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The brightest twist

A little lime can do some heavy lifting. Just one zesty squeeze or hint of peel sends summer flavors soaring.

August 20, 2003|Regina Schrambling | Special to The Times

Limes are the unsung summer fruit.

They seem about as seasonal as onions, sitting there patiently in the produce aisle month after month as the calendar pages turn. But this time of year they look different. They're bigger, they're greener, they feel juicier when you grab them. Most telling, they're priced to sell .

All those are classic symptoms of prime condition and peak supplies, and they're exactly why my refrigerator has a drawer filled with limes right now. With their slightly sour but seriously fruity taste, Persian limes are made for summer cooking. Lemons need sugar. Limes are tangy enough to almost eat straight. Probably no other ingredient can enhance so many August indulgences with such a light squeeze. Limes add tart jazz to raspberries and strawberries, green beans and avocados, mangos and wild salmon, soft-shell crabs and even corn on the cob (juice a lime over a buttered ear, dust with chili powder and prepare to bite into another dimension).

Most people think of limes, if they think of them at all, as potential slices for sparkling water, or as the tequila-cutter in margaritas. But to me they are almost as essential as onions. Any recipe that calls for lemon will work even better with lime -- the substitution makes a dish a little twisty (lime meringue pie sounds almost exotic). I use lime instead of lemon in my bottomless-refill iced tea, in my cucumber yogurt soup and in just about any recipe where I want more flavor than bite.

Limes are not sweeter than their yellow cousins, but they seem fruitier. Their zest has a deep, almost oily pungency that, combined with the juice, comes through assertively even in baked desserts that tend to lose citrus intensity in the heat of the oven.

Lime is good raw, in a tuna ceviche with mangos and serrano chiles, and cooked, in a tart beurre blanc that makes a vibrant glaze for wild salmon filets or grilled veal chops. In fact, you can just about squeeze a meal out of limes, zinging every course from soup to salad to souffle.

Persian limes are a fat hybrid of the tiny Key (or Mexican) lime and another fruit called citron, which is now grown primarily for its rind. Unlike Key limes, which are all juice, Persian limes have a thick peel with a lot of pungency. They're the commercial favorite because they resist bugs and chill better than Key limes. They also are picked green partly to distinguish them from lemons -- left on the tree, they would turn orange and ultimately yellow. The flavor wouldn't change by ripening, however; they'd still be just as sour.

Tropical zest

The dark zest of that green peel is perfect for pumping up the lime flavor in desserts such as a blueberry tart with a sour cream filling or an old-fashioned pudding cake, the kind that separates as it bakes into both light cake and tangy sauce. Using only the zest, you can ratchet up the flavors without affecting the chemistry of a recipe, as in a buttery shortbread that would turn soggy if the juice were used.

I was first taken with limes on trips to the Caribbean, where bartenders were always squeezing them to make that quintessential cocktail called a rum punch, with twice as much dark rum as fresh juice, supplemented by simple syrup and lots of just-grated nutmeg over the top. To me there is no better-balanced mixed drink.

Limes are more common than lemons in the cooking of the Caribbean too, paired with fish or many other dishes. That may be why West Indian flavors seem most complementary with lime. I usually add a dash or two of Angostura bitters, from Trinidad, to accentuate the lime flavor in things such as shortbread and definitely in a rum punch. Nutmeg and ginger are also good partners -- freshly grated ginger gives a haunting back note to the lime in a pudding cake, for instance.

Mexican cooking also puts limes ahead of lemons in the kitchen. A little wedge is the garnish on any plate of tacos; a lot of juice "cooks" shrimp or scallops for ceviche. And Mexican mayonnaise, homemade or store-bought, takes on an edge from a little lime.

In Cuba, lime is the essential ingredient in the ubiquitous mojitos as well as those old-fashioned daiquiris in the Hemingway bar. But you will often see a slice or two tucked onto a plate of rice and beans in a country where seasonings are hard to come by. Just as lemons are great at vivifying dull fish, limes have terrific flavor-waking potential.

Like almost all citrus besides grapefruit, limes originated in Asia (most likely Malaysia) and were first cultivated in India. Their big moment in food history came in the late 1700s when the British deduced that the ascorbic acid (a.k.a. vitamin C) they contain prevented scurvy.

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