to three times as much as a recipe recommends. He also prefers Eureka lemons to trendy Meyer lemons but my thoughts are the more lemons — and their zest — the better.

Right now, there are plenty of Meyer lemons in Sonoma County. Spring is not their traditional season but there are so many local trees, and they all seem to offer up their fruit at different times of the year. Lucky us.

No ingredient save salt makes foods come alive as much as lemon zest or a spritz of lemon does. The little burst of acid they contribute lifts the flavors of almost everything, and some people who avoid salt say that lemon juice works well in place of it. The two together — a bit of lemon, a bit of salt — work magic.

Some home cooks are uncertain about how exactly how to make lemon zest. There are several tools that facilitate the process, and the one used throughout much of the 20th century, the one our mothers and grandmothers likely used, is the most difficult. Most graters have a zesting blade, but it is awkward and almost always results in a bit of flesh in that zest, as it is nearly impossible not to scrape your knuckles. A better alternative is to use a vegetable peeler to take off the thinnest outer layer of the lemon, the yellow part, and then use a knife to mince it.

There is an even better option now, one that has become enormously popular since its creation a couple of decades ago. The microplane zester was inspired by a tool used by woodworkers, and it is an absolute genius invention. Not only does it remove the thinnest outer layer of zest from citrus; it also keeps all the zest usable, so that you are not losing as much as half of it in the holes of a flat or box grater. After a good sharp knife it is probably the most useful kitchen tool you can buy.

The first microplane zester is still the most useful, at least for my purposes. It is a long narrow piece of sturdy stainless steel with zesting holes that run the length of it. There is no handle. This one was such a success that there are now several others, some with handles, some that grate cheese, others with a broader surface. But that first one, well, it’s a magical piece of work and, honestly, all you need.

One thing to understand about citrus zest is that its volatile oils dissipate into the atmosphere fairly quickly after being removed from the fruit. If you are not going to use what you’ve grated immediately, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap. If you jave a cache of lemons that you want to save, you can remove all the zest, wrap it tightly, and freeze and then juice the lemons and freeze the juice. You can do the same with limes and, if you are lucky enough to have some, yuzu, a Japanese citrus with a tanginess similar to lemons.


This is one of those dishes you can make on a weeknight without a recipe. It is both rich and refreshing and needs nothing more than a green salad and, if not using peas or favas, a simple green vegetable alongside. Be sure, though, to use a fresh ricotta, preferably local, or you will be disappointed with the results.

Spring Pasta with Fresh Ricotta & Lemon Zest

Serves 3 to 4

— Kosher salt

8 ounces medium-shaped pasta, such as gnocchi (the shape, not the dumpling), cavatappi, orrecchiette, campanelle, or cappelletti

6 ounces fresh ricotta, such as Bellwether Farms, or fresh farmers cheese

— Grated zest of 1 or 2 lemons

2 teaspoons lightly crushed brined green peppercorns

— Optional: Handful of shelled and blanched English peas or shalled, blanched and peeled fresh fava beans

— Handful of fresh Italian parsley leaves, chopped

1/3 cup best-quality extra virgin olive oil or Meyer Lemon olive oil

— Black pepper in a mill

Fill a medium saucepan two-thirds full with water, add 3 tablespoons of kosher salt, and bring to a boil over high heat. When the water reaches a rolling boil, add the pasta, stir until the water returns to a boil, and cook according to package directions until just tender.

Meanwhile, put the ricotta, lemon zest and peppercorns into a wide shallow bowl. Add the peas or favas, if using, and the parsley, and set aside.

When the pasta is cooked, drain it but do not rinse it. Tip it into the bowl with the other ingredients and toss gently to distribute all the ingredients evenly. Add the olive oil, toss again, taste, correct for salt and season generously with black pepper. Enjoy right away.


This is a variation of one of my most requested recipes, originally published in “Salt & Pepper” (Broadway Books, 1999). Here, it is updated to use chicken thighs instead of a whole chicken.

Chicken Thighs Alla Diavola

Serves 4 to 8

8 chicken thighs or 4 chicken leg-thigh pieces, preferably pastured chicken

3 tablespoons black peppercorns, coarsely crushed

3 teaspoons kosher salt

— Grated zest of 1 or 2 lemons

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice

1/2 cup best-quality extra virgin olive oil

2 lemons, cut into wedges

1 large bunch Italian parsley, large stems removed, 8 ounces of baby spinach, or about 4 cups of freshly shredded sorrel

Rinse the chicken under cool water and pat it dry with a clean tea towel. Set the chicken, skin side up, in a single layer in a glass baking dish.

Sprinkle the black pepper over the chicken, turning it so that both sides are evenly coated. Follow with the salt and the lemon zest and then drizzle the lemon juice and olive oil over the chicken.

Cover tightly and let the chicken marinate, refrigerated, for at least 4 hours and as long as overnight. Turn the chicken in the marinade now and then.

To cook the chicken, prepare a fire in an outdoor grill. When the fire is ready, set the chicken skin-side up, on a rack about 5 inches above the coals. Cook for 15 minutes and baste once or twice with the marinade.

Turn the chicken over and cook for 10 minutes, then rotate it 90 degrees, to mark the skin. Continue cooking until the juices run clear, for another 10 to 20 minutes.

Spread the parsley, spinach, or sorrel over a serving platter.

When the chicken is fully cooked, transfer it to the platter, season with a little salt, and garnish with lemon wedges. Cover lightly with aluminum foil and let rest 10 minutes before serving.


This extremely easy to make and versatile dressing is delicious spooned over sliced avocado (with or without cottage cheese), grilled chicken, grilled fish, rice, and pasta. It is also an excellent dip for steamed artichokes, boiled shrimp, and vegetable crudités. You’ll enjoy it, too, over roasted asparagus and cauliflower and on steamed broccoli.

Simple Lemon Pepper Dressing

Makes about 1 cup

— Zest of 2 lemons

— Juice of 2 lemon

2 teaspoons kosher salt

3 tablespoons coarsely crushed black pepper

2/3 up extra virgin olive oil

Put the lemon zest, juice, salt, and black pepper into a 1-pint glass jar. Add the olive oil, close the jar, and shake the mixture. Taste and correct for salt.

Use right away or refrigerate and bring to room temperature before using. It will keep well in the fridge for 2 to 3 days.

Variation: Use lime zest and lime juice in place of lemon.

Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date, including “The Good Cook’s Book of Salt & Pepper.” Email her at michele@micheleannajordan.com

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