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March 28-April 3, 2007

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Happy Sourpuss

By Sara Bir

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When you live in California and life brings ridiculously cold temperatures that severely damage three-quarters of your state's citrus crop, make something else.

What's a culinarian with a penchant for the piquant to do? The bright color, flavor and aroma of lemons and limes carry us through dreary winter days when pickings are slim elsewhere in the produce aisle. And while a gin and tonic falls flat without a squeeze of lime and a cheesecake fails to sing without the tiny but important addition of lemon zest, all is not lost. Those who prefer to eat foods from local soil can take refuge in verjus, which can be found right here in our vine-studded backyard. The Romans used verjus (or vertjus, "green juice"), the juice of unripe grapes, as early as the first century. During the Middle Ages, it was an important ingredient in the spice-laden sauces that the era's upper classes preferred; The Viandier of Taillevent, a French cookery book written in the late 14th century, refers to verjus 12 times.

Verjus is unfermented and different from vinegar, whose tang comes from acetic acid. Milder, fruitier verjus shares the same acid base (malic and tartaric acid) with wine, and therefore pairs better with wines than vinegar. Whisk verjus in vinaigrettes, use it to deglaze pan sauces or add it to spritzy cocktails and aperitifs. Try Geyserville-based Terra Sonoma Food Company's Verjus, Fusion Foods' Napa Valley Verjus and Anderson Valley's Navarro Vineyards' 2006 Chardonnay Verjus.

Hopefully, the next citrus harvest will rebound, but until then, buck the trends of supply and demand with an open mind and a little creativity. To quote Stephen Stills, "If you can't be with the one you love, honey, love the one you're with."

A Not-Lemon Primer
The zing of acid comes in many more forms than lemon and limes--some commonplace, some exotic.

Verjus: Verjus is much milder than vinegar and pairs well with wine. Use it to deglaze pan sauces, in vinaigrettes or in cocktails and aperitifs.
Japanese Rice Vinegar: Less harsh than typical vinegars, with a clean, straightforward flavor, rice wine vinegar is wonderful in vinaigrettes or just sprinkled on stir-fries. Look for unseasoned rice vinegar at Asian markets and grocery stores.
Red or White Wine: We've all made sauces with red and white wine. Don't forget the wonderful flavors and aroma of wine as it reduces in a pan with shallots and fresh herbs.
Lemon Balm: The leaves of this member of the mint family can be tossed with salads, cooked with seafood and poultry, added to stuffings or steeped with tisanes.
Lemon Verbena: Lemon verbena can be used in many dishes that call of lemon zest. Garnish iced tea and cocktails with this green herb, or finely chop it and fold into fruit salads.
Hibiscus Blossom: When steeped in boiling water, the dried blossom of the hibiscus plant saturated the liquid with a stunning ruby hue and a puckery tartness. Use hibiscus in teas, cocktails, jellies and syrups.
Pineapple: Chop a less-sweet variety and add to salsas and relishes or Latin American and Southeast Asian-style stews.
Buttermilk: Add to creamy dips and salad dressings and cold soups.
Plastic Limes and Lemons Full of Reconstituted Juice: Ha ha, just kidding.

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