One of the most important steps in a cook’s education is learning what ingredients make happy combinations. This is usually a function of time and experience, as each cook works with new ingredients and learns how they interact. There are many guides available in print and online to shorten the learning curve, and some ingredients naturally lend themselves to numerous flavor combinations. Lemons are one of those.
Lemons and Saffron
Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice. The pungent, richly-colored threads must be laboriously harvested from crocuses, and separated by hand. Saffron lends a vivid yellow color and unmistakable flavor to many festive dishes. It has a noteworthy affinity for many foods, including rice, seafood and citrus fruit. Try combining lemon and saffron in a sauce for fish, or serve simple baked or grilled fish dishes on a bed of saffron-scented rice with lemon wedges. For a soothing winter beverage, steep a slice of lemon, a spoonful of honey and a few saffron threads in hot water.
Lemons, Pepper and Hot Foods
Acidity and spicy heat complement each other well, and lemon’s bright flavor works with chilies or black pepper. Combine lemon and coarsely-ground black pepper with honey to make a glaze for pork or chicken. Lemon zest is an excellent foil for chili peppers in fruit salsas or chutneys. Salmon has a mild but insistent flavor and is high in healthy fats; a lemon sauce with horseradish will complement it wonderfully.
Lemons with Cardamom, Mastic or Juniper Berries
Lemons contain a terpene, or flavor compound, that is faintly reminiscent of pine forests. They are a natural match for spices that share the quality, such as cardamom, mastic or juniper berries. Try adding lemon zest to pastry recipes calling for cardamom, and see how they complement each other. Lemons are widely used in Greek cooking to complement herbs and mastic, a spice made from the gum of a small evergreen. Juniper berries are the main flavoring in gin, which is why a twist of lemon works with it so well.
Lemons and Fresh Herbs
Lemons work well with most of the common culinary herbs. Thyme, rosemary, marjoram and oregano all correspond to terpenes in lemons and lemon zest. Greek food commonly combines lemons with all of those herbs. Lemons and dill pair well with fish and shellfish. The famously rich Italian winter dish osso buco is traditionally lightened with a mixture of parsley, lemon zest and garlic. Cilantro has a distinctly citrusy note, both in the fresh leaves and in coriander, its seed. Lemon and coriander seed are an especially favorable combination with lamb.
References and Resources"On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, Revised Second Edition"; Harold S. McGee, 1984
"The Flavor Bible"; Karen Page et al; 2008