a test kitchen dossier
Huge lemons, cut in slices, would sink like setting suns into the dusky sea, softly illuminating it with their radiating membranes, and its clear, smooth surface aquiver from the rising bitter essence.
– Rainer Maria Rilke
Area of Origin: Asia or Southeast Asia, possibly India or Malaysia
Etymology: From the French limon
Hot summer days. Lemonade stands. A succulent lemon tart. Summer pastas, grilled fish, a citrus vinaigrette. From childhood to adulthood the lemon is there, ironically enough, to make life a little sweeter. Lemons are one of those foods — like sugar, chocolate, and this month’s main ingredient, shrimp — that human beings seem to have instinctively known were meant to be eaten. Though a thick peel hides the fruit from the eye, it is easy to see how people might have discovered the lemon’s bounty: Good lemons have a pervasive aroma. When something smells that heavenly, who could resist taking a bite? While many of today’s lemons are so sour that eating the fruit sounds like a form of self-flagellation, lemons can actually be sour or sweet (though sweet is a relative term). Relatively few varieties of lemons are available to us today, and we can only hope that someday lemons will go the way of tomatoes, where we will be inundated with exciting heirloom varieties.
The lemon’s ubiquity in cooking stems from its dominant quality – its sourness – as acidity improves the taste of a wide variety of foods. Lemon juice is also a natural anti-oxidant, which is why adding it to sliced apples keeps them white; similarly, lemon juice helps food retain a fresh, bright, vibrant taste when cooked. The high acidity also explains why lemons are so wine friendly: Citric acid (that’s what makes you pucker up, sweetheart) also occurs naturally in grapes and is preserved in wine. Lemony foods pair well with still and sparkling whites, as well as rosés.
The lemon’s geographical origin is a bit difficult to pin down. The cultivated lemon is believed to be a hybrid of the wild lime and citron, but the lemon’s tendency to hybridize (get a little too friendly with other plants) makes it extremely difficult to track its movements. It probably originated somewhere in southeast Asia, or possibly India.
In the 7th Century the Saracens (the Islamic people that Richard the Lionhearted would later fight in the Crusades) brought citrus fruits including lemons to Sicily; lemons then spread throughout Spain, North Africa and Italy. Several hundred years later, the English Crusaders may not have won the war, but they did bring lemons back to England. In 1943, the lemon traveled to Haiti with Columbus, and today lemons are cultivated worldwide in tropical and temperate climates. Most American lemons grow in California, and most European lemons grow on the coasts and islands of the Mediterranean.
And that summer drink beloved by American children and aspiring entrepreneurs? Lemonade may actually have been invented in medieval Egypt: According to historical documents and trade records, qatarmizat were bottles of lemon juice with lots of sugar. A popular drink in Egypt, qatarmizat was also exported.
Lemons still grow in a variety of forms, and one of these forms is making a major comeback, at least in the United States. Meyer lemons are probably a cross between a lemon and a navel or mandarin orange. They are named after Frank N. Meyer, who in 1908 brought them to the United States from China, where they had been growing for centuries. Until quite recently, Meyer lemons were available almost exclusively in California, where they were typically grown in people’s backyards. Á la Alice Waters, many restaurants bought Meyer lemons from area residents during their growing seasons – signs were (and still are) commonly displayed in restaurants inviting people to bring in their Meyer lemons. Their popularity has led to some commercial production, and Meyer lemons are now available in season from some grocery stores.
Almost all lemons grown in California are one of these almost identical varieties. Considered the American standard, Eureka and Lisbon lemons are very juicy with extremely high acidity.
Thin and soft-skinned, less acidic, with an intoxicating aroma. They are fairly expensive and fragile, but they are exceptionally delicious in desserts, with fish or even cut up and mixed with roasted winter vegetables such as cauliflower. Look for them November through May.
A cross between a lemon and a citron, Ponderosa lemons are larger and rounder with a strong citrus taste. The fruit are great for juicing because of their size, and Ponderosa plants are becoming popular because they can be grown indoors. Their blossoms have a beautiful scent, and in the right climate these trees are said to grow very easily. So if you have a green thumb, you can buy a Ponderosa plant and live in a citrus grove! Unfortunately, Ponderosas are not readily available in stores, so unless you know someone with a tree, you’re probably out of luck for now.
Forms of Lemons for Cooking
Great for lemonade, mixed drinks, salad dressing, deglazing pans, brightening up soups, sauces, stews or casseroles – really there’s not much a dash or more of lemon juice can’t improve. Let’s not forget it can also be used as a cooking liquid, as with this month’s Shrimp Ceviche. Keeping fresh lemons on stock is a great way to enhance your cooking without investing a lot of money or time; unfortunately, bottled lemon juice is an extremely poor substitute – so stay with the fresh!
An essential pairing for any fried food, sweeter lemons can also be eaten in slices. While dentists everywhere will probably cringe in horror, if you haven’t eaten a lemon slice dipped in sugar, you haven’t lived.
Rind or zest
One of those chefs secrets, lemon zest has a stronger, more perfumed aroma and taste than lemon juice, as it contains essential oils. For strings of zest or shavings, you can use a special tool such as a zester or micro-plane (a flat grater with extremely small holes). For larger strips simply use a paring knife or sharp vegetable peeler – but be careful: You don’t want to leave any of the pith (white part of the skin) attached because it tastes very bitter.
Candied lemon peel:
If you are feeling ambitious, try candying some lemon peel, then let your imagination go wild. Take strips of lemon peel and combine with two cups of cold water. Bring to a boil, then drain the water. Repeat two more times. Add two cups of sugar to one cup of water, bring to a boil and stir to dissolve the sugar. Add the lemon peels and simmer for about fifteen minutes. Drain and let cool. Finally, toss the peels in some additional sugar. Candied lemon peel (or candied orange peel) is fantastic sprinkled on everything from fruit salad to chicken salad (you’ll believe it when you try it).
Diver Scallops with Cauliflower Purée, Lemon Confit and Golden Osetra Caviar
Moroccan Lemon Chicken with Chickpeas and Honeyed Sauce
Moroccan Preserved Lemons
White Chocolate Lemon Napoleon
Lavender Pound Cake with Lemon Glaze
Lemon Upside-Down Cake
Steamed Artichokes with Lemon Herb Mayonnaise
Lemon-Zested Granny Smith Apple & Fennel Salad
Dossier by China Millman