Over the past year I have chronicled our schizophrenic relationship with food. On one had, we are finding new healthful ingredients for which we will pay a mint, yet fast and processed foods will not go away anytime soon--and in fact, the recession has been a boon to many fast food operators. So let's take a look at a fruit that is all the rage but for me, a familiar ingredient all of my life.
The Meyer lemon has been a fixture in California backyards for decades. Frank Meyer, a US Department of Agriculture employee who was assigned the task of introducing Asian plants to the United States, found this variety in China and brought it over to the US. Through his work, another 2500 plant species from Asia ended up across the pond. I am not sure of 2499 of them, but one of them has had a lasting impact, and hence, the Meyer lemon has honored the botanist, who died at only 43, by taking his name.
Unlike the tatooed tart lemons found in supermarkets, the Meyer lemon is smooth and has an orange glow. The scent will snare you immediately--they almost resemble a mandarin or other variety of tangerine. There is nothing astringent about this fruit--in fact, I love slicing them into quarters and eating them whole, yes, including the rind and pith.
Alice Waters gave the Meyer its first taste of fame, and then its celebrity shot through the roof when Martha Stewart raved about them for her recipes. But for my family, the Meyer was an old standby: our house in Cupertino had two trees in the backyard, and many of our neighbors had them in the front yard, trees so bountiful that many lemons fell to the ground, as we all could not consume them fast enough!
Now Meyer lemons are a prized ingredient. You can purchase them at Trader Joe's or Whole Foods for a ridiculous amount ($4 for four puny ones at TJ's!), but in California, you should not have to buy them. They grow like a weed. We currently are growing a tree in our backyard, though bush is more of an accurate description: growing Meyer lemons is relatively easy, as the bushes on which they grow are fairly compact. Most bear fruit year round, but winter is generally the peak season.
Let me offer a few culinary suggestions:
The rind: This is gold. Save it. If you are using the juice, scrape off the zest using a cheese knife, vegetable peeler, or of course, a zester. Freeze it in a Ziploc bag. If you like candied citrus peel, the Meyer lemon is a sure winner.
Rice dishes: Grated Meyer lemon zest is perfect on top of any risotto dish, or, make a simple pilaf: brown some vermicelli or angel hair pasta, then add two parts stock and one part rice. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 15-20 minutes. Fold in 2 tbsp. of grated Meyer lemon rind before serving.
Chicken and fish: Use the juice or zest in any recipe involving these proteins--the sweetness of the Mayer lemon is a nice balance for any of these dishes. Place thin slices of a Mayer lemon under the skin of a chicken or on top of a fish filet, and roast away.
Chocolate: Grated zest from this fruit goes well with any dark chocolate recipe. Strips of Meyer lemon zest covered in dark chocolate have been known to cause people to faint.
The juice: If your relative or friend ever sends you home with a bag full of these, you are one lucky devil. Juice the lemons, and freeze the cubes in Ziploc bags. They make a great lemonade, and require less sugar than the juice from other lemon varieties.
Gremolata: this Italian combination of parsely, chopped garlic, and lemon zest screams for Meyer lemon. Usually paired with osso buco, this combination goes well with seafood, or try it with eggs.
From time to time I will discuss other citrus varieties that make living in California sublime. If you have other ideas for that grocery bag of lemons from your parents' backyard, please share them with us.