Category Archives: lemon

How to choose and use lemons

Which lemon to choose: large or small, organic or not?

How do I choose a good lemon?

First of all, what do you want to use it for? For juice, the lemons you find in the supermarket are just fine. Most of them are grown in California (with some from Arizona) and are either the Eureka or Lisbon variety, which are difficult to tell apart, even for a lot of lemon growers. Choose a lemon that’s heavy for its size and has a pleasant fragrance. The skin should be bright yellow with no wrinkling. A thinner-skinned lemon will yield more juice, while a thicker-skinned one may be better for zest. Be sure to check that the lemon is not too soft and has no signs of white or green mold. Small blemishes and spots won’t affect the juice.

How do I know if a lemon is ripe? As long as it isn’t rock hard, it’s ripe. Since you don’t buy a lemon for its sweetness, you don’t have to worry about that part.

Small or large? Research indicates that it’s usually a better bargain to buy smaller lemons: you get more juice for your money. It means a little more labor on your part, though.

Lemon watercolor by Cathy Mihalik

Organic or not? If you want to use your lemon for its rind, or zest, it can be worth it to pay more for organic or unwaxed lemons. Be extra careful in choosing organic lemons–since they are not treated with fungicide wax, they are much more susceptible to mold. Look for telltale white or green spores on the lemons, and check any lemons that are nearby, as mold easily spreads from one fruit to the next. Avoid lemons with soft spots. See more about zest below.

Lemon varieties include the golden colored Meyer lemon and the striped Pink Lemonade, the latter mainly used for its decorative value

What about Meyer lemons? Meyer lemons are actually a natural cross between a lemon and an orange, discovered by plant explorer Frank N. Meyer in China in 1908.  They have a delicate floral fragrance and flavor; their skins are thinner and they’re  sweeter, or  less acidic, than a true lemon, as they contain about four times the amount of sugar. That said, they still have a refreshing tang.

Unless you live in California or have a friend with a Meyer lemon tree, you may find them too pricey to use on a regular basis as they don’t transport well and have a limited season. Also,  when you want that tangy acidic kick, you’re better off getting true lemons. But for certain desserts and dishes where you want the rind to be edible, they’re worth paying extra for. I recommend them especially for lemon marmalade.

How should I keep my lemons at home? Store lemons at room temperature, out of the sunlight, for a week or more, unless they are organic lemons — then they should be used within a couple of days or stored in your refrigerator crisper. A bowl of lemons will make your house smell sweet. Keep lemons away from moisture; wash and dry them just before using.

What about substituting bottled lemon juice for fresh lemons?  Don’t do it, except in an emergency. Fresh lemon juice is so much better, plus you can use the lemon zest.  Rather than buying bottled juice, just keep a bowlful of lemons on your table or counter — they will beautify and scent your home and that way you’ll always have fresh lemons available for your recipes. And you can freeze leftover lemon juice in ice cube trays for all the convenience of bottled juice.

Tips on cooking with lemons:

Measuring:

4 to 5 medium lemons = approximately 1 cup of juice

One medium lemon = approximately 1 tablespoon grated peel

The wooden lemon reamer is my favorite hand tool for juicing lemons. Yes, you still have to strain the seeds, but it’s brilliantly effective, using the power of one’s hand to squeeze out all the juice.

Lemon juice: To increase the amount of juice you can squeeze, the lemon should be room temperature or warmer. If need be, place in hot water for a few minutes. Then roll the lemon firmly on the counter-top with the pressure of your palm until it feels softened. Lemons will become juicier with this method as the membranes inside start to break down, releasing the juice more easily. I’ve also read that microwaving a lemon for 15 seconds will release more of its juice (I haven’t tried this).

Two types of lemon squeezers that strain juice. I found the one on the left in Amsterdam; the one on the right at Campo di Fiori in Rome.

Cooking: Always use nonreactive cookware with lemon juice, avoiding aluminum, uncoated cast iron or copper. It’s best to add lemon juice to dishes after they’ve been cooked to retain vitamin C and for the freshest brightening flavor.

  • Fresh lemon juice can be used in place of vinegar in many recipes and is excellent with oil as a salad dressing.
  • Lemon juice is also excellent in marinades as it tenderizes meat.
  • Using a teaspoon of lemon juice in place of ice water in a pie crust will add to its tenderness.
  • Perk up wilted lettuce or tired vegetables by soaking them in a big bowl of cold water with a teaspoon of lemon juice for half an hour.
  • Add a squeeze of lemon juice to the water when poaching eggs to keep the whites together.
  • Lemon juice can be used to prevent artichokes or cut fruits, such as apples,  from turning brown (oxidizing)
  • Add half a lemon to the cooking water when you’re cooking cauliflower and it will stay white. Or add lemon juice to cooked purple cauliflower and observe a startling color change to fuchsia:
    • However, when you want cooked green beans to stay bright green, don’t add lemon juice until right before serving or they’ll turn an olive color. A good way to add lemon flavor to a dressing for green beans while preserving their color is to use the zest.

