In sea­son: lemons

Dish - - Dish + Puhoi - Words — JULIE BIUSO / Pho­tog­ra­phy — JOSH GRIGGS

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.

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