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A Lemony Life

Dreaming of Lemons

I have always wanted a row of lemon trees in my yard. You know the look; fruit trees planted in massive pots along a pathway, or better yet along the edge of a garden that is overflowing with lavender, basil, and San Marzano tomatoes. As I walk down the aisles of this imaginary garden, my feet crush the tiny purple blossoms of creeping thyme, releasing its intoxicating scent into the air. 

I even have gone so far in this wishful wonderland of having purchased a massive (and I mean massive) tiled terra cotta planter that would house my first lemon tree. Of course living up in the hinterland, the bliss of smelling blossoms on my way to pick basil has obviously not materialized. My funky and sizable pot has instead held red twig dogwood and curly willow branches. I guess in the north country, this is the best I can hope for with a lemon tree pot, and I must rely on the local grocer to obtain my harvest.

Fruit of Spring

The fresh cheerfulness of lemons signal for me the onset of spring. The dance between spring and lemons is as natural as that of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They were meant to dance with each other. Spring days are crisp, and a slight breeze rustles through the branches. The cool refreshing taste of lemons mirrors the weather outside, delightfully zippy. Whether creating a sweet or tart dish, this fruit can nourish and bring joy. I have in my hands something that will be used to create delicious beauty.  

Whatever the reason, it’s at this time of year that I want to move away from rich, dark, heavy braises and into using early spring greens, vegetables such as spring sweet peas, and newly harvested baby bok choy. These create a bed for grilled lean meats. I top everything with a lemony crumble, and I marinate or drizzle with abandon a dressing that includes lemon juice as a key ingredient.

Left: Chicken with lemon, mushrooms, dried plums, and green olives. Right: Grilled salmon with lemon juice, olive oil, Italian parsley, salt, and pepper 

Lemon Feasts

Forget the tradition of ham for Easter dinner. At our house, our custom is lemon for Easter. This year it appeared in many forms. Appetizers included garlicky crostini topped with a lemony Tzatziki sauce. We tossed shreds of Napa cabbage with a ginger lemon Szechuan pepper dressing to serve as a base for marinated and grilled flank steak. Then just so dessert wouldn’t feel excluded, we served little ramekins of lemon pudding cake topped with macerated strawberries and dollops of whipped cream. Did all of this meet my need for all things lemon? 

Left: Lemon pudding cake, Right: Lemon cake with a lemon glaze

Nope. Just as spring marches on, so does my need for more lemony quests. French lemon custard, caramelized onion, Ricotta, and lemon galette, risotto al limone, and Greek egg lemon soup are among my favorites. I love lemony chicken with green olives over cheesy polenta or grilled lemon slices scattered on charred slabs of salmon. For dessert, lemon gelato or curd, lemon blueberry muffins, and lemon olive oil almond cake come to mind. From hors d’oeuvres to desserts with beverages in between, I fill my menus as well as my life with this fruit.

Left: Caramelized onion, Ricotta, and lemon galette, Right: Grilling the salmon with lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper

A Savory Twist

Let’s talk a little about the use of lemon in savory dishes such as in risotto al limone or Greece’s egg lemon soup. It seems counterintuitive to add such a bright flavoring to an otherwise rich, toothsome dish. Take risotto, for example. A typical risotto is creamy with the predominant flavor being that of salty Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. When you add lemon, it’s almost like the dish changes lanes on a freeway. The lemon zest and juice transform it into something very refreshing.

Above: Risotto al limone

A similar thing happens with egg lemon soup, otherwise known as Avgolemono in Greece. This would have a fairly typical “cream of chicken soup” flavor if not for the addition of lemon to the pot. As with the risotto, the addition of lemon elevates this soup from commonplace to splendid. Such is the beauty of the lemon.

Above: French lemon cream custards with candied lemon zest

A New Lemon Drink

The most recent lemony addition to my beverage repertoire is switchel.  My current favorite variety is lemon ginger. Switchels are a beverage with a rich history. They are a beverage based on vinegar, most commonly apple cider vinegar. Switchel was to our early colonists what soda pop is to us today. Basically, it was ubiquitous. It was (and still is) seen as both refreshing and healthy.

Apple cider vinegar was available in the northeastern states and thus became the tang in the recipe, which consisted of water, cider, a sweetener like molasses, honey, or maple syrup, and a flavoring like ginger and/or lemon. Switchel, also known as Haymaker’s Punch because of its refreshing nature, became the refreshment for those working long hours out in the hot sun. However, it was not only consumed by ordinary folk but was always available on the floors of our early Congress, reportedly with a liberal flavoring of Jamacian Rum. This, shall we say, fortified switchel, probably “flavored” a few of our country’s famous and formative oratories.

Left: Switchel, Right top: Salmon with lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper, Right bottom: A lemony spring spread

Spring Awakening

Tender green buds unfold on the trees. Plants poke their first leaves up through the cool earth. Nature is waking up, opening its eyes, and soon will show its full, adorned glory. Meanwhile, my sweet pea seeds have been tucked into the earth along the fenceline. Tomato, pepper, and eggplant seedlings are moving into adolescence under the grow-lights in my basement. The vegetable seed packets have been arranged and rearranged as I impatiently wait to plant them in the garden.  

Above: Risotto al limone

Warmer days are on the horizon. Evenings spent outdoors with dear friends will be here soon.  At the moment, though, I’m trying to decide, do I make marmalade or preserved lemons with the extras taking up space in my fridge? Such is the sweet conundrum of a lemon-filled spring. 

