When life gives you lemons and you love to cook, you feel happy, not sour. It’s a must-have ingredient if want to add zest and tanginess to an incredible range of dishes. Here are a few things to know about this jewel of a citrus fruit.
Main varieties and where they’re commercially grown
Lemons originated and are still grown in Asia. The Oxford Companion to Food notes their first home may have been the north of India. The fruit made its way to the Mediterranean, became cultivated in that region and eventually in a number of other tropical and temperate locations, such as Argentina, Australia, South Africa and California, the leading U.S. producer.
In the 1800s, according to the website of citrus marketer Sunkist, sunkist.com, lemon trees were planted and most welcome in California during the gold rush. Miners and those in related businesses were keen on purchasing the fruit because of its scurvy-preventing vitamin C content.
Lemon trees bloom and produce fruit year-round. There are many varieties but two popular types you see for sale in local supermarkets are Lisbon and Eureka lemons. They are quite similar in flavour, aroma and acidity, and in stores they’ll simply be labelled lemons, no matter which variety. In some supermarkets, you sometimes may also see Meyer lemons for sale. This less-acidic fruit is a cross between a lemon and possibly a common orange or mandarin orange.
Purchasing and storing
When searching for the best lemons, choose vibrant yellow, plump ones that feel heavy for their size. They should also feel firm, but have some give when pressed, signs the fruit is a juice-rich specimen. Steer clear of rock-hard lemons light in weight, indications the inside of the fruit is dry.
Smooth, thin-skinned lemons tend to yield more juice than thick, bumpy, rough-skinned ones. Underripe green-tinged lemons are, logically, more acidic. Lemons will keep for up to a week at room temperature, and up to two to three weeks in the refrigerator.
While lemons are a source of dietary fibre, calcium, potassium and other things, their top nutritional element is vitamin C, with one medium lemon providing about 40 per cent of the minimum daily requirement. To maximize that vitamin C content, it’s best to use lemon juice soon after squeezing. The New Food Lover’s Companion says the juice will lose 20 per cent of its vitamin C after only eight hours at room temperature, or 24 hours in the refrigerator.
Zesting and juicing
Always remove the zest of a lemon for a recipe before juicing. It’s too difficult to do after you have cut the fruit and/or juiced it. For a clean, tangy taste, remove only the outer yellow layer of the peel, not the bitter, white pith underneath it.
To extract more juice, if not already at room temperature, let your lemons warm to that state before juicing. If there’s no time for that, you could zap the lemons for 10 to 20 seconds in the microwave to warm them up.
Before cutting and juicing, also roll the lemon fairly firmly under the palm of your hand on a flat surface. Doing this will help break down the membranes inside the lemon and allow its juice to flow more freely. One medium lemon will yield two to three tablespoons of juice; a large lemon about 1/4 cup.
Roast Chicken Legs with Gremolata Crust
Gremolata is traditionally a mixture of chopped parsley, lemon zest and garlic sprinkled on a food at the last minute to give it a fresh flavour boost. In this recipe, that combination is used to richly enhance a breadcrumb/cheese mixture that coats juicy chicken legs.
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 50 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
4 large whole chicken legs, skin on or off
2/3 cup breadcrumbs
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
3 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley
2 tsp finely grated lemon zest
1 to 2 large garlic cloves, minced
1/2 tsp paprika
n pinch cayenne pepper
2 Tbsp mayonnaise
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
n salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
n lemon slices and parsley sprigs for garnish (optional)
Preheat oven to 375 F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Combine breadcrumbs, cheese, parsley, lemon zest, garlic, paprika and cayenne in a wide, shallow dish.
Combine the mayonnaise and mustard in a bowl large enough to hold the chicken. Add the chicken and toss and coat, creating a thin layer of the mayonnaise/mustard mixture on the legs.
Coat a chicken leg in the breadcrumb mixture, gently pressing it on to help it adhere, and then set on the baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining chicken legs.
Season the chicken with salt and pepper, and then bake 50 minutes, or until cooked through. Arrange chicken on a platter or plates, garnish with lemon slices and parsley sprigs, if desired, and serve.
Baked Salmon for Two with Lemon, Honey and Olives
Succulent salmon accented with tangy lemon, sweet honey and salty olives. Serve with boiled new potatoes and your favourite green vegetable.
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 12 to 15 minutes
Makes: 2 servings
4 tsp olive oil
2 (6 oz.) salmon fillets
4 thin lemon slices (peel and pith removed)
1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 tsp honey
1/4 cup whole black or green olives, or mix of both
* salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley, oregano or basil
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Spread 2 tsp of the oil into a small baking dish. Set salmon, skin-side down, into the baking dish. Top each piece of the salmon 2 lemon slices. Drizzle the top of the fish with remaining oil, lemon juice and honey. Top and surround fish with olives. Season the salmon with salt and pepper. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until the fish is just cooked through. Sprinkle fish with parsley, oregano or basil and serve.
Lemon Lovers Cheesecake
Lemon zest, juice and curd give this creamy cheesecake a taste lemon lovers will enjoy.
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 65 to 70 minutes
Makes: 10 to 12 servings
For the crust
1 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs
2 Tbsp granulated sugar
1/4 cup butter, melted
Combine the crust ingredients in a medium bowl. Spoon, spread and press the crust into the bottom and a little bit up the sides of a tight-sealing 10-inch springform cake pan. Set pan aside until needed.
For the filling
1/2 cup lemon juice
3 (250 gram) bricks firm cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
2 tsp finely grated lemon zest
1 tsp vanilla
1 (250 mL) jar lemon curd (see Note)
* whipped cream and mint sprigs for garnish (optional)
Place the lemon juice in a small pot. Simmer and reduce to a 1/4 cup. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Place a shallow pan filled with an inch or so of water on the bottom rack of the oven. Place the other oven rack in the middle. Preheat the oven to 325 F.
Place the cream cheese in the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on low to medium speed until very smooth. Gradually beat in the sugar. Beat in the eggs one at a time, scraping the sides of the bowl after each addition. Mix in the reduced lemon juice, zest and vanilla. Spoon the batter into the pan.
Bake the cake in the middle of the oven 65 to 70 minutes, or until the cake jiggles slightly only in the very centre when the pan is tapped.
Set the cake on a baking rack and cool 10 minutes. Now run a sharp, water-dampened paring knife around the edge of the unmoulded cake to a depth of one inch. (This should help prevent the cake from potentially cracking on top as it cools and contracts.) Cool the cake to room temperature.
While still in the pan, carefully spread the top of the cake with the lemon curd, leaving a half inch border of clean cake around the outer edges. Tent the cake with plastic wrap. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours, or overnight.
To serve the cake, run a hot-water-heated, sharp paring knife around the outer edges of the cake and then unmould. Use a hot-water-heated and dried, sharp, thin knife to cut the cake into wedges. Set the wedges on plates.
Serve the cake as is or, if desired, dress up each wedge with a piped spiral or dollop of whipped cream and mint sprig.
Note: The brand of lemon curd I used on the cheesecake was Robertsons. It’s available in the jam and jelly aisle of some supermarkets, and also at stores selling English food products.
Eric Akis is the author of the just-published, hardcover book Everyone Can Cook Everything. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.
© Copyright 2013