Saturday, October 3, 2015

cooking: beurre blanc and musings on lemon

It is so important that cooking be inspired by memories. Especially when cooking for oneself, which rarely does not feel intimate and self-indulgent and everything from a reflection in the glisten of olive oil to the labyrinthine layers of an onion seems to provoke a retrospective thought, the very act is a way to relive a moment past. Today's sautéed scallops with lemon beurre blanc - adapted from this recipe - were the direct result of walking by a mountain of lemons at the grocery store ("the most versatile of all citrus!", boasted the sign, as if we did not already know this) and suddenly I was back in Praiano, in the Amalfi Coast of Italy, the most wonderful place that I have known in the world. It is also a place, incidentally, where lemon trees abound, so lush that the fragrance permeates the air next to your pillow before you've managed to rub the sleep from your eyes:


I almost categorically refuse to eat any species the members of which carry their home with them (i.e., snails). Scallops are the outlier, though I might add that, while I consume them enthusiastically, their molluskal origins are much easier forgotten when concealed by a sauce that's both rich and slightly challenging to fabricate. Hence "beurre blanc" – a tricky emulsified butter concoction that requires nimble whisking, attention to timing, and a mathematically precise butter to vermouth ratio that was only complicated, in this case, by the added element of lemon juice. Julia Child talks up a beurre blanc storm in one of her cookbooks, attributing France's culinary and social acceptance of brochet ("a fine large white-fleshed fish...full of big and little bones seemingly running in every direction") entirely to its being accompanied universally by beurre blanc. "It has taken something like this divine sauce," she reflects with palpable wistfulness, "to make it a desirable fish."

Julia's beurre blanc was not lemon-based, but her observation on the almost unparalleled power of transformation that is possible in the kitchen, where high culture and low culture overlap and redefine themselves (and no one is better at this than the French), led me to think in similar terms of "the most versatile of all citrus". The mundane becomes dignified when it slips beneath the cloak of lemon juice or zestor both, as anyone who's tried Smitten Kitchen's goat cheese and asparagus pasta can surely attest; wedges of mango go from rubbery to just delightfully slippery under its spray, and there is no pan of oven-roasted broccolini or bok choy or even fennel that would not benefit from a squeeze.

Though admittedly a free association to the seaside stillness of Praiano, my fairy tale romance with lemons has been a tranquil affair, no rocky bumps along the way nor stormy clouds ahead, and this textual ode is a way of renewing our vows. Telling the lie to the saying that you can have too much of a good thing – I always preferred an overload of acidity to the dull alternative of not enough  I will likely fall under the spell of lemon's zesty witchcraft throughout amateur culinary endeavors for years to come.


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