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It’s a shame that we call something a lemon when it doesn’t work, like the car we bought from the guy who now doesn’t recognize us or the kitchen appliance we got from that Sunday morning infomercial. It’s a shame because the lemon is one of the world’s great flavor enhancers.
Think of what the cocktail would be without lemons - Bloody Marys, Singapore Slings, Whiskey Sours, Mint Julips or Martinis with a twist. Or seafood, from grilled swordfish to oysters and clams on the half shell. Or desserts from sorbets - where lemons perk up the flavor of just about every other fruit - to lemon meringue pie to fruit pies and tarts. Or grilled and sautéed chicken dishes. And don’t forget marinades, dressings and salads.
Lemons make great preservatives too. Their acid slows the oxidation on fresh cut fruits and vegetables.
With the increased influence of Asian and Hispanic cooking in our culture, limes are also becoming a valuable seasoning tool in our kitchen arsenal. We use truckloads in guacamole and margaritas alone. So if someone sells you a lemon, go home and make some lemonade.
Ever wonder why the British got the nickname “limeys?” In the 18th century, British seamen were treated successfully for scurvy with citrus fruits. Subsequently the British navy ordered ships out to sea for long periods of time to carry lime juice, though it was not determined until 1932 that scurvy was caused by vitamin C deficiency. (At the time, it was believed that citrus fruits themselves were the hedge against the disease.)
Lemons and citron are thought to have originated on the Indian subcontinent. They spread to Persia about 300 BC where Alexander the Great’s armies first discovered them. European Crusaders brought back lemons and limes to Italy and France in the 12th century. And Arabs introduced lemons and citron into Spain and North Africa about the same time. The first limes came from Southeast Asia.
Citrus plants came to the New World on the second voyage of Columbus in 1493. Lemons, limes and citron were among the first plants started at St. Augustine, the first settlement in North America, some 72 years later.
Commercial production in Florida began to flourish in the early 19th century. The first commercial California groves were planted in the 1840s, and demand for all citrus fruits soared during the California Gold Rush, when miners paid exorbitant prices for scarce fresh fruit to avoid getting scurvy. By 1962 the United States was growing 45 percent of the world’s lemons.
The top five lemon/lime producing countries are the United States, Mexico, Italy, Spain and India.
Lemons are more partial to the subtropics, in part because they are quite susceptible to disease if grown in wet climates. California, with 30% of the world market, produces almost all the lemons consumed domestically. Arizona is a distant second.
Lemon trees produce year round with blossoms, buds and mature fruit appearing all at once on the tree. If not picked when mature, the fruit may grow to 12-17” in diameter and the peel colors can sometimes get quite freakish blends of green, yellow and brown. Lemons are usually hand picked when they are about 2 1/2 inches in diameter and still relatively green. About half the domestic crop is shipped for use as fresh lemons, while the rest is made into a variety of products.
Limes flourish best in the tropics. Mexico is the world’s leader, Florida the principal provider (85%) for domestic markets. California produces a very small lime crop.
Though there are two types of lemons - acidic and sweet - only the acidic types are grown commercially. The sweet lemon or limetta is a hybrid of the Mexican lime, sweet lemon and citron. It is grown on small scale in India and around the Mediterranean as well as by home gardeners in the United States. Lance Walheim, co-author with Richard Ray of “Citrus, How to Select, Grown and Enjoy” (HP Books, 1980) points out that sweet is a misnomer. “They’re actually flat and insipid because they have no acidity,” he says.
There are two main acidic lemons. The Eureka is distinguished by a short neck at the stem end, while the Lisbon has no distinct neck. Its blossom end tapers to a pointed nipple. The Eureka has a pitted skin and contains few seeds. The Lisbon has a smoother skin and is usually seedless. Both have a medium thick peel and are abundantly juicy. The Lisbon type lemon is grown in some parts of Florida. The most common strain of lime, called Tahitian, comes in two similar varieties - Persian and Bearss. The Persian lime is an egg-sized fruit cultivated in Florida, and the Bearss is a small, seedless lime, usually California grown. Both are greenish yellow when mature but are usually sold at the green stage for better flavor.
