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Herbs Section

Limes

It's a fruit that we use as a spice. In Asian cooking it's "the one spice to bind them" that really does perform magic in the meal. In the West we actually throw away the best part and use the rest as confectionery flavouring. This food is full of surprises.

There's a lot more to Limes than cheap lolly and jellies flavouring. This is the spice that is not a spice, the fruit you won't eat and the flavour that gives that magic lift to almost everything puting basic good food into that gourmet class.

Tahitian Limes - the most popular variety in supermarkets
Tahitian Limes are the most common variety in supermarkets

Using limes in your cooking is a fast track to making gourmet meals. It turns meals into the type of food you will remember; the type others will go home and try and reproduce themselves. To be honest, when we really think about it, that magic that turns a meal from good to gourmet is really that little bit of creativity, experience, effort and a few extra ingredients and there's the catch. Knowing what goes together well.

"But I can't afford all those extra ingredients on my budget."

Yes you can and there's two you would be wise to always have in stock - coconut cream and limes. Together they create meals that taste smooth and exotic and if you are really worried about the cost, you can use them to create two entirely different meals at once! First you need to understand how limes actually work as a spice. Most spices impart a distinctive flavour or aroma to food, not so with limes. We are not trying to make the food taste of lime. We use lime to bring the flavours together - to unite then into a smooth mix of tastes and essences. But lime has another property in cooking - it "layers" flavours. When we eat an Indian curry, we taste curry. When we eat a Thai curry, we taste the curry and at least two or three other different flavours after the first curry taste had passed. This is the magic ability of lime when used as a spice.

The problem with using limes is they are expensive for most of the year and they don't keep for long at home (and much shorter in the fridge). To make it worse, they are ingredients that few people use, so supermarkets will often not stock them or when available, shops add extra onto their usual mark up, to cover wastage for the ones they may not sell. Limes, in season, can cost around $1.00 each. Out of season they can be up to $5.00 each.

At $1.00 each, I can add them to the budget because one lime will do four serves at least, increasing the serving cost by only 25c but at $5.00 each – forget it!

In a moment of desperation, I tried various options including using lime essence (I did say I was desperate!) but nothing could give the same result as fresh limes.

The problem is three fold:

  • I need to buy at the low price times, thereby spending less

  • I need some way of preserving them for later use at high price times.

  • Because it is expensive, I need to have minimal wastage.


Hola! I have finally solved this problem!
See below in the Preserving Limes section for the answers.

Using limes in cooking
When I want to add fresh lime to a dish, I simply pop out an ice cube of lime and put it into the cooking. The flavour is better that using a lime that has been three days in the fruit bowl and a cube of lime zest done this way will last a year as long as it's not thawed out. In Asia, lime is a savoury ingredient, a spice-like additive to main course dishes, especially in South East Asian cooking. Try telling them it is a confectionary flavouring!

Thai Cuisine dishes
Thai cuisine relies on Limes to give that unique layering effect of flavours

There are two distinctly different flavours we get from the lime. The first is the extremely sour juice that all Westerners associate with Limes and the second is the unique aroma (that is also in the juice in minute amounts ) that is concentrated as an aromatic oil, just under the skin and in the leaves. It is this flavour we use in stir fry cooking, in conjunction with other herbs and spices, that give Thai cuisine that unique "layering" of flavours.

If using the leaves, they must be fresh. dark green and glossy on the surface. Lime leaves are an unusual shape with a waist in the middle, like two leaves joined end to end. Add them whole to the food, once the liquor has begun to boil. Take them out at the last minute (the same way you would use Bay Leaves). Alternatively cut them up vary fine and add them to the cooking early so they break down before serving, rather than end up with what looks like tea leaves in your food.

Thai Cuisine dishes
Kaffir limes are warty on the outside, have very little juice inside but the leaves and thick skins are strong in flavour.

If using the fruit, wash and dry (to remove any sprays and dust) and grate the rind with a cheese grater. Use the medium rough side. The result will be flakes about half the size of a grain of rice, (called zest). Add these to the food as soon as the juices have begun to simmer. You are left with a bald lime – squeeze the juice into a glass and freeze it for amazing summer cordials or in an apple pie, to die for, that no-one will be able to copy.

