The fruit cuts through the starchy rice, butter, stock and cheese
While they are as much a year-round fixed kitchen component as milk, flour, forks and washing-up liquid, lemons particularly come into their own at this time of year. For, although they can be cultivated perennially, this is their true season in the eastern hemisphere. And it couldn’t be better timing, nature summoning the brightest, most playful and irreducible fruit for the darkest, coldest days.
This is the point where I usually insert a story about living in the land where the lemons grow, but I have done that for the last two years in this column. Also, I’ve just reread the lemon chapter in Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book where she quotes Goethe – “Do you know that country, where the lemon trees flower” – and refers to it as the best but also most hackneyed poem, which in turn made me feel hackneyed. Her description of drinking a cold lemon spremuta is spot on: how the crystals of sugar collect at the bottom of the glass, how lemon-ish it is, and acidic, so much so that it makes your throat a bit sore for a while. It is the same with glycerin, lemon and honey, a mum’s cure for sore throats that exacerbates before it soothes and you fall asleep with sticky lemon lips and slightly numb tonsils.
In February, lemons, abundant and good, become the main ingredient, in throat-tickling, lip cut-stinging lemonade (which I have always thought of as a winter drink); and in marmalade, glossy curd, fierce pickles, moons preserved under an avalanche of coarse salt (not that I have ever done this), the heart of a Margaret Costa lemon surprise pudding – the baked pud with surprise pool of lemon curd at the bottom – one of the very best recipes from one of the very best books (Four Seasons Cookery Book), and the essence of Fabrizia Lanza’s Sicilian pudding. And, while baking a butter rubbed chicken with a lemon stuffed inside has no season, it seems particularly appropriate at this time of year, the rich, lemon scented (italians say aspro) gravy waiting for boiled potatoes or wilted greens.
There is also risotto al limone, which, like salt toothpaste and lemon halves on elbows, didn’t appeal when I first spotted it by way of Anna del Conte, who was given the recipe by Romana Bosco, who was taught it by Giovanna Gloria – recipe credits rather like the accumulative game of When I Went Shopping.
It was a question from a reader that prompted me to try a risotto with lemon as its star.
Risotto, a (hopefully) harmonious fusion of starchy rice, butter, stock and cheese, is, by its very nature, rich and creamy, the addition of mascarpone/robiola (my choice) or cream (Del Conte also suggests an egg yolk) making it even more so, which is why the lemon is so important and beautiful. The effect is twofold: the zest, with its essential oil, acts as an almost hot perfume, while the juice gives acidity, a blithe spirit up against the richness – which is, in turn, edible defence against these February days with their grey sky afternoons and interminable evenings.
Prep 15 min
Cook 30 min
2 tbsp olive oil
2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
1 stick celery, finely chopped
Salt and black pepper
350g risotto rice (arborio or canaroli)
100ml dry white wine or 50ml dry vermouth
1-1.25 litres light chicken or vegetable stock, simmering
1 large unwaxed lemon (zest and juice)
75g mascarpone or robiola
60g parmesan, grated
In a large, heavy-based frying pan or enamel-based cast iron casserole, warm half the butter and all the oil over a medium-low flame then gently fry/ stew the onion and celery along with a pinch of salt until soft and translucent – this will take about seven minutes. Add the rice and stir until each grain glistens – you want them to become partly translucent and to smell slightly toasty.
In another pan on the back of the stove, keep the stock at a simmer.
Raise the flame, add the wine or vermouth and let it bubble and evaporate for a minute. Start to add the stock, ladle by ladle, stirring continuously while everything bubbles at a lively pace, allowing each ladleful to be absorbed by the rice before adding the next. Add the lemon zest after 10 minutes. Continue until the rice is tender but with a slight nutty bite, and the risotto is soft and rippling. This can take anything from 17 – 25 minutes depending on the rice you are using: keep tasting.
Pull the pan from the heat and, using a wooden spoon, firmly beat the remaining butter, mascarpone, parmesan, two tablespoons of lemon juice and a generous grind of black pepper into the rice. Cover the pan and leave to rest for one minute. Beat again and serve.