Key limes are a smaller, rounder variety with exceptionally high acid content grown only in southern Florida and used for the making of Key lime pies. A small number are sold commercially. Generally, their juice is bottled and found in gourmet shops or sold by mail.
The citron resembles a lemon but has coarser, thicker skin and is larger than the lemon. You won’t find it fresh in the United States very often, but the candied peel is commonly used in baking things such as fruitcake.
Hybridizers are experimenting with a sweet lime that’s a cross between a kumquat and a lime. It is sometimes found in Hispanic markets and often used in the preparation of such Hispanic recipes as Menudo.
Lemons and limes are harvested year round. Slight seasonal peaks for lemons occur from April through July, for limes from late spring through summer.
SELECTION, HANDLING & STORAGE
Fruits should be firm, glossy and bright in color. Lemons should be bright yellow, and limes should be dark green. Greenish lemons and yellowish limes are signs of immaturity.
Larger lemons tend to have thicker skin and therefore less flesh and juice. Fruit that is heavy-in-the-hand with fine grained skin is the juiciest. Avoid fruit that is hard or spongy and soft. Lemons will keep on the counter at room temperature for a maximum of two weeks, depending on the temperature and humidity. Limes will need to be refrigerated. Both will keep in the refrigerator in plastic up to six weeks.
If you have extras, squeeze, freeze the juice in ice trays and transfer the cubes to plastic bags for long term storage. It’s a much better alternative than bottled lemon juice.
Though scurvy isn’t the problem it once was with the British navy, lemons and limes are still a good source of vitamin C. One medium lemon (58 grams) contains about 35% of the RDA for vitamin C. It also contains 20 calories, 6 grams of carbohydrates, 1 gram of dietary fiber and 2% of the RDA for calcium. Like the lemon, one medium lime (67 grams) has 20 calories, contains 35 % of the RDA for vitamin C and 2% of the RDA for calcium. It also contains 7 grams of carbohydrates, 3 grams of dietary fiber and 2% of the RDA for iron.
Because of its vitamin C, lemon juice is an antioxidant, the multitalented disease fighter. But some studies indicate that lemon peel may also act as an antioxidant. If you ate enough lemon pulp, the pectin therein might also be beneficial in lowering blood cholesterol.
One medium lemon will produce about 3 tablespoons of juice and 2 to 3 teaspoons of grated zest. A pound of lemons (5 medium) will yield about 1 cup of juice. One medium lime will produce about 1 1/2 tablespoons of juice and about 1 1/2 teaspoons of grated zest. A pound of limes (6 to 8) will yield about 1/2 to 2/3 cup juice.
If your cooking ventures result in ugly stains on fingers and nails, just whip out a lemon and rub. Also, it is effective in removing fish and onion odors from hands and work surfaces. And a squeezed lemon thrown down the garbage disposal will give it a fresh smell.
The zest is the outermost skin of the lemon or lime, yellow and green respectively. It is a valuable culinary resource for a number of dishes. Most often the zest is grated. (In fact, some mistakenly believe that zest means the grated rind.) This can be done with the smallest holes of a 4-sided grater. Either fruit grates more easily once frozen.
The zest can also be cut into strips and used to flavor poaching liquid for fruit. Or it can be cut into julienne strips (match stick size) or minced. To remove the zest for any of these purposes, use a vegetable peeler, Try to minimize getting too much of the bitter white pith (the inner skin). If you use a lot of julienne strips of citrus, a hand zester tool is available at good cookware stores.
Because lemons and other citrus products are usually sprayed with chemicals, it’s important to wash them and dry them well before using the peel.
There are numerous ways to juice lemons and limes short of an electrical appliance. The most effective and least expensive way is to use various forms of citrus juice reamers. These are most often ridged cones atop dishes that catch juice, or which allow juice to filter into a container below. They can be made of plastic, porcelain or earthenware. There is also a wooden, hand-held reamer that upscale cookware stores like Williams-Sonoma carry. In a pinch, squeezing the juice through an upturned hand, with fingers split just enough to let juice through but catch pits, will do.
