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Key lime: Handle with care

At first glance, Key limes are hard to resist. Bright green, shading to lemon yellow, smooth, compact and tiny, they’re adorably cute -- yeah, cute, just like a little puppy. It’s hard not to want to snatch a bag or two along with your other groceries.

Of course, once you have gotten them home, you have to use them. You can break out the cocktail shaker -- a no-brainer -- Key limes have often been referred to as the “bartender’s lime,” and they readily complement a whole host of libations. But then what? Fix margaritas for a small party and you may still be left with several cute little limes, sitting sadly alone on your counter like a tragic still life. What to do?

You might be tempted to substitute them for the larger limes, lemons or even some other citrus in a recipe, but be careful, because these cute little puppies pack a powerful bite.

Pair them with the right ingredients, however, and they can brighten an otherwise ordinary dish, adding depth and dimension. Give them a little room and they can add wonderful complexity, shining as a main flavor, highlighting a layered harmony, even working as a seasoning. They’ve got a wonderful personality if you just get to know them.

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Like all members of the citrus family, Key limes have a definite acidity. They’re tart, sharp and incredibly sour, even more so than other limes -- they’re almost borderline bitter. Key limes are extreme. And despite their yellowish cast, don’t confuse them with lemons.

But after you get over the initial acidity, you might notice the herbal notes -- Key limes have their own harmony going on -- a bouquet almost. They’re not a one-note fruit.

The key to cooking with them is balance. Because their flavor and nose are so assertive, Key limes don’t always go well with other flavors. They won’t readily share the stage. You really need to fine-tune to get a good balance.

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Lime differences

There are differences between Key limes and the limes we find in stores (commonly called “Tahitian” or “Persian,” even though they are not grown in Iran). Key limes (also called Mexican or West Indian limes) are the most common lime found throughout the world; the U.S. is the exception in preferring the Persian lime.

That’s largely due to an accident of history. Key limes were commercially produced in Florida back at the turn of the last century, but the crop was wiped out by a hurricane in 1926. When the growers replanted, they chose the Persian lime, which is more disease-resistant and heavier bearing, though Key lime trees can still be found in many residential backyards.

Along with cocktails, probably the most popular way to use Key limes is in the eponymous pie. About the only thing everyone agrees on is that it includes Key lime juice, but that’s where the agreement ends. Most recipes combine the juice with sweetened condensed milk (some devotees swear by Borden’s, now marketed as Eagle Brand) and egg to form a rich custard. After that, almost anything goes. It can be spooned into either a graham cracker or pastry crust, and topped with either meringue or whipped cream.

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Many older recipes do not call for baking the custard even; the lime juice alone thickens the mixture over time to “set” the custard.

Cookbook author Rose Levy Beranbaum takes the pie in a different direction, which I like better. She lightens the custard with a bit of Italian meringue. Not only does it improve the texture, but it also helps distinguish the flavors on the palate, brightening the lime. The custard is baked in a classic graham cracker crust (baking helps to thicken the texture and firm up the slices) and topped with the remaining meringue, which is baked just long enough to slightly brown the edges.

Incidentally, Beranbaum prefers the Persian lime for the pie. She says the Key lime’s “bitterness seemed to penetrate the sweetness.” I prefer the punchiness of the Key lime.

The recipe is simple. Probably the hardest part is waiting long enough for the pie to chill sufficiently to eat.

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One quick note here: You can’t bottle fresh flavor. Packaged Key lime juice may look easy, but it tastes like the shortcut that it is. Generally made from concentrate and treated for preservation, it lacks punch and often has metallic undertones.

Anyway, it’s not hard to find fresh Key limes in most Mexican markets (technically, they have a season, but they’re grown in so many places that you can find them year-round). Look for limes that are heavy for their weight, green shading to yellow (yellow signals ripeness, and makes for a slightly less tart lime). Store them at cool room temperature because refrigeration can speed decay.

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Sweet or savory

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It seems, more often than not, that Key limes (and limes in general) appear in sweet recipes, but they can be just as great in savory dishes.

