Putting the lime back in the light

Oft-forgotten citrus fruit wows in marinades and more

  • Limes-with-steak

    Limes with steak

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  • Limes with steak
    Limes with steak

    Pity the poor lime.

    Its more glamorous cousin, the lemon, gets all the love. All the attention. All the press.

    But the lime sits neglected and forlorn in the back of the fridge. Meanwhile, the lemon basks in the, um, limelight.

    It doesn’t have to be this way. The lime, too, can have its day in the sun. It can take its rightful place among the citrus fruits.

    It can stand up, green and proud.

    Lemons may taste cleaner and crisper and brighter, but limes’ flavor is more complex. It opens the palate to more horizons and holds portents of mystery.

    Lime is the flavor of the tropics, a hint of acid to complement the sweetness of a fruit relish on top of fish or a saucy splash of flavor to give a bit of bite to guacamole. It has a special place in Americana as the primary ingredient of a great American limeade. It has few equals as an ingredient in a marinade, though it is often overlooked, and it can add an unsuspected punch to grilled fish and meats.

    Ordinarily, you wouldn’t expect beef to be one of those meats that goes well with lime, aside from certain foods of southeast Asia. But I made a couple of dishes that show just how well the tangy bite of lime can help cut through the robust richness of beef.

    One of these comes from Cuba, a popular street food called palomilla or, more formally, bistec de palomilla. Because it is a street food, it begins with a cheap and tough cut of meat, usually from the bottom round. Cube steak, which usually comes from the round, also works. Steven Raichlin, who prefers to grill the meat that is traditionally pan-fried, also recommends using a better grade of meat, such as New York strip or sirloin.

    I went with the sirloin, primarily because it was what the store had. Palomilla is designed to be a fast-cooking dish, so I sliced the meat in half by thickness — it should be no more than a half-inch thick, but mine was bigger than that because I started with a particularly thick piece of sirloin.

    It didn’t matter at all, because the preparation for making it is as delicious as it is easy. And it is very, very easy.


    You simply marinate the meat in lime juice and garlic for an hour or so. Then you sauté some chopped onions in a combination of olive oil and butter, remove the onions from the pan and cook the meat in the same pan. Because it is so thin, it only takes a few minutes too cook. Then you serve it on rice, preferably with some black beans nearby — it’s a Cuban dish, after all — topped with the onions and another squeeze or two of the lime juice.

    A meal this simple should not taste this good.

    And that is much the same reaction I had to another combination of beef and lime, this time grilled. Mustard lime steaks are little more than their name: Steaks covered with a heavy dusting of dry mustard that is then moistened with Worcestershire sauce and lime juice. This somewhat messy concoction marinates for a few minutes while you prepare the grill, and then you grill them as you would any other steak.

    Poets should write odes to the combination of beef, lime, mustard, and Worcestershire sauce, songwriters should sing its praises. This stuff is seriously good.

    I have long been a fan of mixing lemon juice and spices into plain yogurt and marinating chicken in that. It imparts a mild, subtle flavor of the lemon and spices, while the yogurt keeps the chicken impossibly moist while it cooks. So why not, I thought, do the same thing with lime instead of lemon?

    It turns out, I wasn’t the first person to have the idea. I found a recipe from a 2011 Bon Appétit magazine for yogurt-marinated grilled chicken that was just what I was looking for. Along with the lime juice and yogurt, they add garlic, onion, olive oil, ginger, and garam masala, a popular blend of Indian spices (you can find it at well-stocked grocery stores and specialty stores).

    Although the recipe calls for this presentation to be grilled, I decided to make it three different nongrilling ways (though one, admittedly, used a grill pan). Some of the marinated breasts I baked, some I pan-friend, and two of them I cooked on the grill pan.

    All three ways were terrific, which is a testament to the combination of ingredients and the power of a long marination. Each had the same basic flavor profile, but altered a bit by the way it was cooked. The grill-pan method created a faint grill flavor, with a taste of smoke added by covering the pan. The pan-fried method was a basic sauté, albeit one marinated in yogurt, lime juice, garlic, and garam masala. And the baked method yielded the same great taste, but these breasts were the most moist of all.

    I couldn’t think about limes for very long before I started thinking about guacamole, but then again, I can’t think about anything for very long before I start thinking about guacamole. Limes play a vital role in the irresistibly creamy dip, acting as a necessary counterpoint to the rich and, let’s face it, fatty avocado. The taste of lime should be barely noticeable in guacamole, but it is the one ingredient that ties all of the others together.

    Some people put cumin in their guacamole as a nod to its Mexican origin, but I find the strong flavor muddies the rest of the dip. I do think that a good guac needs a hint of garlic, and because the garlic taste should not overpower the others, this is one of the very rare occasions I recommend using it in a powdered form rather than fresh. You can use the fresh garlic if you have a very light hand with it, you mince it very fine, and you mix it thoroughly in the bowl. But there is such a large potential for disaster with the raw garlic, it is simply safer to use powdered.

    And what should you drink to wash down all this lime goodness? Obviously, a limeade.

    Some parts of the south look at limeades almost as part of a religion. And why not? When the days are oppressively hot and damp, and the nights are no better, nothing can cool you off and refresh you as quickly, as effectively, and as assuredly as a tall glass of limeade. Preferably with little beads of water condensing on the glass.