Add a little, not enough to pick up the lime aroma, to any fruit dish and it will bring out the fruit flavours. In an apple pie it will leave the guests wondering why yours tastes so much better - it's a unique property of lime. In the next section we'll look at a dessert for a dollar that even the kids can make, that will have them asking for seconds and guessing how you did it and it's done with this unique property of limes.

The dollar dessert. Got visitors you want to impress but no money?

Here's a desert that will be a highlight – real Lime Jelly (Jello) – sounds average but try it before you judge. You can even get the kids to make this. It's best done in a glass bowl for visual impact and buy buying the jelly packets on special (down from 99c each to 3 for a $1.00) it worked out at only 70c per serve!

Get enough cheap lime jelly for your guests and one fresh lime for every four people (emphasis is on cheap).

Halve the limes and cut a thin slice off the face of each half and put the slices to one side.

Grate the green outer skin off the lime halves with a fine grater, like you'd use for parmesan cheese, to make lime zest, then squeeze out the juice.

Make up half your jelly and add half the zest and all the juice. (I always use a little less water than they say, when I make it). Place it in the fridge and allow to set.

Lay the lime slices on the set jelly.

Make up the other half of your jelly with the rest of the zest and juice. Gently pour over the top and leave to set. Serve chilled.

Real limre jelly
Real lime jelly for under a dollar a serve.

The jelly tastes like nothing out of the shops and the lime slices suspended in the jelly make a good visual display too. The beauty of this desert is that they will expect a typical green lime jelly dressed up to look fancy but once they taste it they won't believe it came from the shops!



Separator bar with green apple

Preserving Limes

The first rule when buying limes, is to buy them fresh. They should be deep green with no yellow areas anywhere. As limes age, they turn yellow. The skin should be shiny, hard and unyielding to the touch. It's best to buy limes from fruit shops with a high turnover of sales, where there is less likelihood they have been in storage for ages.

Asian fruit shop with really fresh produce

The juice is usually the most sought after part of the lime for Western cooking. It can be simply squeezed and chilled or frozen. Remember if you freeze any liquids, they expand when frozen and will break a glass container. Use only plastic containers for freezing liquids. Someone told me to use an ice cube tray - didn't work for me. They only partly froze and all stuck together. My freezer looked like the aftermath of a mah-jong tournament! I went to my pharmacist and for $5.00 got 10 plastic eye dropper bottles (with dropper). When I want lime juice, I thaw out the bottle and one eyedropper is 5mls or 1 teaspoon.

If you want that gourmet touch, you can also thinly slice whole limes and freeze them as whole slices by laying them on a sheet of plastic over an oven tray, in the freezer. Once frozen, remove the plastic and pack the limes into a plastic bag, layering the plastic between them. I cheat – (I keep the thin plastic from sheet pastry I buy and re-use it this way.). The frozen slices are great for garnish on gourmet salads, fish, and escalloped potatoes (added just prior to serving, to offset the red of slices of tomato). See the Real Lime Jelly recipe for a stunning dessert.

Making lime zest
Making lime zest, using a fine grater

I use limes often in Asian cooking and the zest is important to me, more so than the juice. When limes are in season, I buy about 6 limes. I take them home and straight away grate the outside green outer skin off with a nutmeg grater (the fine tooth side too fine for cheese grating). Each lime has been reduced to one white ball and a tiny green pile of gratings or lime zest. I put each pile of lime zest into a single cell of an ice cube tray. The skinless limes are cut in half and I squeeze any juice into a jug and dilute with a little water. I half fill the ice cube cells with the lime water and put it in the freezer to freeze solid. Many of the lime gratings will float on the watered juice in the ice tray but will be trapped, frozen on the top of the water. Tomorrow, I top up each cell so, when frozen, the lime gratings (or zest) is fully sealed in ice and will not lose it's aroma.

lime zest in ice tray

Lime zest in the ice tray ready for the first stage of freezing.

 

Sliced bread with afro hair

Hairy Bread?

In commercially baked goods they add a dough conditioner called L-cystiene also labeled as E920. It is an amino acid that speeds up dough rising by breaking down the gluten bonds. In pizza dough it reduces the elastic shrinkage when the do is spread out. It is harmless to us, in fact we synthesize it from our food anyway. It is not added to the flour we buy for the home, only commercial flour for baking.