Again, balance is the key. Sweet dishes tend to “tame” lime with sugar or other sweeteners, toning it down and softening it. At the same time, in many savory dishes, the sharp flavor is often contrasted with a spice and/or rich texture, as with guacamole. Lime juice is frequently used in marinades and dressings. Toss some arugula with grapefruit and avocado, then finish the salad with a light dressing of lime juice, honey and cumin. It’s a simple presentation, but the flavors can be stunning -- the balance comes from the sweetness of honey, the spice of cumin and the richness of avocado.

Or try a ceviche. Toss cubed fish in lime juice just until it turns opaque. The acid from the lime firms the fish, much like cooking, and it’s balanced by fresh-chopped serrano or jalapeno chile and cilantro. Indeed, lime and chile are frequently paired. Try combining them for a spicy, tangy marinade. It works well with chicken and makes for a particularly fun take on hot wings.

Or try a spicy Thai-inspired marinade: lime juice, chiles, onion, ginger and garlic. Season with a little soy sauce and toss in a bit of chipotle powder to add a smoky element. Marinate a couple pounds of chicken wings for a few hours, up to overnight, then fry until golden. Brush the wings with a sweet peanut sauce and finish them in the oven until the sauce cooks to a nice shellac. The combination of flavors is striking: First, you get the sweet peanut sauce, followed by the sharp acid and heat from the marinade.

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Key limes also go particularly well with coconut. While the lime can be overwhelmingly tart, it works nicely with the rich, sweet flavor of coconut.

Try pairing Key lime and coconut in a scone. Substitute coconut milk and a little fresh lime juice for the liquid in a standard recipe, adding some toasted coconut for crunch and a little fresh lime zest to brighten the composition.

It’s a fun recipe, not overly sweet, and you don’t have to wait as long for scones to chill as you would a pie. Besides, they’re cute. But these puppies won’t bite.

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noelle.carter@latimes.com

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Key lime pie

Total time: 55 minutes, plus chilling time

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Servings: 8

Note: Adapted from “The Pie and Pastry Bible” by Rose Levy Beranbaum. This recipe requires a 9-inch pie plate.

Graham cracker crumb crust

1 package graham crackers (11 double crackers, about 4 7/8 by 2 3/8 inches)

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2 tablespoons sugar

5 tablespoons butter, melted

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. To make the crust by hand, place the crackers in a freezer bag and use a rolling pin to crush them into fine crumbs. In a medium bowl, combine the crumbs and sugar and toss with a fork to blend. Stir in the melted butter and toss to incorporate it. To make the crust using a food processor, process the crackers with the sugar until the crackers become fine crumbs, about 20 seconds. Add the melted butter and pulse just until incorporated, about 10 times.

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3. Using your fingers or the back of a spoon, press the mixture into the bottom of the pie pan and partway up the sides. To keep the crumbs from sticking to your fingers, it helps to place a piece of plastic wrap over the crumbs and press them through the wrap. Then switch to a flat-bottomed, straight-sided measuring cup or glass to smooth the crumbs over the bottom and all the way up the sides. Be sure to press the bottom thoroughly so that the crumbs are evenly distributed. Place the crust in the oven and bake just to set the crust (the crust will color just slightly), about 6 minutes.

Filling and assembly

4 eggs (at room temperature), separated and divided

1 1/4 cups (one 14-ounce can) sweetened condensed milk

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1 1/2 teaspoons finely grated Key lime zest

3/4 cup fresh Key lime juice

1/2 cup sugar, preferably superfine

2 tablespoons water

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1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 tablespoon powdered sugar (optional)

1. In a medium mixing bowl, lightly whisk the egg yolks with the sweetened condensed milk. Gradually beat in the lime juice. (It will cause the mixture to thicken.) Beat in the zest and set aside.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, or in a large mixing bowl with an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until foamy. Add the cream of tartar and beat until stiff peaks form when the beater is raised slowly. Set aside.

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3. In a small, heavy saucepan, stir together the sugar and water until the sugar is completely moistened. Heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar dissolves and the syrup begins to bubble. Stop stirring and reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and continue cooking until a thermometer inserted reads 236 degrees (soft ball stage). Immediately remove from the heat.

4. With the mixer running at low speed, gently pour the syrup in a slow, steady stream over the whites until the syrup is incorporated. Continue beating on high speed until the outside of the bowl is no longer hot to touch uncomfortably, about 2 minutes.

