“What’s in your refrigerator?” That’s a question food writers are invariably asked. My first answer is always “lemons, lemons and more lemons.” I am never without them. I included an entire chapter on lemons in my first cookbook. Asked to name a seminal dish in the finale of last season’s Top Chef Masters, I chose lemon souffle. And just last week, I was surprised into shouting “I am the Queen of Lemons,” on the new season of Top Chef Masters. So you will not be surprised to learn that I have serious opinions about lemonade.
With its lovely pale color and fresh, tangy aroma, great lemonade is much more than refreshingly delicious; it is also extremely good for you. In addition to containing loads of infection-fighting vitamin C, lemon juice is an antioxidant and very effective in times of gastric distress. I can’t think of a better drink to sip while you’re watching the Olympics. But please, when life gives you lemons, make a better lemonade.
1. The first important thing to know is that the best flavor in a lemon is hiding in the peel, which contains all that wonderful lemon oil. If you’re going to take advantage of this, buy organic lemons or scrub conventional lemons very well before removing the zest.
2. But here’s the problem: just below the bright yellow zest is the evil white pith. The spongy white part of the lemon just beneath the peel is very bitter; crush it into your lemonade and within a few hours your wonderful drink will become quite unpleasant.
3. Simple syrup is one of the secrets to great lemonade. It is nothing more than sugar dissolved in water so that the sugar will sweeten the lemon juice, rather than fluttering down to the bottom of the glass and sitting there glumly all by itself. Infuse lemon zest into your syrup and you will get all the complexity of the zest with none of the bitterness of the white. You will also get a very sunny color.
4. Lemonade takes a lot of juice, so you don’t want to waste a drop. A good juicy lemon will give you a quarter cup of liquid. But they are not all so succulent, and if you have unfortunate lemons you might need to squeeze as many as six to get a cup of juice. Increase your odds by rolling the lemons around on the counter beneath your palm. This will break down the cells inside the fruit and give you more juice. If your lemons seem hard and unforgiving, microwave them for 20 seconds. This will shock them into relaxing, just a little.
5. Garnish each glass of lemonade with a sprig of mint. It looks lovely - and it adds a very pleasant flavor note.
Serves 2, with syrup to spare
½ cup sugar
½ cup water
4-6 lemons, enough to make a cup of lemon juice
2 cups water
2 sprigs mint (optional)
Make syrup: With a sharp knife or a vegetable peeler, remove the zest from the lemons, being careful to leave all of the white pith behind. Mix the sugar and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat, toss in the lemon zest and allow to cool.
Squeeze lemons: Squeeze the lemons until you have a cup of fresh juice.
Mix to taste: Strain the sugar syrup; it should be a lovely yellow. Add half to the lemon juice, along with the water, and keep adding more until it is sweetened to your taste. (I prefer mine quite tart. The strained syrup will keep almost indefinitely in the refrigerator.)
Serve: Pour over ice cubes and serve, garnished with a sprig of mint or a slice of lemon.