L-cystiene is derived from hair and feathers. There's problem, here in the West we don't seem to have a problem with dissolved hair in our bread but much of the L-cystiene comes from India and China where food processing laws are not policed very heavily.

In China, with cases of body parts being removed from executed prisoners we are told, without consent of the relatives and it seems anything can be done for a price, who's to say where their L-cystiene raw materials are sourced from?

Islam and the Jewish faith forbids the use of human products in food. In one case a rabbi prohibited the consumption of L-cystiene because investigations revealed the hair had been harvested during a ritual at a temple in India. By the way, if you are concerned about food additives, be grateful you don't live in Victorian times. White lead ( a highly toxic carcinogen) was commonly added to baked goods to whiten the flour and increase the weight because bakers often sold their wares by weight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bar - Gold bar with Granny Smith Apple

Growing Limes

Limes are considered a tropical fruit but will grow well in a range of climates. Here in Melbourne, they will grow in back yards if sheltered from frost. If you grow against a north facing wall and shelter from cold winds. The radiating heat and reflection generally will be sufficient to eliminate frost damage. Limes are the most wonderfully fragrant fruit. They’re used in everything from Deserts, confectionery, Thai main courses to great guacamole. They make an attractive specimen tree with their verdant green lovely shiny leaves and wonderful heavenly scented spring flowers. What more could you want in a fruit tree?

lime zest in ice tray

Kaffir limes are odd shaped warty fruit, favoured for Asian cooking with little juice. They prefer a warmer climate.

Anywhere you can grow a lemon tree, you can grow a lime tree. They need direct sunlight and a well drained soil that is high in nitrogen. Home compost is high in nitrogen and is ideal for limes. The tree needs little pruning but if too dense in the centre they can become prone to mould from the lack of air circulation.

There are three main varieties of Lime. The Kaffir lime is the most commonly used lime for Asian cooking. The fruit is small, warty, knobbly looking and has very little juice. There are a few varieties, but 'Nathaniel' has the least thorns and probably has the best flavour.

The overall favourite would be the Tahitian Lime, with its good-sized fruit, no seeds, more juice and the tree is virtually thornless. This is the one we see in supermarkets in Australia. In the USA they have two varieties in supermarkets – the Key Lime (or Mexican Lime) as well as the Tahitian (or Persian Lime). The Tahitian Lime bears smooth skinned fruit from mid autumn through to mid winter.

The smooth skinned Tahitian lime has the most juice
The Tahitian lime, with it's smooth skin and aromatic leaves is the most popular variety you're likely to see in fruit shops.

West Indian limes have little thorns all the way down to the ends of the branches. The fruit is smaller but really packs a punch and has lots of juice. This variety is cold sensitive, so offer it some protection if you get frosts.

Finger Limes - A genuine Aussie Native!

Most citrus originate in China but the Finger Lime is an Australian native. The fruit comes in green, yellow, red or black forms. The juice is encapsulated inside the fruit, in it's segments. Cutting open the fruit you get the impression it is dry, with very little juice, just pop one of those juice capsules and see!

These pack a wallop of flavour. You'll be lucky to see these in your fruit shop though. They are snapped up by overseas gourmet buyers as soon as they are picked.

Australian finger limes come in a variety of colours

Native to Australia, Finger Limes come in a variety of colours


The Australian Finger Lime tree has narrow small leaves and loads of thorns. It grows to about 12 metres and is a prolific cropping tree. Fruit are easily harvested by shaking the branches. Ripe limes will fall off and do not bruise with the drop - even from 12 metres!  Like most Australian natives it is very drought hardy. New varieties are coming onto the market with less thorns.

Australian Finger Limes on the tree

Australian Finger Limes ripening on the tree.

Kaffir and Tahitian Limes as a specimen tree make an attractive show, with their verdant green lovely shiny leaves and wonderful heavenly scented spring flowers. In winter they will drop a few leaves, only enough to let the sun filter through. There's no comparison to a lime grove - it's like something from a fairy tale to behold.

Avenue of limes

This farm in the UK had a driveway lined in old lime trees photographed in late Autumn, when everything else is grey, it was a memorable sight. What more could you want in a fruit tree?

Bar - Gold bar with Granny Smith Apple


Basket of Fresh herbs

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