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When life gives you lemons, roast them

Even though it possibly spread to the world from India, the lemon is not as popular in its home country lime. But its gentle effervescence marries well with vegetables and salad dressings

Roasted vegetables with lemon-tahini dressing. (Photo by Samar Halarnkar)

By Samar Halarnkar

LAST PUBLISHED 10.02.2024  |  09:00 AM IST

The daughter was quick to spot the difference.

I had made her a coriander-lemon rice (recipe below), but since lemons are a rare commodity in our neighbourhood, I used lime juice instead.

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She puckered her face. “This isn’t right," she said, with the assurance that only a 13-year-old can muster. “Did you use lime instead of lemon?"

On bleary mornings, the teen often makes her breakfast, and can—I daresay—handle her lunch and dinner, but she tends to be more critic than cook because her father is usually around to do the needful, so to say.

Also read | Why a lemon dessert was deemed fit for the queen

She does not like cardamom, clove, and excessive sourness and can spot either of these with ease. She will refuse to eat meat with the two spices and has established a scale of sourness, learning the difference between lime and lemon. She caught the extra astringence of lime.

Here in India we are more used to lime, with lemon regarded as an exotic used in Mediterranean, north African, and other cuisines to the West. This is ironic because, while it isn’t definitive, the lemon’s origins are supposed to be in what is now Punjab or upper Assam and lower China, showing up in the West more than 500 years after the Roman era, around the time when England got its name and Islamic rule was just beginning in India.

While the lemon is still used in some Indian cuisines, it is not as common as it possibly once was, and it is hard to find in urban markets. Here in Karnataka, lemon rice is known as chitranna, but here, too, it is the lime that is often substituted. The Assamese make wide use of their varieties of lemon, the most common called kazi and gul (meaning spherical) nemu, the former larger but not as strong, the latter widely beloved and commonly used in pickles.

The lemon that I buy, available in only one local store, appears to be the Lisbon lemon, grown in south and north India but in limited quantities. That it isn’t very popular is evidenced by the fact that the store keeps no more than 10 at a time, while there are piles of limes.

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These days I keep a couple of lemons in my fridge because its gentle sourness is a fine addition to salad dressings, marinades, and even, as I have mentioned, rice.

Since lemon availability has recently grown, I have also used them recently to tart up an old favourite in our home, roasted vegetables. In this instance, I used whatever was available—onions, leftover pumpkin, sweet potato, carrot, cherry tomatoes, and lemon wedges of course.

Roasting lemon and using it in the dressing lent the entire meal a lemony effervescence, which the wife and even the picky teen—who had biryani as her main dish—enjoyed. I had mine with a simple toast, but the lemon rice is an option, although I usually make it to go with sticks of kebabs.

But that’s another story.

Roasted vegetables with lemon-tahini dressing 
Serves 4

Ingredients
1 large onion, sliced into six pieces
1 cup pumpkin, small dices
1 cup sweet potatoes, small dices
1 cup cherry tomatoes
1 lemon, cut into 4-6 wedges
12 cloves of garlic
1-2 tbsp olive oil
2 tsp freshly pounded peppercorns
1 tsp za’atar powder
Salt to taste

Method

Mix the vegetables well with olive oil, pepper and salt and place on a roasting pan. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius and roast the vegetables for 30-40 minutes or until done. Remember to turn over a couple of times. Sprinkle with za’atar and dress with lemon-tahini dressing (below)

For the lemon-tahini dressing: 3 tbsp tahini, 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, juice of half lemon, 1-2 tbsp yogurt, 4 garlic cloves, finely minced, 1 tsp honey. 1 tsp freshly pounded pepper,1 tbsp water (optional), one fourth tsp sea salt (if needed)

In a large mixing vessel, emulsify the tahini by stirring it vigorously with a spoon or fork. Add olive oil and lemon juice and stir again for a minute. Add the garlic and fresh pepper, then slowly add in the yogurt, stirring continuously. Add honey and mix. The sauce should be the consistency of a dressing. If it is still too thick, which it may be if your yogurt is thick, add water and stir until it thins out. Add salt only if you require it.

Lemon-coriander rice

Serves 6

Ingredients

1 cup rice
Juice of 1 lemon
1 cup coriander, roughly chopped
1 knob of butter
1 tsp olive oil
1 bay leaf

Method

Soak the rice for an hour before cooking. In a saucepan, melt butter and heat gently with olive oil. Drop in the bay leaf for half a minute. Stir in the uncooked rice and mix well for a minute or two. Pour water as required by the rice varietal, cover and cook until done.

Remove to a large plate and keep fluffing for 10 minutes so that the grains separate and steam is released. When it cools, mix in the coriander and lemon juice.

Also read | A rediscovery of India and lunch with ‘Diana’

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. He posts @samar11.