5. Remove a scant 2 cups of the meringue and cover the remainder with plastic wrap. Set it aside.

6. Gently fold the scant 2 cups of meringue into the lime mixture and pour it into the crust. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes (to set the filling more firmly). Remove the pie from the oven and spread the remaining meringue on top of the filling, starting from the outside edge of the crust, covering the crust, and working toward the center of the pie. If desired, for extra crunch, dust the meringue with optional powdered sugar.

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7. Return the pie to the oven for 5 additional minutes. Then turn the oven to broil and brown the meringue for 20 seconds to 1 minute, watching carefully to prevent burning, until the meringue is golden. Cool in a place away from drafts for at least 30 minutes, then refrigerate for at least 4 hours before serving. (The pie can be cut after 2 hours, but the slices hold their shape better after 4 hours.) Cut with a wet, thin-bladed knife. Store uncovered, refrigerated, up to 3 days.

Each of 8 servings: 401 calories; 8 grams protein; 59 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 16 grams fat; 8 grams saturated fat; 141 mg. cholesterol; 48 grams sugar; 214 mg. sodium.

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Thai peanut chicken wings

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Total time: About 1 hour, plus marinating and cooling times

Servings: 8 to 10

Marinade

Zest of 3 Key limes

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1/2 cup Key lime juice

1/4 cup water

1 small onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic

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1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon grated ginger

2 teaspoons chipotle powder

1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon soy sauce

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1 to 4 Thai or serrano chiles, or to taste

2 pounds trimmed chicken wings, cut at the joint and wing tips removed (20 to 24 pieces)

1. In a blender, combine the lime zest and juice, water, onion, garlic, vanilla, ginger, chipotle powder, soy sauce and serrano chile. Blend until well pureed.

2. Place the trimmed wings in a large, sealable plastic bag. Pour over the marinade and eliminate as much air as possible before sealing the bag. Use your hands to massage the marinade through the bag over the wings. Refrigerate at least 4 hours, up to overnight.

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Peanut sauce and assembly

1 cup creamy peanut butter, preferably Skippy

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons brown sugar, sifted to remove any lumps, plus extra to taste

2 tablespoons canola oil, more as needed to thin the sauce

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2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil, more to taste

1 tablespoon Key lime juice, more to taste

1/4 teaspoon salt, more to taste

1/4 teaspoon chipotle powder, more to taste

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Marinated wings

Vegetable oil for frying

1 to 2 teaspoons black sesame seeds

Chopped green onions, for garnish

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1. In a medium saucepan, combine the peanut butter, brown sugar, canola oil, sesame oil, Key lime juice, salt and chipotle powder. Heat the mixture over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until the ingredients are combined and the sauce warms; be careful not to overheat or the sauce may burn. Taste the sauce and adjust as needed (with extra brown sugar, sesame oil, Key lime juice or salt). Remove from the heat and set aside in a warm place. This makes about 1 1/3 cups sauce.

2. Remove the wings from the marinade, wiping off the excess marinade with paper towels to dry the wings.

3. Fill a 4-quart pot with frying oil to a depth of 3 to 4 inches. Heat the oil to maintain a temperature of 350 degrees. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 375 degrees.

4. Fry the wings, in batches, until the meat is firm and opaque, and the skin is crisp and a rich golden-brown, about 5 to 7 minutes. Remove the wings to a large rack on a baking sheet, spacing them at least 1 inch apart from each other. Continue until all the wings are fried.

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5. Brush each wing on one side with a light coating of sauce. Place the wings in the oven for about 3 minutes to bake the sauce onto the wings. Remove the wings from the oven and flip them over, brushing the other side with a light coating of sauce. Sprinkle over the sesame seeds and bake again for about 3 minutes.

6. Remove from heat and allow to cool just slightly (enough so they can be handled). Meanwhile, thin the remaining sauce if desired with a little extra canola oil, then pour it into a small bowl and garnish with the chopped green onion.

7. Remove the wings to a plate or platter and serve immediately, with extra sauce on the side.

Each of 10 servings: 459 calories; 16 grams protein; 14 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 39 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 29 mg. cholesterol; 11 grams sugar; 238 mg. sodium.

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