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A Zestful New Year


Happy New Year. To begin this new season, we will celebrate something simple, beautiful, inexpensive, and cheerful. Lemons!

After all, what could be happier than a lemon? Its colour is bright, its skin is shiny – the sheer thought of zesting a lemon is enough to lift the mood!

And, as if we needed confirmation, two recent studies on animals have found that lemon essential oil, whether inhaled or ingested, exerts a significant anti-depressant effect.

In what follows we will explore what else is brilliant about lemons – and why an extra lemon or two might be just the thing to counteract January blues.

Lemon Nutrients

The great thing to remember about any fruit or vegetable is that, while there may be vitamins and minerals present, there are also ‘phenolic compounds’. Phenolic compounds are arrangements of molecules which contribute to the distinctive colours, tastes and smells of fruit and vegetables. They have also been found to have significant health benefits, such as anti-oxidant properties.

In lemon juice, the key phenolic compounds are ‘flavanoids’, which are known to be

1. anti-oxidant, helping protect body cells from damage

2. anti-inflammatory, calming the body’s tendency to over-react to perceived injury,

3. anti-carcinogenic and

4. good at increasing insulin sensitivity, which can protect against diabetes and weight gain.

Lemons have the highest anti-oxidant effect of all the citrus fruits, and even the peels have strong concentrations of phenolic compounds too, so that glorious-smelling zest is worth using – as we’ll explore below.

Lemons contain folate, or vitamin B9, in moderate quantities, which is important for energy levels, and vitamin C in generous amounts. As you probably know, vitamin C is another excellent anti-oxidant, and has been found to help relieve arthritis and osteoarthritis by protecting cells from inflammation. Vitamin C is also vital for forming collagen and connective tissue in the body.

Famously, lemons’ vitamin C content is credited with saving the British Navy from scurvy, and they became compulsorily rationed on ship in the late eighteenth century. A little later, the use of cheaper limes brought about the epithet ‘limey’ for seafaring Brits.

Lemon juice

Lemon juice may be sour on its own, but added to other food, it builds flavours beautifully, and also aids digestion. By adding citric acid to food, lemon helps the stomach break down proteins and therefore use them better. For this reason, it is a great idea to squeeze a bit of lemon onto meat; its vitamin C will also help the body to absorb iron from the meat.

Lemons’ ability to break down proteins is excellent news for fans of ceviche (make sure that fish is fresh!) and also, perhaps more fashionably, raw kale. You can massage lemon juice and olive oil into thinly-cut kale leaves, leave for 20 minutes or so, and the raw kale becomes much softer and can be eaten in a salad. It also lets the kale keep longer in the fridge. (Here is a kale-cutting tip I learned from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: pull out the centre stalks, then stack and roll up your kale leaves together, before slicing into fine ribbons.)

Perhaps it is for digestive as well as flavour reasons, that lemon juice finds its way into so many sauces, whether hot or cold. The Nourishing Traditions cookbook suggests an ultra-simple Lemon Butter Sauce: simply melt half a cup of butter with the juice of one lemon, seasoning and herbs, and use for dipping artichokes, or indeed any other vegetable you like.

Riverford’s Tahini and Lemon Dressing is a cold dressing but it can go with hot or cold food:

1. Mix 2 Tbsp tahini with 2 Tbsp plain yoghurt

2. Then whisk in: 1 crushed garlic clove, 2 Tbsp EV olive oil, juice of 1 lemon and seasoning

3. Then add 1 or 2 Tbsp of water until you have a single-cream consistency

Lemon juice is also great for drinking. And it doesn’t have to be super-sweet lemonade either, as this fermented tonic recipe demonstrates. Have a look at my previous kefir blog to help with making whey for this recipe.

Mixed with warm water, lemon juice water is widely considered a ‘healthy morning drink’. Although not all claims for its benefits are widely agreed upon, this is certainly not a bad habit to adopt: hydration and vitamin C at a gentle temperature are a great way to start the day!

Lemon Zest

Another way to add lemon to food is simply to use the zest. This works beautifully with salads, salad dressings, meat, fish, mayonnaises, and even smoothies. If you are going to use the peel in any way, though, it’s crucial to buy organic and unwaxed lemons. This ensures that you get the benefits of lemon zest without pesticide spray residues.

Since it’s easier to zest lemons when they’re whole, I tend to grate or peel off the zest right away and store it in the freezer in a little glass jar. Then the peeled lemons will keep nicely in the fridge for at least a week.

One very simple recipe way to use lemon zest is in baked lamb meatballs.

1. Mix raw lamb mince with lemon zest and any herbs you like – fresh rosemary is delicious.

2. Roll into meatballs, and bake in a 180-degree oven for 10-15 minutes.

(You can then pour off the melted fat from the meat and use it for baking something else.)

Lemon scent

If lemons aren’t to your taste, first of all I am glad you have read this far! They can still be cheering and practical additions to your kitchen. The internet will provide you will endless lists of ideas, but one way I like to use lemons practically is for their scent. If I have a clean chopping board that still smells of onions, or if the same goes for my hands, a good rub with half a lemon (even one that has been squeezed) will usually restore freshness. You don’t even need to rinse off the chopping board. If your whole kitchen needs refreshing, simmering lemon slices in water may help to improve the air.

I trust that this little survey of lemons will inspire you to enjoy them this month.

And I hope that you will be refreshed, healthy and happy in 2018.

With best wishes, Emma

Emma Maitland-Carew, Nutritional Therapist in Oxford and Bloxham, Oxfordshire


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