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IN THE LIMELIGHT Small citruses yield tart juice, aromatic oils, big, fresh taste

THE BALTIMORE SUN

At the risk of sounding older than I really am, I remember the days before lime became chic, when fresh limes were hard to find and most cooks had to make do with the sour juice in a fruit-shaped squeeze bottle.

That was before la nouvelle cuisine made lime the premier citrus fruit of the '80s. It was also before Perrier, with its inevitable wedge of lime, became the quaff of a nation. Few Northerners had ever tasted a Key lime. As for the perfumed kaffir lime from Thailand, it might as well have grown on the moon.

How we cooked without fresh lime juice boggles my imagination. Without it, there would be no daiquiris, no ceviche, no Key lime pie. Everything from salad dress-ings to marinades and sorbets would taste bland. In this age of reduced salt and low-fat cooking, lime is a miracle worker. It adds flavor and piquancy (not to mention loads of vitamin C and potassium), without calories or cholesterol. A lemon is merely sour, while a lime has both tartness and an exquisite taste.

The association of lime with warm-weather cooking is no accident. Limes are believed to have originated in India or Malaysia. The fruit requires a semi-tropical climate for growing. (Most of the limes consumed in the U.S. come from southern Florida and Mexico.) Limes were first grown on a large scale in southern Iraq and Persia. (Our word lime comes from the Arabic "limah.") The Moors introduced lime trees to Spain and southern Italy. The fruit isn't mentioned in English until 1638. Columbus liked limes enough to bring them to the New World in 1492.

To most people, lime means Persian lime, the plump, dark-skinned, seedless fruit we cut into wedges for garnishing cocktails. (The tree is propagated by cuttings.) Persian limes are appropriately named, as the fruit was first grown commercially in what today is southern Iraq. Today, Persian limes are a multimillion dollar industry in southern Florida, which supplies half the limes used in the United States.

The Key lime is a small (10 to 12 to a pound), yellowish-green fruit with a bracingly acerbic juice. Also known as Mexican lime or West Indian lime, the Key lime was extensively cultivated in the Florida Keys in the 19th and early 20th century. Key lime is the preferred lime throughout the Caribbean and Central and South America.

Key lime isn't for everybody, however. The trees are full of thorns, and the fruits are full of seeds. The juice has a mild acrid aftertaste that can be off-putting, although it's perfect for balancing the cloy of the sweetened condensed milk in Key lime pie. Key limes are acidic, but because they're picked at a riper stage than Persian limes, they also have a touch of sweetness. The tiny yellow fruit is available irregularly year round; peak season is winter. Most of the Key limes sold in the United States come from Haiti.

The world's most unusual lime is without a doubt Citrus hystrix, the kaffir lime, a pear-shaped fruit with a wrinkled warty rind. Popular in Southeast Asia, kaffir lime is prized for the perfumed oil in its skin and its leaves. (The latter taste like lime-scented bay leaves.) Grated kaffir lime rind is an essential ingredient in Thai curry paste, while the shredded leaves turn up in Thai hot and sour soup. You can also use the juice, but the fruit contains relatively little in proportion to its seeds. Thai peasants believe that washing your hair with kaffir lime juice will ward off evil spirits. Look for this unusual lime in Asian produce markets. The leaves are sold fresh, frozen and dried.

This brings us to the tangerine lime, which is sometimes sold at Hispanic markets. This large, round, green fruit with orange pulp and sour orange juice is a variety of the bitter orange.

The lime offers the cook two dynamic flavors: the sour juice and the aromatic oils in the rind. These oils are concentrated in the "zest," the dark outer rind. Remove it with a zester (a tool with a perforated flat blade), or a vegetable peeler, or a grater. Avoid the white pith, which is bitter.

To juice a lime, roll it hard on a work surface to rupture the juice sacs inside. Limes are drier than lemons, so you'll need to press hard. Depending on the size, a Persian lime contains two to four tablespoons juice. To make one cup of Key lime juice you'll need 10 to 14 Key limes.

The following dish could be thought of as French sashimi. Although uncooked, the fish isn't really raw: it is "cooked" by the acidity in the lime juice. This recipe comes from the restaurant Le Flamboyant in St. Barthelemy in the French West Indies. There, it is often prepared with grouper instead of salmon.

Lime-marinated salmon

Serves four.

12 ounces fresh salmon

1 clove garlic

2 shallots

1/4 cup finely chopped parsley

2 tablespoons finely chopped chives

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice, plus 8 lime wedges for garnish

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

salt and fresh black pepper

Cut the salmon on the diagonal into paper-thin slices. Mince the garlic, shallots, parsley and chives.

Arrange the salmon on four large plates, carpeting each plate with a single layer. Drizzle the lime juice and olive oil over the fish. Season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle the minced garlic, shallots, parsley and chives on top. Gently pat the fish with your fingertips to work in the flavorings. Garnish each plate with lime wedges and serve at once.

