Making the most of the Meyer lemon

By Tara Austen Weaver, guest contributor

Wendy illustration

Making the most of the Meyer lemon

Illustration by Wendy Wahman

 

Here in the Northwest, this time of year is often considered the glum season. It’s wet, dark and cold. The holiday glitter is over and spring feels months away. There is one standout benefit of this time of year, however. It’s citrus season. More specifically, it’s Meyer lemon season.

If you are not familiar with this cult citrus, Meyer lemons hail from China. They are named for Frank N. Meyer, a plant explorer from the early 1900s responsible for introducing 2,500 new plant varieties to North America, including a dwarf lemon tree from a small village near Beijing that bears his name.

What makes a Meyer lemon so special? The citrus is actually a cross between a lemon and an orange, a thin-skinned fruit with fragrance and flavor unlike other lemons. Meyer lemons are sweeter, juicy and slightly floral, with less acidity and more personality than we generally expect from a lemon. If you sent the standard lemon to charm school, it might come back as a Meyer.

And charm us they have. When Meyer lemons were introduced to the U.S. in the 1930s, it was with acclaim. The Los Angeles Times, in 1933, declared the Meyer lemon “a citrus fruit which should be widely planted in all California gardens.” Not only was it suitable to various climates and could be grown in containers, it made “the finest lemonade.”

Gardeners took heed, putting in Meyer lemon hedges and trees. For more than 10 years, Meyers were the belle of the citrus ball. In 1956, however, it was discovered the lemons were carriers of the citrus tristeza virus (CTV), which could spread to other citrus trees and threaten commercial crops.

The California Department of Agriculture declared Meyer lemons a menace. Orders went out, county by county, to remove and destroy them. Inspectors went door to door in some areas, telling residents to dig up their hedges and trees, then returned to make sure they had done so. Notices were sent to other citrus-growing regions, like Texas and Florida, to follow suit. Once embraced, Meyer lemons were now shunned.

But the qualities that made these lemons so appealing—thin skin, fragrance and flavor—were still in demand. It took two decades, but a virus-free “improved Meyer lemon” was developed by the University of California at Riverside and released to the public in the mid 1970s.

Even after reintroduction, Meyers remained chiefly a regional favorite, as commercial growers thought their thin skins wouldn’t stand up to transport. They were still beloved by home cooks in California, but the majority of the country was unaware of them. This changed, in part, due to the influence of two women.

In 1988 Alice Waters, founder of Berkeley’s groundbreaking Chez Panisse restaurant, included a Meyer lemon cake in a cookbook she wrote with Paul Bertolli, making cooks across the country curious. “Ask your friends or relatives in California to send you some,” Waters suggested.

Martha Stewart joined the Meyer choir later, offering up recipes for everything from a Meyer lemon drop cocktail and lemon radicchio salad to a coffee cake incorporating slices of whole lemon. “Meyer is my favorite lemon because this thin-skinned fruit is much more flavorful than the ordinary store-bought,” she wrote.

Meyer’s stock has since soared. They are now widely available in January and February—a bit more expensive, though arguably also more magical, than the Lisbon or Eureka lemons usually found in stores.

Because Meyer lemons are so precious, make sure to use every bit you can.

Take advantage of the fragrance and flavor held in the Meyer’s thin skin and also preserve them for later use. They may be a consolation prize for the glum skies, but that’s all the more reason to enjoy these gems of winter as often and as thoroughly as we can.

 

Salt-preserved Lemons

North African and Mediterranean cuisine has been using salt to preserve lemons as far back as the 12th century. The result is a deeply flavored pickled product that is often included in traditional tajine recipes, but is equally at home tossed into pasta or rice, in soups, stews, bean dishes and salad dressings—anywhere you want a savory hit of lemon brightness.

Yield: one jar

8 Meyer lemons
½ cup kosher salt
Additional lemon juice and salt, as needed

Thoroughly wash and dry the lemons. Trim ¼ inch off the tip and stem end of each lemon (until you can see the flesh of the fruit), then cut each lemon in quarters.

Wash and sterilize a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid (a pint canning jar is ideal). Place 2 tablespoons of the salt in the bottom of the jar.

Toss the lemon wedges and remaining salt in a bowl and begin packing the lemons in the jar, pressing each wedge down until juice is expressed. Layer with salt from the bottom of the bowl after each addition.

When all lemon pieces have been added and pushed down, check the level of liquid in the jar. If there are any bits of lemon that are not completely submerged, add extra lemon juice and salt (1-2 tablespoons). Screw on the lid and let sit at room temperature for three days, shaking the jar each day to mix and dissolve the salt. Make sure the lemon is fully submerged under the salty liquid each time. Refrigerate after three days.

Lemons will be ready to use after three weeks, when the white pith of the peel has turned translucent. You can use both the peel and the flesh, though they are generally used in different preparations, as the flesh will be very salty. Keep in the refrigerator for up to one year.

 

Lemon Curd

Yield: 5 cups

1 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1 lb. sugar (2 cups)
1 stick butter (8 tablespoons)
8 eggs, lightly beaten
5 tablespoons lemon zest
Pinch of salt

In a heavy-bottomed sauce pan, add the lemon juice, sugar and butter and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the butter melts and the sugar dissolves.

While the lemon mixture cooks, crack the eggs into a medium bowl and whisk until the mixture is a uniform yellow.

Once the lemon mixture is melted and smooth, remove from heat and use a ladle or plastic measuring cup to scoop up approximately one cup of lemon mixture. With a slow and steady hand, drizzle the lemon mixture in a small stream into the eggs while stirring steadily until fully combined. Repeat again with a second cup of lemon mixture.

Next, take the egg mixture and, scoop by scoop, repeat the same process to slowly add the egg mixture into the saucepan with the lemon butter, stirring steadily. Doing this slowly will prevent the eggs from being scrambled.

Once incorporated, return to a medium-low heat and cook until the mixture has thickened and coats the back of a spoon (15-20 mins, stirring regularly).

Strain the mixture through a wire mesh colander before adding the lemon zest and salt. Cool and refrigerate for up to a week, or store in the freezer for up to six months. Lemon curd is excellent on toast or scones, can be mixed into yogurt, used as a filling for layer cakes, or as a topping for waffles, pancakes or crepes.

Freezing

Meyer lemon juice is great for baking and can be squeezed and then frozen in an ice cube tray for later use (mix it with sugar and water for a speedy lemonade).

And don’t throw out those peels! Juiced halves can be kept in a zip-top freezer bag for up to six months and grated into zest for a wide variety of dishes, from baking projects to soups and sauces. An added bonus: the hard, frozen rinds are much easier to grate.

 

Seattle writer Tara Austen Weaver is author of several books, including “Orchard House: How a Neglected Garden Taught One Family to Grow,” “Growing Berries and Fruit Trees in the Pacific Northwest,” and “A Little Book of Flowers: Tulips, Peonies and Dahlias.” Her latest book, “A Little Book of Hummingbirds,” will be released in March.

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