Lemon zest: When a recipe calls for zest, try to use unwaxed or organic lemons. Most grocery store lemons are waxed. If you cannot use these, then blanch the lemon in boiling water for a minute to loosen the wax, and scrub the skin well before grating.

A Microplane grater, based on a rasp design, will give you finely grated zest; a lemon zester produces slightly longer threads of zest, or you can use a sharp vegetable peeler to peel strips, then finely chop. Be sure to grate or peel only the yellow part of the skin, not the white part beneath, which can be bitter.

My favorite of these methods is the Microplane — it’s easy to use and the fine zest gives intense flavor. I add freshly grated lemon zest to many baked goods — scones, cakes, muffins, pies — as well as to pasta and rice dishes, salads, tuna salads, fish, chicken, and much more.

I often travel with a Microplane zester and a lemon reamer.

Preserving juice and zest: Lemon juice can be frozen in small containers or in ice cube trays. Lemon cubes can be added to lemonade or thawed to use in a recipe. Lemon zest can also be frozen, wrapped in small packets of plastic wrap or aluminum foil. You can also add strips of lemon peel to a jar of sugar to use for baking.

Classic lemon juicers: the wooden one on the left is an early American model, which was not very effective

Recipes

You can find lemon recipes on the pages above in these categories:

Antique recipes include 12th century preserved lemons, Limuniya from the Middle Ages, A Lemon Sallet from 1653, a Lemon Pudding from 1747 and Shaker Lemon Pie from the 1800s.

Savories include Avgolemeno (Greek lemon-egg soup), Lebanese lemony lentil soup, ceviche, roast chicken with lemons, slow roast chicken (pieces) with garlic and lemon, chicken piccata, , lemon basil linguine, lemon risotto, lemon pizza and tuna-lemon-green bean salad.

Sweets include lemon curd, French lemon tart, lemon meringue pie, S-cookies, Rachel’s lemon squares, David Leibovitz’s whole lemon bars, granita di limone, Meyer lemon marmalade and candied citrus peels.

Lemonade — I think this is self-explanatory!

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Filed under citrus, food, lemon, lemons, Meyer lemons

How did the lemon get such a bad rap?

Mario de Paolo's "lemon" truck

Mario di Paolo's "lemon" truck

I hear a lot of lemon jokes, and apparently so does Mario di Paolo, of Mario’s Lemonade in Chicago.

So how did “a lemon” come to mean something undesirable or defective–like a junker car?

Some people say it’s because the lemon is sour — yet that’s exactly the quality that cooks were looking for when they paid exorbitant prices for lemons imported from Sicily.

“We buy a lemon precisely for its endlessly useful acid juice; we would be very annoyed to find it sweet inside…. A modern kitchen without a lemon in it is gravely ill-equipped.

— Margaret Visser, Much Depends on Dinner

I have a theory about why this derogatory usage developed in the U.S. in the early 1900s. At the time, it was nearly impossible to find a decent American-grown lemon.

In Florida, the lemon industry had collapsed after a disastrous freeze in the mid-1890s — and California’s early lemon farmers had a lot to learn about growing, storing and packing lemons.

In 1899, an authority said many California lemons were “deficient in acid, and full of bitterness, prone to decay…”

oneLemonThe lemon is a natural marvel of packaging. Its thick skin cushions the fruit from damage and keeps the flesh inside fresh and juicy– but only when it’s handled with care and stored in the right conditions.

In the early 1900s, few California growers knew how to do this. Eastern fruit merchants complained that California lemons were carelessly packed and weren’t fresh when they arrived. Even buyers in Los Angeles and San Francisco shunned the local lemons and paid exorbitant prices for the superior  Sicilian imports.

Around 1900, most Americans preferred lemons from Sicily to the homegrown variety

Around 1900, most Americans preferred lemons from Sicily to the homegrown variety

Consider this: In 1900, 70 percent of lemons consumed in U.S and Canada were imported.

So it seems that American lemons of the early 1900s deserved the defective label. But beginning with C.C. Teague of Limoneira Company in Santa Paula (who helped start and develop the growers’ cooperative that became Sunkist), California growers soon caught up to the standards of imported lemons — and Americans have had little reason to be disappointed with them ever since.