This tart, spicy soup is a specialty of many of Boston's Thai restaurants. It's easy to make, but you need to know about a few special ingredients. Coconut milk is made by infusing freshly grated coconut with boiling water. You can make it fresh (consult any Thai cookbook), or use a good canned brand, such as Chaokoh, from Thailand. Galangal is a cousin of ginger with a distinctive peppery flavor. It's available fresh, frozen or dried -- or you can substitute fresh ginger. Lemon grass is a spear-shaped herb with a delicate lemon flavor. It's available both fresh and dried. Fish sauce is made from pickled anchovies and is used throughout Southeast Asia. All of these ingredients are available at Thai or Vietnamese markets and at many gourmet shops.

Thai coconut-limechicken soup

Serves four.

2 cups chicken stock

4 stalks lemon grass, top third and roots discarded, thickly sliced on the diagonal

8 thin slices of galangal or ginger

8 kaffir lime leaves (optional)

2 cups unsweetened coconut milk

1 10-ounce skinless chicken breast, trimmed and thinly sliced

4 ounces straw mushrooms or white mushrooms

4 tablespoons fresh lime juice

4 tablespoons fish sauce

6 fresh basil leaves, julienned

4 small red chilies, julienned (optional)

Combine the chicken stock, lemon grass, galangal and kaffir lime leaves in a large saucepan and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the coconut milk and bring to a boil, whisking steadily. Simmer for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the soup has thickened to the consistency of heavy cream.

Reduce the heat to low. Add the chicken and mushrooms. Gently simmer for 2 to 3 minutes, or until cooked. Remove the pan from the stove and stir in the lime juice, fish sauce, basil and chilies. Correct the seasoning, adding lime juice or fish sauce as necessary to balance the saltiness and acidity.

This recipe comes from my Cuban friend Elida Proenza. The marinade is called "adobo," and Cubans use it for everything from fish to chicken to suckling pork. The sauce is called "mojo" and is spooned over boiled vegetables as well as seafood. Any type of fish or even chicken can be prepared in this fashion.

:,

Grilled swordfish with Cuban lime sauce

1 1/2 to 2 pounds swordfish, cut into 1/3 -inch thick steaks

FOR THE ADOBO MARINADE:

3 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup fresh lime juice

1/2 teaspoon cumin

fresh black pepper to taste

FOR THE MOJO SAUCE:

4 cloves garlic

2 shallots

4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 cup fresh lime juice

salt and fresh black pepper

Trim any bloody spots or gristle from the swordfish. Mash the garlic with the salt in a large flat bowl. Whisk in the lime juice, cumin and pepper. Marinate the swordfish in this mixture for 5 to 6 hours or overnight. Peel the garlic and shallots for the mojo and slice as thinly as possible.

Heat the grill. Cook the swordfish steaks over a high flame, basting with marinade, for 1 to 2 minutes per side or until cooked to taste.

Meanwhile, prepare the mojo. Heat 1/4 inch olive oil to smoking in a very small frying pan. Add the garlic and shallot slices and fry until golden brown. Stir in the lime juice, salt and pepper and bring to a boil. (Be careful -- the mixture may spatter a little.) Correct the seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste. Spoon the mojo over the swordfish and serve at once.

For the next recipe, if Key limes are unavailable, use two parts regular lime juice and one part lemon juice. Unlike most Key lime pies, this one is cooked, so you needn't fear eating raw eggs. The recipe comes from the Pier House resort in Key West.

Pier House's mile-high Key lime pie

Serves eight to ten.

FOR THE FILLING:

4 egg yolks

1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk

1/2 cup Key lime juice

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 8-inch graham cracker crust

FOR THE MERINGUE:

4 egg whites

4 tablespoons sugar

Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Beat the egg yolks in a mixer at high speed for 5 minutes. Add the sweetened condensed milk and beat at low speed for 1 minute. Add the cream of tartar, then the lime juice and beat until smooth.

Spoon the filling into the crust. Bake the pie for 15 minutes, or until set. (An inserted skewer will come out clean.) Cool the pie to room temperature, then freeze for at least 3 hours.

Prepare the meringue. Heat the oven to 500 degrees. Heat the egg whites in a double boiler with the 4 tablespoons sugar, stirring frequently, to 110 degrees. Beat the whites at high speed until they form stiff peaks.

Pipe or spread the meringue on top of the filling, forming decorative swirls. Bake the pie for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the top is nicely browned. Return the pie to the freezer and keep frozen until serving. Cut the Key lime pie into wedges to serve.

Raised in Baltimore, Steven Raichlen is an award-winning syndicated food columnist, cooking teacher and author of the new "Steven Raichlen's High-Flavor, Low-Fat Cooking" (Camden House Publishing, September 1992).

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