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.