Someday when I see the sale card announcing "12 Lemons for a Dollar" at the grocery store, I’m going to buy all 12 instead of just two or three. Then I will fix all the lemon dishes I can think of. Or maybe if it’s summer, I’ll turn them into a big pot of lemonade—as one elderly gentleman told me he was going to do when he saw
me watching him bag up about 24 lemons during a recent lemon sale. Some year, I may even go a step further and plant a lemon tree; our part of Texas is almost far enough south to risk the occasional freezes.
A lemon is such an unlikely food with its pure and sunny color, indestructible wrapper, intensely sour juice, and even more intense, fragrant zest that is full of volatile oils. And lemons are loved and available worldwide. Greek and Lebanese cuisines, for instance, are especially beholden to the spice of the lemon. (Native to Asia, lemons were introduced to the Christian world when the Crusaders discovered them in Palestine.)
So distinct is lemon’s flavor and aroma, and so easily obtained, that makers of everything from furniture polish to candy to powdered drinks use the actual oil, essence, and citric acid of the lemon instead of relying on chemical substitutes, something that cannot be said of most other fruit and flower flavors. Lemon was the first flavor to be used in soda water in the 1840s.
Notice sometime how many still-life paintings of food in the art world include lemons, or how many cookbook covers and magazine or menu illustrations feature either the geometric wheel of sliced lemon or else a rendition of dewy lemons heaped in a bowl. Indeed, in real life some people keep a basket of lemons in their kitchens just to look at and to smell. (Okay, maybe it’s for the more practical reason that if you plan to use your lemons soon after purchase you’re supposed to keep them out at room temperature. If not, refrigerate them.) After being used, a lemon rind is the one type of refuse that improves the smell of your garbage.
Consider the variety of foods lemons can enhance: chicken, fish, vegetables, soups, sauces, fresh fruit, cakes, cookies, pies, puddings, cold drinks, hot tea, dressings for lettuce or pasta or grain-based salads. In a supporting role, lemon juice added to the soaking water prevents discoloration of sliced fresh fruits and vegetables such as bananas, peaches, apples, and avocados, or of cooked vegetables such as broccoli, asparagus, and green beans. Its acid works chemical wizardry in pie crust dough. The acid of either lemon or lime juice also can "cook" raw fish merely by marinating them together several hours (along with chili peppers, garlic, and onion, creating the Central and South American "ceviche" dishes).
Lemon juice is an excellent salt substitute for those watching their sodium intake. Like salt, lemon brings out the flavor of foods. It can substitute for vinegar in any recipe, especially where delicacy is desired.
Roll a room temperature lemon along the counter with the palm of your hand to soften it before juicing, as this will help the fibers inside release more liquid. The average lemon yields 2 1/2 tablespoons of juice. When grating the outside to obtain zest, grate only the yellow part of the skin, not the white pith, which is bitter. The average lemon yields one tablespoon of grated zest.
LEMON CLOVE COOKIES. Real lemonade. Lemon basil chicken. Hungry yet? If nothing else, I would strongly urge you to make a lemon meringue pie from scratch. (I didn’t even like lemon meringue pie until I tasted a homemade version.) You will be awed at the knockout flavor of the custard—and a successful meringue is a gratifying accomplishment also. Look for instructions in any basic cookbook.
Here is a favorite family summer recipe where lemon plays a starring role:
• 2 cups finely grated carrots
• 2 small cans crushed pineapple
• 2 small packages lemon jello
• 4 T. fresh lemon juice
• 1/2 tsp. salt
• 1 cup heavy cream, whipped
• 1 cup sugar
• 1/2 cup chopped nuts (optional)
Drain pineapple, reserving juice. Add enough water to the juice to make 1 1/2 cups liquid. Heat juice to boiling, add fresh lemon juice, jello, sugar, and salt. Chill until slightly set (don’t rush this!). Add pineapple and grated carrots. Fold in the whipped cream and nuts. Pour in an oblong glass or metal serving dish (a 9x13x2 is a bit too large). Chill until firm.
CAREY BURKETT is an organic vegetable farmer in Hallettsville, Texas.