    A limeade is not a lime version of a lemonade, it is something far more sublime. For one, it is carbonated, and it benefits immeasurably from the effervescence. It is not as thick as a lemonade and not as strong and not as sweet. You can drink a large glass of it without feeling obliterated by the flavor. With limeade, the lime and sugar flavor the water; with lemonade, the water acts to thin out the sharp lemon taste.

    I made mine two ways, the traditional way and with limes that I had first grilled. The grilled limes made a drink that was subtler and more complex. That said, the traditional, ungrilled limes made a drink that, while a bit harsher on the palate, was also more refreshing.

    After mowing the grass on a hot day, I’ll take the ungrilled limes any day. But if I want something a little more sophisticated, I’ll put them face down on a grill pan for a minute or two before squeezing them.

    If you want to add a shot of vodka, so much the better.

    Contact Daniel Neman at dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.



    Ingredients: Yogurt-Marinated Chicken

    • 8 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
    • 2 cups plain yogurt
    • 1 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and stems
    • ½ large onion, coarsely chopped
    • 1/ 3 cup olive oil
    • 6 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
    • 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
    • 1 tablespoon garam masala, see cook's note
    • 2 teaspoons salt, plus more for seasoning
    • 1 teaspoon black pepper
    • 1 (2-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
    • Cook's note: Garam masala is a blend of Indian spices. It is sold in the spice section of well-stocked grocery stores and at specialty stores.

    Yogurt-Marinated Chicken
    Working with 1 chicken breast at a time, put chicken between 2 sheets of waxed paper and pound to ½-inch thickness. Transfer chicken breasts to a resealable plastic bag. Combine the remaining ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth. Pour yogurt mixture over chicken, seal bag, and turn to coat. Marinate chicken in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours or overnight.

    Before cooking, scrape off excess marinade and discard. Season chicken with salt.

    To grill: Cook over a medium fire, turning once, until brown on both sides and cooked through. To bake: Preheat oven to 400°. Bake, preferably on a rack over a baking dish, until finished, about 30 minutes. To pan sauté: Place 2 tablespoons of oil in a large nonstick skillet and turn heat to medium. Cook chicken, covered, for 20 minutes, turning once. To cook on grill pan: Oil grill pan and place over medium-high heat. When hot, add chicken, cover, and cook until done, about 15-20 minutes. Turn once.

    Yield: 4-6 servings

    Source: Adapted from Bon Appétit





    Ingredients: Palomilla
    • 2 pounds beef, cut thin from bottom round, cube steak, sirloin, or New York strip steak
    • ½ teaspoon salt
    • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
    • Juice from 3 limes, divided
    • 4 garlic cloves, minced
    • 2 tablespoons olive oil
    • 2 tablespoons butter
    • 1 large yellow onion, roughly chopped
    • 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
    • White rice, for serving

    If necessary, slice steak so it is no more than ½ inch thick. Season steaks with salt and pepper. Put steaks, juice from 2 limes, and garlic in a 1-gallon resealable bag or in a shallow glass pan or plate. Marinate for at least 1 hour. When ready to cook, put oil and butter in a heavy frying pan over medium heat. when butter stops foaming, add onions and sauté until soft and just starting to turn color, about 5 minutes. Remove onions to a bowl, cover with foil, and set aside.

    Turn heat under pan to medium high. Add steaks, being sure not to crowd the pan and adding a little more olive oil if needed. Cook about 2 minutes per side, flipping when the juices come to surface (it will take longer if the steaks are thicker than ½ inch). Remove to a platter or individual plates. Add any leftover pan juices to onions, along with juice from remaining lime, and parsley. Top steaks with onions. Serve with white rice.

    Yield: 4-6 servings

    Source: The New York Times



    Ingredients: Mustard Lime Steaks
    • 4 sirloin steaks, cut 1-inch thick (I used New York strip)
    • ¼ cup dry mustard, such as Colman's, divided
    • ¼ cup Worcestershire sauce, divided
    • 1 large, juicy lime, divided
    • Coarse salt (kosher or sea) and white pepper

    Mustard Lime Steaks
    Place steaks on a platter and sprinkle 2 tablespoons of the dry mustard over them. Pat the steaks with the flat part of a fork to spread the mustard evenly. Sprinkle the steaks with 2 tablespoons of the Worcestershire sauce, then squeeze half the lime juice over them. Pat the steaks with the fork. Season the steaks generously with salt and pepper. Turn the steaks over and spread them with the remaining 2 tablespoons each of mustard and Worcestershire sauce and the remaining lime juice. Season the steaks with salt and pepper, patting them with the fork. Let the steaks marinate for 15-20 minutes while you preheat the grill.

    Set the grill for direct grilling and preheat to high. When ready to cook, brush and oil the grill grate. Place the steaks on the hot grate and grill, turning with tongs, until cooked to taste, 4-6 minutes per side for medium-rare. Do not rotate the steaks on the grill to get cross hash marks; if you do, you'll knock off the mustard mixture. Transfer the steaks to a platter and let rest for 3 minutes. Thinly slice the steaks on the diagonal, as you would London broil. Let the slices marinate in the meat juices for a minute or two, then serve.

    Yield: 4 servings

    Source: The Barbecue! Bible, by Steven Raichlen