Alimentary, My Dear
Add a Little Zest to Your Life
By Tamia Nelson
May 17, 2011
My companions and I were caked with dust after a 14‑mile day on one of the more rugged stretches of the Pacific Crest Trail, but at last the end was in sight. And not before time. The light was going fast, and we were knackered. Once we'd staggered into the alpine clearing that would be our home for the night, we dropped our packs and threw ourselves on the ground. For several minutes none of us moved. But we had to eat. This was a problem. No one had the energy to cook. So we dug into our packs and took out fresh oranges — the last we'd see for three weeks. I got through two of them in as many minutes, tearing the peel off and devouring the succulent, fleshy pulp. The sweet juice dribbled down my chin. It was bliss. Now I was ready to face the evening's chores.
It's one of life's little ironies. Fresh oranges and grapefruit are much‑loved treats. In fact, they're staple foods in many — or is it most? — households. But they're poor travelers. After a few days on the trail, even hardy navel oranges are past their best. So longer trips mean dried fruit. Or none at all. Things don't have to be quite this bleak, though. There's one way to carry a little citrus magic with you on any backcountry trek, no matter how long it might be:
Most of us think that the bounty of an orange or grapefruit lies wholly in the pulp. We discard the peel without thought, and without regret. When we eat an orange on the trail, the peel goes straight into the garbage sack. But peel warrants a second look. It's actually a valuable condiment. Known to cooks as "zest," citrus peel is a potent flavoring agent. In short, zest is aptly named. It packs a big flavor punch in a small package. And that makes it ideal for backcountry menus. Dried zest weighs almost nothing, so there's no excuse not to add some to the staple foods in your kitchen pack. You won't need much. A little goes goes a very long way.
OK. Zest is good. But how do you get it? Well, you can usually find it on the shelves with the herbs and spices in the HyperMart. It also shows up from time to time in specialty stores and food co‑ops. But there's another way to add zest to your camp cuisine:
Do It Yourself
You can make it in your kitchen at home. You can even make it in camp. All you have to do is remove the colored outer peel of any citrus fruit. (The fibrous white inner layer, or pith, isn't used.) Some cooks employ special tools for this, but a sharp knife or cheese grater works just as well. I prefer to use a knife, but if you're not sure of your skill with a (very) sharp blade, stick to the grater.
Here's how it's done. Wash an orange — or a lemon or lime; you can even use a grapefruit — in clean water. Then dry it and set it down on a hard surface. Now begin slicing off curls of peel. I'm using a paring knife in the picture below, but a fillet knife or chef's knife will work equally well. (Their longer blades will be harder to control, however.) Make your curls thin. You want to leave as much of the pith on the fruit as possible.
No matter how careful you are, though, some pith will still cling to the peel. Don't worry about this. And don't think you have to have long, perfect curls of peel. Just do your best. Then, when you've cut all the peel off the orange, set the pulpy globe to one side. (Or eat it!) Now turn your attention to the pile of peel. It's zest in embryo.
Does this sound too fussy for a camp kitchen? Fair enough. If you're in a hurry, just peel an orange with your fingers, as you normally would. Eat the orange, but save the peel. You'll need to trim off the pith with your knife, though. In fact, you'll have to do this even if you've sliced off perfect curls of peel with a paring knife in your home kitchen. Some pith always remains. Here's how to remove it:
Put the peel on a cutting board (or other flat, firm surface), pith uppermost. Hold one end firmly with your fingertips. Now place the knife blade to the right of your fingers (or to the left, if you're a southpaw) and slice down through the pith. Then, once the blade reaches the colored portion of the peel, change the angle of attack and simply slice off the white, fibrous matter. It's just like removing the skin from a fish fillet. And if you've ever filleted a fish, I shouldn't have to remind you to cut away from your fingers. Always. In the photo above, I've finished cutting down through the pith and am now preparing to slice off a small portion. You'll probably have noticed that I cut too deep — it's hard to slice and shoot at the same time! — but I put my mistake right just as soon as I'd taken the picture. Then I continued trimming the pith away:
I had to release my hold on the peel to take this shot, of course, which is why the knife tip is touching the cutting board. You need to keep the blade parallel to the surface when making a slice. Then, once you've removed as much of the pith as you can by cutting in one direction, rotate the peel round and repeat the process, slicing the other way. When you're all done, you'll have something that looks like this:
Now you have several choices. You can use the peel right away. Slice it or dice it and pop it in the pot. Or you can dry it for later use. Since I'm preparing stores for future trips, I chose to dry the zest, leaving some of the larger pieces intact while cutting the others up into smaller bits. The latter task is easily accomplished. Just pile curls of peel together and hold them firmly against a cutting board with one hand, while slicing carefully through the layers:
Make the slices as wide or as narrow as you like. The strips in the photo above are just the right size for quick‑bread recipes. But if I'd wanted something smaller, I'd have sliced through them again, at right angles to the first cuts.
