Zest appeal

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 May, 2010, 12:00am

There's nothing subtle about the lemon - the colour is bright and sunny and so is the flavour. I depend on the fruit more than any other because it perks up both sweet and savoury dishes.

Most Hongkongers will be familiar with the Eureka variety but, occasionally, upmarket shops also stock Italian Sorrento lemons, which are large, supremely fragrant and juicy and used to make limoncello. Meyer lemons - which are thin-skinned and juicy and have a sweet-tart flavour - are difficult to find in Hong Kong, even though the variety was discovered in Beijing. I've never seen the fruit for sale here, although some people keep the trees in their home.

When picking through the lem- on bin at the supermarket, avoid those with thick, rough and dull skin and choose the ones with thin skin that feel heavy for their size. To extract more juice from the flesh of the lemon, zap it in the microwave for 30 seconds (or dip it into a bowl of boiling water) then roll it firmly under your hand before squeezing it.

The lemon's skin, or zest, is just as important as the juicy flesh. It can be removed in wide pieces with a sharp vegetable peeler, in long, slender strands with a zester or in fine delicate shreds with a rasp-type grater. Infuse strands of it in milk to make custard and ice cream, add grated zest to cookie and tart dough or mix it into risotto and couscous.

One of my favourite dinner-party dishes is quail stuffed with roasted garlic and seared lemon. Because I really enjoy getting stuck into some technical and time-consuming kitchen tasks, I tunnel bone the quail - remove all the bones without cutting into the skin and flesh - but you can skip this step or pay a butcher to do it. Season the birds inside and out with salt and pepper. Cook whole, unpeeled garlic cloves in simmer- ing water for 10 minutes (this makes the flavour more subtle), then cook them in the oven at 220 degree Celsius until they are charred in spots. Cut a lemon into quarters and remove any visible seeds. Heat a pan until it is almost smoking then sear the lemon wedges on their cut sides until they're slightly charred. Cool the lemon wedges then put one into each quail cavity, along with two or three garlic cloves. Truss the quails loosely with kitchen twine then oil the skin lightly. Brown the quails in a hot pan then roast at 220 degrees for about 12 minutes; eight minutes if they have been tunnel boned.

Serve the quails and let your guests squeeze the lemon (from the cavity) over the birds before eating.