In season: lemons
Bright yellow pops of sunshine in darkest winter, lemons lift and freshen. Read on for how to pick a tree, the culinary difference in types and other lemony top tips.
During the long months of winter there’s nothing more cheering to me than a tree laden with lemons. It may be the colour – once they turn from deep lime green to bright yellow – like dots of sunshine in the garden. It may be that I know with a lemon in the garden I can brighten any dish, savoury or sweet, and while a gin and tonic doesn’t have quite the same appeal in frosty weather as it does on a sultry evening, a hot lemon and honey sipped around the fire is a welcome antidote to a head cold.
True lemons, such as Yen Ben, are seasonal, peaking through July, August and September, but a Meyer lemon tree once established will provide you with fruit year round. Both are worth having, and I’ll explain the differences in a minute, but first, a tip about planting a lemon tree. My advice is to buy the biggest specimen you can afford because small trees will take longer to produce lemons and you’ll quickly recoup what you spend with an earlier bounty of fruit. If you are likely to change house, you are better with a smaller, bushier tree. Plant it in a large pot – get advice from a garden centre on soil preparation – and if you live in a frosty area, put casters on the bottom of the pot so you can move the tree to shelter in winter.
Are all lemons created equal? No, not quite. Our most popular backyard lemon tree, the Meyer, is a cross between a true lemon and a mandarin (some say a grapefruit or an orange). Originating in China, it was brought to the US by agricultural explorer Frank N. Meyer in the 20th century where it became popular, and made its way to Australia and New Zealand.
It’s a prolific cropper once it gets established, producing large, plump, thin-skinned, fragrant and juicy fruit. But the lemons are sweetsharp lacking the acidity of true lemons. Kiwi cooks often don’t worry about that (a lemon’s a lemon!) but there are certain uses where a Meyer doesn’t have sufficient acidity to do the job well. I use Meyer lemons for most things, because I have them, and they’re easy to juice, but I switch to a sharper lemon when making Asian dishes where the acidity is crucial to balance flavours, (if you can’t get the desired acidity when making an Asian dish, add a splash of vinegar), and in baking when I want a concentrated lemon scent and tang. Lemon tarts and custards will set more easily when made with sharp lemons.
A squirt of lemon juice adds a fresh, clean note to many dishes, cutting through strong flavours and oily textures. Unlike vinegar, lemon acidity is accumulative. Add too much vinegar to a salad and it might make you break out in a sweat on the back of your neck, but it will pass. Add too much lemon juice and the sourness will be hard to eliminate.
Meyer lemons are the easiest to squeeze and a medium-sized one will yield well over 2 tablespoons of juice. Yen Ben, Eureka, Lisbon, Genoa and Villa Franca have great freshness and acidity but they are harder to squeeze, especially if barely ripe. To get the most juice out of a lemon, bring it to room temperature, then roll several times on the bench, pressing down firmly with the hand to help soften the flesh. Lemons can also be warmed in a microwave to help the juice flow. It’s not just the fruit of the lemon tree that can be used in the kitchen. Use the leaves as well. Although you don’t actually eat the leaves, they flavour food in the same way as kaffir lime leaves and bay leaves. The leaves need to be in mint condition, not scaly or browning around the edges. • Wrap them around meatballs, secure with toothpicks and fry in oil and sizzling butter; the heat drives the citrus flavour into the meatballs. • Add leaves to a seafood soup or curry; the heat extracts the citrus flavour into the liquid. • Wrap around freshly made ricotta for a fresh lemony tang, or make a fragrant tea with lemon leaves and mint.