Zest is the great zeal and enthusiasm I feel about cooking. I absolutely love to cook. I also like to think about cooking, and even sometimes reminisce about things I have cooked. But I don’t really do that that often. Once the plates are cleared, the food put away and the kitchen cleaned, there’s no time to rest on my laurels; I need to start thinking about the next meal. I am not happy if I do not know what my next meal is going to be–or at least have some type of outline or plan for it. I may actually get a little out of sorts. Not because I am worried about being hungry (I thank God for all we have!), but I just want to have an idea of what is coming up next. Without it I lose some of my zest.
Zest is also the slightly perfumy utmost outer layer of citrus fruits. All citrus has zest. I usually use zest from lemons, limes and oranges. It is fragrant and true to the taste of the citrus. Lemon zest tastes of lemon, lime zest of lime, and so on. I add it to sauces, whipped cream, cakes, cupcakes, salad dressings, goat cheese, pie crusts, tart dough, pies, tarts and a myriad of other dishes. Anywhere I am looking for a citrus flavor, I think about adding zest. In my recent Bourbon and Beef Dinner (at L’Academie de Cuisine), we made candied orange zest by cooking it in simple syrup and then slicing it into tiny threads. It was one of the garnishes for a delicious Beef Carpaccio appetizer. (We also made homemade Saltines.)
The layer under the zest is called pith. It’s the white sort-of sticky layer. It doesn’t sound very good and it isn’t. “Pith!” Yell that at a ball game to see if there are any real cooks around you. Pith is bitter. When I zest I don’t scrape too deep as I don’t want any of the pith. I just want the very outer layer. It is very, very thin. Once a citrus fruit has been zested, you can keep it just like that if you don’t need the juice right away. The skin often dries out pretty quickly without the zest to protect it, and the fruit becomes rock hard, but not shriveled. Don’t throw it away. Cut it in half using a serrated knife and usually what you find inside is pristine, extra sweet pulp. If it isn’t, then you can throw it away.
I use a Microplane Zester for zesting needs in my kitchen and in all my kids, teen and adult cooking classes. Their zesters really are the best. I hold the citrus in my hand and pluck away at the zest holding the Microplane upside down, rather than zest “washboard style.” You can see what you are doing and the zest will catch in the “tray.” Microplane’s zesters/graters were designed for wood-working, so they hold up well. Do yourself a favor, though, and never use one for grating ginger. You’ll have to press so hard to get the ginger to go through, you’ll dull the Microplane.
You always want to zest citrus before you try to juice it. It is hard to get the zest off of limp, squeezed citrus peels. I will never forget a Saturday afternoon class at L’Academie de Cuisine years ago, when I was asked one of those incredible questions that demand I keep a straight face as I answer it. A woman had done a great job zesting the orange she needed for her recipe and was looking around holding the orange in her hand. I asked her if I could help her find something and she said, and I quote exactly, “I am looking for the orange juice.” Without a hint of anything I responded, “It is in the orange.”