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Grapefruit for Breakfast

The icy wind freezes on my face as I make my way through the neighborhood on my early morning walk. The middle of winter greets us with frigid temperatures, icy roads and sidewalks, and cloudy, shortened days. Bringing winter clothing fashion to new heights, we layer on woolen sweaters. Soft, thick mittens and hats keep our fingers and ears warm. As I come into my kitchen from the stark outdoor greyness, the fresh yellows, oranges, and greens that emanate from the citrus bowl greet me.

It is citrus season, and its arrival could not be more welcomed and appreciated. I have been collecting as many varieties of citrus as I can find. Their colorful freshness adds a much needed sparkle to my menus.

A Little Citrus History

Many kinds of citrus find themselves into my kitchen each winter. These varieties are for the most part hybrids from the three original species, pomelos, mandarin oranges, and citron. The common citrus fruits that we consume every day such as lemons, limes, oranges, and clementines are all hybrids from these three parents.

Citrus originated in Asia, which has the perfect climate for it to thrive. As we have moved down through the centuries, both intentional and accidental mutations and hybridizations have caused the wide variety of citrus fruits we enjoy throughout the world today.

Pomelos

Recently I tasted one of these grandparents of the citrus family, the pomelo. I was surprised at its sweetness. When I included halved sections in a couscous salad, the pomelo added a cool, sweet counter to the toothsome couscous. The pomelo is so large that the meat from a single fruit is enough to meet the needs of the entire recipe.

Grapefruit

Grapefruit are a hybrid developed from an accidental cross between the pomelo and the sweet orange. Juicy ruby grapefruit sections are most often enjoyed unadorned with breakfast. However, I try to find as many ways as possible to include this delicious winter fruit into my winter cuisine. Some of my favorite uses include grapefruit sections in a salad of mesclun greens, squeezed for juice, or made into a grapefruit curd.

I probably received my love of grapefruit from my father. Every morning, like clockwork, he would meticulously carve out the sections of an entire grapefruit and enjoy them with his breakfast. This is one of the many favorite memories I have of him. He always had a large bag of grapefruit taking up space in his refrigerator, hardly leaving room for his other culinary obsessions, French cheese and pickled herring.

Meyer Lemons

Another seasonal favorite is Meyer lemons. They are juicy and sweet with tender, edible skins. I slice them into hearty braises, where they add a refreshing brightness.

Meyer lemons are delicious when slivered into paper thin slices for relishes or marmalade. Strips can be candied and used to garnish the top of sweet confections. Recently I made a relish with fresh lemon, crushed red pepper, red onion, chives, and Italian parsley. This made for a delicious embellishment on savory meat sandwiches. The season for these is not long, so if you see them in the grocery store, snap them up when you can; or wait until next year.

Blood Oranges

Moving on to yet another citrus jewel, blood oranges. Blood oranges are a mutation from a sweet orange and originally grew in Italy and Spain. The red meat of the orange is caused by the water-soluble pigment anthocyanin. I first discovered these beauties in Italy where one is seemingly able to buy fresh squeezed blood orange juice anywhere and often in the most unsuspecting places, even in the roadside convenience stores. It has always seemed so lavish to me that this delicacy is so pervasive and easily available. In the US, I have occasionally found blood oranges in the grocery stores in the winter, so keep your eyes peeled for them. Blood oranges are beautiful when made into a salad with shaved fennel bulb and red onions or simply fresh squeezed into juice for a very unusual and special breakfast juice.

Kumquats

The most recent addition to my “favorites list” are kumquats. Kumquats are small ovals, about the size of a large green olive. They are completely edible. Some enjoy popping these little orbs into their mouths, eating them whole and raw. I prefer to create a sort of spilling fruit compote to spoon on top of a round of Camembert or Brie. The sweet/savory contrast makes for an hors d’oeuvres that will never disappoint.

To make this, simply saute slices of kumquats, onions, and garlic in sizzling butter until soft. Add a little brown sugar, white wine, a pinch of red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper. Let this cook on low for a few minutes to thicken. Spoon the warm sauce on top of a round of room temperature cheese and serve with a crusty baguette. Eh voila, you have just made a gorgeous and delicious yet very easy appetizer.

Cara Cara Oranges

A citrus that looks a bit similar to the blood orange is the Cara Cara orange. These have pink flesh, thanks to the carotenoid lycopene. They are a relative newcomer to the citrus world. Discovered in 1976, it is believed they were a mutation from the Washington navel orange. The pink flesh of the Cara Cara oranges makes the most luscious pink orange marmalade. Paddington bear would even approve.

Fingered Citron

One of the weirdest looking types of citrus that I’ve come across is the fingered citron, or as it’s called in southeast Asia, Buddha’s hand. When grated, its fragrant skin makes for pungent zest. When used in breads, muffins, and cakes, it results in a fruit-forward lemony flavor. Another trait similar to citron is that fingered citrons have no pulp or juice. Rather, their assets lie in their ability to make you think your kitchen is a lemon grove because of their aromatic zest. Recently I used its zest in an Italian lemon almond cake, and it resulted in a delightful lemony flavor.

In this bleak midwinter, we have a refreshing recourse at the ready. A nutrient-packed collection of citrus fruits to enhance your menus, be it beverages, desserts, main dishes, salads, vegetables, hors d’oeuvres, or breads. Their fresh taste is certain to elevate everything they touch, your food as well as your spirits.