Citrus fruits have many uses in the kitchen. The lemon, however, is arguably the most useful and versatile of citrus fruits.
With a perfect blend of sweetness and tartness, lemons do wonders with a variety of foods, including almonds, chicken, chocolate, fish, honey and berries. Its flavor is so strong and fresh, it makes adding extra fats or salt to food unnecessary.
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Flavor is not lemon's only attribute; it's full of vitamin C, one of nature's most powerful immunity-enhancing antioxidants; a medium lemon contains 83 mg of the vitamin. Lemons also contain fiber to aid digestion and lower cholesterol. Plus, lemons are loaded with potassium that's essential for proper fluid balance, muscle function as well as controlling blood pressure.
When purchasing lemons, select fruit with firm, smooth skin, a vibrant color and no bruises or green patches. Choose lemons that feel rather heavy for their size.
Thin-skinned lemons tend to be juicier, while those with thicker skins tend to have less flesh and juice. An over-mature lemon that is pale, dull, blemished, shriveled or with soft spots will be less acidic and will produce less juice.
The next time you are about to serve cooked vegetables, soups or stews, hold the salt and squeeze a little lemon juice over the top. Each squeeze will provide the vitamin C that helps your body absorb more iron in foods such as beans and spinach. To get the most juice from a lemon, roll it under your palm to break down the cells inside the fruit that contain the liquid.
Lemon juice also can replace vinegar in vinaigrettes, and in marinades the juice works as a tenderizer.
Lemons offer a light, refreshing, sweetness to desserts. A spray of lemon juice in plain water can give your drink a fresh, reviving flavor. A slice or wedge of lemon can even be used as a bright garnish added to your plate. And to preserve the fresh look of a fresh-cut fruit salad, mix in lemon juice. The high vitamin C content has the ascorbic acid necessary to prevent discoloring caused by exposure to oxygen in the air.
Do not be too quick to throw away the peel. A chemical compound called limonene, extracted from the lemon peel, is currently undergoing more research for its health benefits. Researchers say limonene may block carcinogens, cancer-forming chemicals, and destroy cancer cells. The thin outer layer, or zest, of a lemon is filled with oil glands that offer an intense aroma and the peel has more vitamin C than the juice and pulp of the fruit.
Try this recipe: These low-cal, fat free angel food cupcakes are simply heavenly. I've taken these ethereal cakes and adorned them with a topping that will have lemon lovers cheering. This recipes uses half box of angel food cake mix and yields 15 cupcakes. Save the remaining mix for another use or feel free to double!
• Toby Smithson, a registered dietitian, works for the Lake County Health Department/Community Health Center and is a national spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.