Limelight: Juice of tart fruit adds a little accent to Cinco de Mayo celebrations

Persian limes (left) and Key limes (right)

Leroy Burnell

Roll aside, lemons. Limes get to be the main squeeze for Thursday's Cinco de Mayo celebrations.

Mexico is, after all, a leading producer of limes in the world. And the margarita, Cinco's cocktail du jour, wouldn't be a classic without tart lime juice in concert with tequila and orange liqueur.

Beer drinkers also can get a piece of the action, whether it's a lime-spiked bottle or, for the more adventurous, a Michelada cocktail: beer with lime juice, salt, chile sauce or powder, Worcestershire sauce and/or soy sauce, sometimes tomato or Clamato juice.

It seems that limes don't get their due the rest of the year. Lemons have asserted themselves as the go-to citrus fruit in the United States. Per person consumption is more than twice that of limes, although lemon juice in sodas and drinks accounts for much of the gap.

In many instances, limes and lemons are interchangeable -- to a point.

For John Aquino, bartender at Coast in downtown Charleston, there is a difference. While he is a fan of both fruits, he gives a nod to the lime.

"I prefer lime. I think it accents food better, it doesn't overpower."

To him, the taste of lemon tends to dominate other ingredients, while lime brings out surrounding flavors.

Think of it this way: if the two fruits were personified, lemon is the attention-hog in a group. Lime wants to have a conversation with the others.

Kevin Grant, chef-owner of Zia Taqueria on James Island, also describes himself as more of a lime guy. He says it can be tricky to know when lime plays better than lemon in food and drink.

Limes work well with Mexican cuisine because acid is a huge part of the food, he says. "It brings out extra flavor that you wouldn't have otherwise."

Asked about dishes that cry out for lime, Grant named fish tacos, pork carnitas and salsa.

"Salsa is the thing that has to have lime for me," he says.

While margaritas can include lemon as well as lime juice, one thing he is certain of: "I would never put lemon in a beer."

Teresa Taylor is the food editor. Reach her at 937-4886.

Key lime, Mexican lime, West Indian lime, bartender's or "true" lime: Although these small, round and smooth-skinned limes are a niche fruit in this country, they are the original species and the dominant lime in the world. They are thought to be native to Malaysia.

Columbus brought them to the New World, where they were perfectly at home in the hot climates of the West Indies, Central America and especially Mexico, which is a leading producer today. Key limes were grown briefly in the Florida Keys between 1913-23. They typically are more acidic, juicy, aromatic and seedy than Persian limes.

Persian lime: These limes are common in U.S. grocery stores, and are believed to be a cross between a "true" lime and the citron. They are larger, lemon-shaped, have a thicker rind and are usually seedless.

--To maximize juice, press down on fruit with the palm of your hand and roll on a hard surface. Alternatives: Microwave on high for 10 seconds or freeze whole fruits for 24 hours.

--Wash thoroughly with soap and water if using zest.

--Grate or zest whole fruit before juicing. (Even if not using immediately, the zest can be frozen up to six months for later use.

--The best zester? A microplane. But, if using a grater, cover it with wax paper or plastic wrap first. The zest will cling to the paper or plastic when removed.

--For Persian, bright color and those heavy for their size.

--For key limes, light yellow, fine-grained skins free of blotches or brown spots.

--For either, avoid fruits that are hard or look shriveled and dry.

Poolside Cabana

Serves 1

Created by John Aquino of Coast Bar & Grill in Charleston.

4 ounces fresh limeade (fresh-squeezed lime juice, sugar and water to taste)

2 ounces pineapple juice

Splash of Campari

1 1/2 ounces Grey Goose L'Orange vodka

Splash of soda

Fresh pineapple and Maraschino cherry for garnish

Mix the limeade, pineapple and Campari. Pour vodka into a tall glass filled with ice. Pour in juice mixture, top with soda and stir. Garnish glass with fruit.

Key Lime Martini

Serves 1

Another drink by John Aquino of Coast Bar & Grill in Charleston, who says it "tastes just like a Key Lime pie."

1 1/2 ounces Licor 43 (see note)

1 1/4 ounces Rose's lime juice

2 1/2 ounces orange juice

2 1/2 ounces half-and-half

Lime peel for garnish

Note: Licor 43 is a bright yellow Spanish liqueur flavored by 43 ingredients, including vanilla, citrus, fruits, herbs and spices.

Shake liquids together with ice in a cocktail shaker and strain into a martini glass. Garnish the glass rim with a strip of lime peel.

Classic Margarita

Serves 1

2 tablespoons coarse salt

1 lime wedge

2 ounces good-quality tequila

1 ounce fresh lime juice, or more to taste

1 ounce orange liqueur such as Grand Marnier or Cointreau

Ice cubes or crushed ice

1 lime slice for garnish

Sprinkle salt on a small plate. Rub the rim of a cocktail glass with the lime wedge and then press into the salt.

Pour the tequila, lime juice and orange liqueur into a cocktail shaker filled with ice cubes or crushed ice. Shake well and strain into the salt-rimmed glass. Garnish with a lime slice.

Frozen Margarita: Place ingredients along with 2 teaspoons superfine sugar or simple syrup and 1 cup of cracked ice into a blender and process until frothy.

Michelada

Coarse salt (for the rim)

1/4 cup fresh lime juice

Ice

1 to 2 dashes of hot chile sauce (such as Tabasco, Tapatio or Cholula)

Dash of soy sauce

Dash of Worcestershire sauce

1 ice-cold Mexican beer

Chilled beer mug or large glass

Lime wedge for garnish

Moisten the edge of the glass with some lime juice and dip into a plate with salt on it. Fill the glass about halfway with ice and pour in the lime juice, chile sauce, soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce. Mix with a spoon, then slowly pour in the beer to the top of the glass. Push the lime wedge onto the edge and serve immediately. After a few sips, pour the remaining beer into the cocktail.