A discovery of candied lemon rind
Potlucks kind of make me panic; I’m a big fan of food that makes sense together. Yet, I enjoy the challenge of putting foods from different cultures together when their basic ingredients are complementary. This is easier when you do all the cooking yourself and just invite your guests to show up hungry. For a recent BBQ dinner, I wanted to serve smoked brisket, Texas-style (low and slow, 12 hours over post-oak coals), but I challenged myself to avoid the standard side dishes. I started my research where I always do: the Anythink shelves. I’ve been turning to books focused on vegetables for inspiration. My favorites have been anything with Middle East flavors, and it wasn’t a surprise when I picked up another Yotam Ottolenghi title, Plenty More. This was the follow up to Plenty, the book that launched his food celebrity status 10 years ago. Both of these books are still solid titles for exploring new flavors. In the introduction to Plenty More, Ottolenghi writes, “My collection of cookbooks and magazines take me on journeys into the creative minds of other cooks, or their heritage, or both.” That’s exactly how I like to research, and why I return to Anythink’s shelves.
For my BBQ dinner, I found two salads from Ottolenghi I thought would work: 1) Globe Artichoke and Mozzarella with Candied Lemon and 2) Beet and Rhubarb Salad. To me, rhubarb and roasted beets sounded like picnicky elements that might go well with BBQ. The rest of the recipe included red onions and gorgonzola lightly tossed in a sherry vinegar, pomegranate molasses and maple syrup dressing. The sweet and sour mixture seemed like a good balance to the rich, smoky brisket.
I chose the other dish — Artichoke, Fresh Mozzarella and Candied Lemon — for several reasons: I could imagine its bright tangy freshness would also complement meat; I could serve it over some young lettuce from my garden as I needed to thin out the rows, and I was especially intrigued by the candied lemon – something I’d never encountered before. The method was to cut long pieces of lemon rind, avoiding the white pithy part, slice it into very thin strips, and simmer in a liquid that was basically simple syrup, and then let cool and firm up. The result was like a pile of sweet, glassy fronds from some fantastical bright yellow tree. I expected the taste to be akin to preserved lemon, but there was no salty depth like a mouthful of citrus seawater. Instead these were bright and fresh, and the sweetness just masked a pleasant bitter-marmalade trace. The recipe also included parsley, mint and basil leaves in a garlicky olive oil. I was really looking forward to serving this.
My plan for the meal: start everyone off with mojitos and skillet roasted, chili-spiced peanuts. Then we move to creamed corn with fresh bacon bits and green onions (the only truly Southern dish), followed by the two salads from Plenty More, along with the brisket, cheap white bread and some BBQ sauce options. This was a mixed-up feast with flavors, textures and colors that celebrated adventurous eating while making sense for BBQ.
The dinner included a lot of prep ahead of time. I packed everything up in kits and carted it all to the dinner destination (the home of our quarantine friends in this case). As I was constructing and plating everything, the candied lemon slices were not with all the other ingredients for that dish, and I forgot them. The guests were enjoying the salads and I went back into the kitchen to slice the brisket. After a few minutes, I saw the candied lemon on the counter. Wait, wait! I circled the table adding it to any salad that was left and we all discovered together that the lemon elevated the dish. Somehow the mozzarella became creamier, the herbs became fresher, and the greens became...more green, if you know what I mean. Every time I explore new dishes, there’s always one tiny element that stands out as most exciting, and I’m so glad I didn’t forget it completely.
If you are inclined to kitchen adventures like I am, exploring how various flavors might complement each other, or if it’s just too hard to decide on one kind of cuisine for a dinner party, take a journey through the cookbooks at Anythink.