If you don’t need all the juice from a lemon, there are metal and plastic extractors that look something like duck callers. One end is inserted into the fruit, the fruit is squeezed to produce just enough juice, then the fruit is put into the refrigerator for later use. A similar but more homespun method is to pierce the fruit with a toothpick, squeeze out the juice and reinsert the toothpick.
To get maximum juice - up to 30 percent or more - from lemons or limes, make sure the fruit is at room temperature. If either has been refrigerated and you’re in a hurry, pop it into the microwave for 15 to 30 seconds, depending on size, or soak it in hot water for a few minutes. Then, before juicing, roll it around on a counter top with the heel of your hand until it softens.
CATFISH PICCATA top
2 tablespoons flour
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon clarified butter
2 catfish fillets, each 5 ounces
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/3 cup dry white wine
2 teaspoons small capers, well drained
1 teaspoon chopped parsley
Lemon slices for garnish
1) Mix flour with seasonings. Put butter in a large non-stick skillet over medium heat.
2) Dredge catfish fillets in seasoned flour and shake off excess. When fat in the pan is hot, add fillets and raise heat to medium-high. Cook fish 3 minutes on one side. Turn gently with a wide spatula and cook about 3 minutes on the other side or until fillets spring back when pressed with a finger.
3) Remove fillets to a warm platter. Add lemon juice, wine and capers. Raise heat to medium-high and scrape up any bits on the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Reduce just until sauce thickens.
4) Pour sauce and capers over fish fillets. Sprinkle with parsley and serve with lemon slices as garnish. Serves 2.
Sam’s Cooking Tip: Because of their acidity, lemons and lemon juice should not come in contact with cookware made with metals that would adversely react to it such as cast iron or aluminum. Instead, use “non-reactive” metals such as stainless steel, glass, ceramic, porcelain and nonstick surfaces.
STEAMED CARROTS WITH LEMON AND GARLIC top
The lemon and garlic, always a great combination, play off nicely here against the sweetness of the carrots.
1 pound carrots, trimmed, scrubbed or peeled and cut into 3/8-inch slices
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1)Steam carrots in a steaming basket over an inch of water in a covered saucepan for about 10 minutes or until tender.
In ceviche (sometimes spelled seviche), the acids in the citrus juices actually “cook” the seafood over a period of several hours or more.
1/2 pound very fresh bay scallops
Juice of 2 to 3 limes
2 tablespoons red bell pepper, minced
2 tablespoons scallions, minced
2 tablespoons cilantro, minced
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon minced jalapeno pepper
Lettuce for garnish
6 to 8 tomato wedges for garnish
1) Remove the thin white strip of muscle or “hinge” from scallops and marinate in lime juice about 2 hours.
2) Remove with a slotted spoon to a bowl and add 1 tablespoon of the lime juice and all the remaining ingredients except lettuce. Taste and adjust seasoning. Divide among two small plates lined with lettuce leaves. Garnish with tomato wedges. Serves 2 as a first course.
FROZEN LEMON SOUFFLÉ top
This is a low-fat adaptation of a recipe from my all-time favorite dessert maker, Maida Heatter. Serve with cookies.
1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin
4 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
1) Sprinkle gelatin over 1/4 cup of cold water. Set aside. Put egg yolks and grated lemon rind in the top of a double boiler and stir. Gradually mix in lemon juice and half the sugar.
2) Add just enough water to the bottom half of the double boiler so that the bottom of the top half of the double boiler will just touch it when inserted. Bring the water to a simmer. Put the top section over the simmering water, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat, add gelatin and stir to dissolve. Let cool, stirring occasionally.
3) When lemon mixture is cool, beat egg whites and salt until whites start to thicken. Gradually add the remaining sugar and beat until peaks form. Do not overbeat or the whites will become dry.
4)Fold lemon mixture into the meringue and pour into a 1-quart soufflé dish. Cover with plastic wrap, then foil. Freeze several hours or more. Serves 4.