Now, if only we could stop using the term “lemon” to describe defective goods!

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Art of the lemon…

European artists have long loved painting lemons

manet lemon

Eduoard Manet, "The Lemon." Manet painted this perfectly simple lemon near the end of his life, in 1880.

Lemons on a Plate and a Carafe, Van Gogh, 1887

Lemons on a Plate and a Carafe, Van Gogh, 1887

Vincent van Gogh painted these lemons when he lived in Arles. I really like that blue-green table with the lines circling round. And the wallpaper. And the carafe.  And, of course, the lemons.

Lemons and Saxifrages

Lemons and Saxifrages

Henri Matisse chose a red and white check background for his decorative lemons in 1943. I’m not sure what Saxifrages are.

Pieter Claesz still life

I think it’s safe to say that no one was more enamored of lemons than the 17th century Dutch still-life painters. They painted them on banquet tables, sometimes with mincemeat pies and oysters, nearly always with wine nearby.

Pieter Claesz liked to paint his lemons reflected on big pewter plates, as in the still life above from around 1625, which I saw at the Chicago Art Institute.

The Dutch liked some lemon peel to flavor their spirits, so you’ll often see lemons near cups of wine, the fruit cut open and half peeled.  A great opportunity for those master painters to show off their talents, rendering glistening cut lemons and curling spirals of golden light.

Still Life, 1634

Still Life, 1634

Yesterday I went to the Vancouver Art Gallery to see the exhibit of Dutch art from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and encountered the stunning picture above by Willem Claesz Heda.

The placard said the lemon represented “moderation.” ?? What were they thinking when they wrote that? I don’t agree at all. If anything, the lemon was just as luxurious as the gold, silver and pewter. Heda painted each light-reflecting object with a loving reverence.

Still life with gilt goblet

Still life with gilt goblet

Here’s another of Heda’s still life paintings with lemon. He liked to paint the curling ribbon of zest spilling off the table, drawing the viewer’s eye away from the center of the painting.

Alchemists’ work, turning tin and arsenic and vegetable juices into golden fruit painted with a kind of showy complication and variety that suggests there must have been competition among the painters of lemons.

Above is a quote from Mark Doty’s lovely little book, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, which is both an ode to the still life form and a meditation on ordinary objects and time.

Raphaelle Peale, "Lemons and Sugar," 1822

Raphaelle Peale, "Lemons and Sugar," 1822

And let’s not forget the American artist, Raphaelle Peale, who loved to paint the still life — and lemons!

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I love lemons. Actually, I’m a little obsessed with them.

bowl of lemons 2

About 8 or 9 years ago, I embarked on a lemon odyssey of travel, research and discovery.

Still Life with Two Lemons. by Pieter Claes

I found lots of good company in my obsession. Like Pieter Claesz and other seventeenth-century Dutch still-life artists who loved painting lemons–not only because they’re beautiful but also because they symbolized exotic luxury and desirability.

FrankMeyerOr Frank N. Meyer, an eccentric plant explorer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture who walked (yes, walked) thousands of miles across Asia to collect hardy plants — and in 1908 discovered the lemon tree in a Peking courtyard that’s now named after him. On one three-year journey, Meyer walked 1,800 miles on narrow mountain trails, weathering howling icy dust storms and snowstorms. In only three months, he wore out three pairs of boots. I didn’t get to actually meet him, but….

Eleonora Consoli in her kitchen at Viagrande, Sicily

Eleonora Consoli in her kitchen at Viagrande, Sicily

I did meet Eleonora Consoli, an authority on Sicilian cooking when I visited her at her home in Viagrande, Sicily, on the slopes of Mount Etna. Signora Consoli loves cooking with lemons–juice, zest and even leaves– and has a lemon tree in her courtyard.

"I'm bullish on lemons," says Bob Grether. "I'm an optimist."

"I'm bullish on lemons," says Bob Grether. "I'm an optimist."

And Bob Grether, a delightful second-generation farmer in Ventura County, who has taken me on many tours of Grether Farming Company’s citrus orchards. His equally delightful wife, Sally, always has a pitcher of fresh lemonade in the refrigerator.

Mario at his lemonade stand, August, 2007

Mario at his lemonade stand, August, 2007

And Mario di Paolo, of Mario’s Italian Lemonade on Taylor Street in Chicago,  my hometown. Mario & co. make fabulous lemon ice, very much like the granita of Sicily.


granita

Lemon and peach granita in Acireale, Sicily

For American lemonade, try my recipe in the page above.

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Filed under citrus, food history, Frank N. Meyer, Grether, lemon, Meyer lemons