We have been buying, eating and squeezing citrus fruit rather compulsively of late, gloriously good and beautiful oranges, lemons, mandarins, grapefruits and clementines, lots and lots of clementines. Orange and yellow alternatives to one of those lamps for seasonal affective disorder, a citrus antidote to the dreary, damp and frankly miserable weather we are enduring.
I have also become rather obsessive about a certain lemon tree, the one with bright yellow fruit that sits in the neglected garden of a block of flats I pass at least once a day. Lately it always seems to be raining and very grey when I walk past this particular block and then blink, there it is! through the drizzle, startling and seemingly unfeasible, a tree heavy with sunny yellow lemons at this dark, damp time. For the last three years I have watched this tree, first the blossom; the delicate, pale, fragrant flowers and then after, later, the glowing fruit. Then for three years I’ve looked on in despair and frustration, through gaps in the flimsy but high fence, as the fruit shrivels, or falls and then lies abandoned on the ground. Last year I tried to enlist Vincenzo in a commandoesque plan to scale the fence late one night. But a reconnaissance mission and an assessment of the fence one afternoon confirmed his suspicions that we would bring the whole rickety thing down if we tried to go over.
Fence aside, I suspect Vincenzo was still reluctant to participate in any clandestine fruit collecting after a misguided afternoon of fig and blackberry foraging ended rather badly – insane dog, a weird rash and mild concussion – the year before,
A year on and the tree is full of yellow fruit again. Knowing I was going to write some sort of citrus post this week helped end my procrastination. On Tuesday I left a note (and a nice tip) with the porter of the building addressed to the owner of the lemon tree – who I am informed is rarely in Rome and is therefore partly forgiven for lemon neglect - offering a home for the lemons and some lemon marmalade in return. We will see.
But now back to the plentiful citrus we already have, the ones sitting in the vast basket at the top of this post and the lemons sitting below, on the usual chair.
I bought these handsome Sicilian lemons at Testaccio market today, it was impossible not to, three vast crates of them sat at the front of the stall, big and heavily scented with bright shiny leaves and knobbly, lively, unwaxed skins. They are incredibly thick-skinned with powerful but slighty sweet juice which makes them seem much less aggressive than other lemons I’ve known. These are the kind of lemons that Vincenzo’s grandfather used to eat in Sicily, one each day, sometimes two, whole, as you would an apple, skin, pith, fruit, the whole lemon lot. These are lemons to make this one day.
Such nice lemons deserved some undivided attention so I made the lemon jelly I have been promsising myself – I am, as you may remember, extraordinarily fond of jelly - then we decided on a lemon scented lunch, something we haven’t had for ages, tagliatelle with lemon and parmesan.
This is inspired by Nigel Slater’s recipe for linguine with basil and lemon and a lovely dish of pappardelle ( thick ribbons of fresh pasta) with lemon sauce we once ate in Sorrento. Both recipes are based on the premise that if you whisk lemon juice with plenty of olive oil and lots of freshly grated parmesan you create a thick, grainy, deeply flavoured lemon and cheese ‘sauce’ which you toss with hot pasta.
The flavours work beautifully together, the sharp, lip pucking acidity of the lemon is tempered by the parmesan and the olive oil lends it a silky glossy texture. All the ingredients come together into a surprising sauce which clings to each strand of pasta, creamy and delicious, a sauce which manages to be both soothing and vital in the same moment.
It is important you whisk the ingredients together in a warm bowl. especially on these cold days, the modest heat helps the ingredients come together and the flavours emerge.
The hot pasta continues what the warm bowl started and brings out the heady scent of the lemon juice, zest and the salty sweetness of the parmesan.
A lemon scented lunch, simple and deicious, just the thing for jaded spirits comforting but bright and vital food for grey days.
As usual I am very cautious about giving you exact quantities here and suggest some tentative experimentation, especially with the lemon juice. I say this from experience, the first time I ever made this I used (as Nigel suggests) the juice of a large lemon and even though we both liked it, there was quite alot of lemon shuddering. We now use the juice of a medium lemon (and our lemons are mild-mannered and sweet compared to the really aggressive ones I used to buy in London) slightly more parmesan and a pinch of the zest. Even though Vincenzo nods approvingly I know he would use even less lemon juice and more zest if he was as bossy as I am.
In summer a handful of torn basil leaves makes a lovely addition to this sauce.
Tagliatelle with lemon and parmesan
- A pinch of zest and roughly the juice of a medium lemon
- 80g freshly grated parmesan plus more for sprinkling
- 75ml extra virgin olive oil
- 220g dried or 350g fresh tagliatelle or linguine
Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil.
If you are using dried pasta which takes about 8 minutes to cook then add that to the water now, If however, you are using fresh pasta which only takes 2 or 3 minutes then start making the sauce first.
Grate the cheese.
Warm a large bowl (warmed under a running hot water tap, then dried) and add the olive oil, some of the lemon juice, the zest and beat briefly with a little whisk until it emulsifies, Now add the parmesan, beat again, taste, add more lemon, taste and whisk again until you have a thick, grainy cream. Taste again, you probably won’t need salt with all the parmesan but if you feel the need add some
Once the pasta is ready (still al dente which means to the tooth and suggests the pasta still has bite and isn’t soggy) drain it and quickly toss it with the lemon and parmesan sauce.
Divide the pasta between two warm bowls, sprinkle with more (unnecessary but nice) parmesan and a grind of black pepper.
We made this again the night after posting this adding a big healthy tablespoon of crème fraîche to the lemon, parmesan and oil cream. Vincenzo really liked it, saying the cream tempered the acidity, I did too but I liked the simplicity of the sauce before. It was certainly more indulgent and a bit more special….anyway just thought I would let you know.
Have a good weekend wherever you are