It's time to dry the zest. If the air is humid, you may have to do the job in an oven at low heat, but during much of the year, air‑drying works fine. Simply spread the zest on a plate and leave it alone for a few days. And that's what I did. This was the result:
A tablespoon measure gives the scale. What you see here is the zest from a single, softball‑sized navel orange. Once it had dried, I tipped the large and small segments into a couple of ziplock bags. These will stay in a cool, dark cabinet until I need them. How long will my zest keep? Unless it's exposed to high humidity, it should last for months. That's a good return for a few minutes' work, don't you think?
Of course, we're not done yet. Now that you have your zest, how will you use it to …
Add a‑Peel to Your Meals?
I find lemon and orange zest most useful, but you should be guided by your own tastes. I also prefer to cut my zest large, rather than small. Why? Easy. You can always whittle a big piece down to size, but you can't make a small piece big. Most folks fish larger slices out of a dish before eating it, by the way. The zest has already done its job, and you don't have to eat it to enjoy its contribution to the meal. But you can.
And what if you're caught short? Well, if you have fresh citrus in your pack, you have the means at hand to stretch your supply. In fact, I often make fresh zest in camp on the first or second night, saving my dried zest for later. Both are powerful flavoring agents. A teaspoon — fresh or dried, it makes no difference — is a good starting point for most dishes. The following examples will give you some idea of the range of applications:
Homemade Carry‑Alongs Add zest to quick breads, oatmeal bars, brownies, and cookies. Just sprinkle fresh or dried zest into the dry ingredients before adding liquid and forming the batter or dough.
Beverages Drop a large curl of zest into a hot drink — coffee or tea, say — and let it steep for a couple of minutes. By the time the cup is cool enough to bring to your lips, the zest will have imparted an intriguing citrusy note to the contents. (Earl Grey tea, a popular specialty blend, gets its unique flavor from oil extracted from the peel of bergamot, a sort of dwarf orange.) Or make flavored gelatin according to the package directions, adding a curl or two of zest to the pot while the powder dissolves. Serve immediately. The sweet, hot liquid is a welcome pick‑me‑up on a chilly day. Zest is good with cold drinks, too. Mix a powdered drink in your water bottle in the morning and add a large curl of zest. It's particularly good with citrus drinks. (No surprise, really.) Or make zesty solar tea, putting a couple of curls of zest in each batch.
Breakfast Stir fine‑chopped zest into hot cereal as it cooks. Mix it in with your pancake batter, or fold it into biscuit dough. Cook up stewed fruit (fresh or dried) and add zest to the dish as it simmers.
Lunch Mix fine‑chopped zest into your favorite bonk‑buster. Add zest to tuna or chicken (from a shelf‑stable pack or a can) or hummus to make a zesty spread for bread, crackers, or bagels. Or try it in a pita sandwich.
So far, so good. But to my mind, zest really shines at day's end, when the question on everyone's lips is …
What's for Dinner?
After all, breakfast is frequently a hurried affair, and lunch is often nothing more than a handful or two of trail mix, but the evening meal is a time to unwind and enjoy your food. And with the pressure off, the cook can relax, too. Dinner is the meal I'm most likely to lavish extra attention on. There's ample scope for a special touch or two. Zest makes it easy. Here are some ideas:
Zesty Risotto Risotto is simple, satisfying, and versatile. For a tasty variation on the theme, follow my recipe for Reggie's Lemon Risotto, adding about a tablespoon of lemon zest to the rice. If you don't have the reconstituted lemon juice the recipe calls for, don't worry. Lemon zest will lend just the right amount of zing. And if you don't have lemon zest? Use orange or lime. You won't be disappointed.
Quick and Zesty Pasta Stir in 1 or 2 teaspoons of finely chopped zest (dried or fresh) when you put the pasta in the skillet in my One‑Skillet Garlic Pasta recipe.
Citrus Tuna (or Chicken) and Beans Heat a can of white beans in a pot. Stir in a packet of tuna or a can of chicken (be sure to include the juices), along with a generous sprinkling of zest — plus dried chives and cracked pepper, if you have them. Serve when hot.
Zesty Peanut Butter Sauce Make a thick sauce from peanut butter, a clove of garlic (chopped), a dash of soy sauce, and some fine‑chopped zest, along with a small amount of clean water. Use as a dipping sauce for satays or kabobs, or stir into hot pasta.
Want to put some zest in your life? Of course you do. And it's easy. I've outlined a few ways in the paragraphs above, but I'm sure you can think of many others. Experiment at home first, though. Then you can leave your mistakes behind when you head for the put‑in.
Whether juiced or whole, citrus fruits are high on the list of paddlers' favorite foods, but backcountry cooks can use the peel, too. It's called "zest," and unlike fresh fruit, dried zest is a good traveler. What about it? Have you been fighting the battle of the blands with your camp meals? Then it's high time you added a little zest!
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