FOOD Let lemons add more than garnish
When a young lad who had been working for me decided to further hone his skills elsewhere, the chef that he defected to made a joke soon after his arrival. After putting together a plate of food, he (allegedly) plonked a lemon on it and said "Garnish, by Simon Hopkinson!". We all laughed in the kitchen when this story was regaled by the unfortunate defector, who had come back to see us sooner than we expected. Apparently the somewhat excitable atmosphere of this particular kitchen did not suit him.

lt is, however, quite true about the extent of my lemon usage, but not as a garnish. I love lemons for their seasoning qualities. Surely all good cooks know this?

It was at a quite different restaurant called Orso, in Covent Garden, a few years ago now, that first I saw the light. When you asked for some lemon, half a dozen halves - not mean little wedges - would be put on the table in a vibrantly painted, blue terracotta dish. They would stay there for the duration of the meal. Now, it was not the idea to spray them over everything - that is silliness - but just a drip here and there lent accent to the style of food. Orso was one of the first new style, post-trat, Italian restaurants to cook simple fare with the minimum of fuss and folderol. The ingredients were simply treated, nicely cooked and temperately served. In fact, it was a dish of neatly trimmed, small young artichokes, served warm, with just a suggestion of their cooking liquor and oil, that prompted me to ask for some lemon to chase the flavour.

The sharpness and spirited flavour of lemon juice add zest to meat, fish and vegetables alike; hot, crisp and charred ingredients in particular. An acidic shower over things like this is why we love fish and chips with vinegar, and lemon squeezed over scampi - I also like a good squirt of lemon over grilled lamb cutlets and charred slices of calves liver - the latter even better with lime and some cold slices of avocado.

Grilled chicken, almost black from the grill, is quite fantastic when dressed with lemon juice, freshly chopped flat parsley and olive oil that has been bullied by some crushed garlic. And then there is that late-night take-away, the tandoori chicken in its foil pouch with soggy salad - and always that essential bit of lemon lurking somewhere in the bottom. A roast chicken roasts even better when squeezed with lemon over the skin before becoming oven-bound. The natural sugars help to gloss the skin and add crispness. And any oily fish such as mackerel, sardines, salmon, herrings, etc, plainly grilled until their salty skins are like sandpaper, could not be crying out more for their hit of lemon.

Have you ever tried poaching a fillet of hake or sea bass, skinning it, and then serving it luke warm, slathered with some exceptionally good mayonnaise, boiled new potatoes and plenty of lemon? It may sound like a skive of a recipe but if the fish is of the finest and carefully cooked, why muck about? A few chives snipped about the place may be my concession to frivolity. It seems to be mostly in Italy that you will find warm fish dressed with mayonnaise. I once enjoyed a particular good version where flaked sea bass had been mixed with some tiny, fresh, green flageolet beans, tarragon and mayonnaise. The dish was luke warm, simply served in its white dish - and there were lemons.

Aubergines and courgettes, lightly salted and then grilled, show off their true flavours when brushed with lemon juice and a fruity olive oil. So does ever so thinly sliced raw fennel as a salad. Broccoli is, we know, transformed by hollandaise, but can be just as delicious when doused simply with lemon juice and hot butter, whisked together until amalgamated. Lightly buttered spinach given a tweak of lemon should be eaten in a hurry, before it turns a miserable grey from the acid. The Greeks don't care about visual problems like that because they do a remarkable dish of stewed lamb with much lemon juice and spinach that tastes divine. The spinach ends up as a grey sludge but the flavour is transformed on to another plane altogether. Dishes such as these don't need garnish

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