Thursday, January 13, 2011

Meyer Lemons, a Winter Treat!

I had lemon tree envy almost immediately after moving to our Portola Valley home 18 years ago. My neighbors to the front – we’re on a flag lot – had the most gorgeous Meyer lemon tree in their backyard, which I could gaze upon from our driveway. We had left behind a Meyer tree at our home in Menlo Park and I worried that I would not find the soft-skinned, subtly floral scented citrus I had relied upon to add zing and zest to my winter cooking once we moved. Imagine my pleasure, looking over that driveway fence!

Meyers in 1993 were not a staple in the local markets as they are now plus they do not take well to long distance transport due to that lovely thin skin that is as edible as the delicious flesh and juice. This fragility prevented a huge national market in Meyers but also created a cult following among savvy chefs and home cooks in California, Texas and Florida who did have easy access to this tasty mandarin orange-lemon hybrid.

Over 50 year old and
still producing excellent fruit!
The furtive glimpses I had of my neighbor’s tree and, upon introducing myself for the first time, the request to snatch a few of her lemons, has resulted in a longstanding friendship and lots of satisfying cooking and baking. My neighbor Kathie, like many Americans, did not realize the culinary gem she had hanging on her heavily laden tree. She thought the smooth-skinned,egg-shaped fruit was some sort of odd orange, and frankly, didn’t know what to make of it.

If it were not for a man named Meyer, the fruit we now call Meyer Lemon would be little more than a decorative plant in China. According to Julie O’Hara in her NPR piece, Meyer Lemons: More Thank a Pretty Face, “in the early 1900’s, the US sent Frank N. Meyer, an agricultural explorer (yes, that was his actual job title), on several trips to Asia with the mission of collecting new plant species.” Frank Meyer collected over 2500 species and sent them back to the United States. His namesake from that bounty of specimens, the Meyer Lemon, has outlived him by nearly a century. He died in Shanghai in 1918, never knowing the contribution he made to home cookery and haute cuisine alike.

Meyer Lemon blossoms,
 adding more to this season's crop!
Like many latter 20th century cooking trends, Martha Stewart and Alice Waters were at the forefront of the Meyer lemon-mania that swept the nation in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s. Today, 20 years or so after Meyers entered the culinary lexicon and became a venerated kitchen staple, I am the envy of my chef friends in other parts of the country where Meyers are as rare and treasured as Faberge eggs. I can pluck as many of the golden “eggs” off Kathie’s tree as I desire on a given winter day, and the variety of uses I have for this magical winter treat is only as limited as my culinary imagination.

Cooking with Meyers

Meyers are a sweeter, less astringent alternative to the Eureka and Lisbon varietals commonly found in the grocery stores, and they add a subtle flavor and perfume to baked goods. It is in savory dishes that I really love including Meyers, and no cuisine incorporates Meyers better than that of North Africa. Ghillie Basan’s Flavors of Morocco is my latest go-to resource for exotic yet comforting meals.

Preserved lemons are added to many Moroccan dishes as both a major ingredient and garnish. It is in tagines, the ubiquitous North African stew, where preserved lemons really shine. A simple preparation, preserved lemons do require a bit of patience as they need to steep in a salt and juice mixture for about a month, but once they’re ready, you have a distinctive and out of the ordinary component in your cooking repertoire.

Preserved Lemons
10 organic Meyer Lemons
1 cup Kosher or coarse crystal Sea Salt
Freshly squeezed juice from 6-10 Meyer Lemons
1 large well washed and sanitized Mason or other jar with a tight lid

Slice the lemons in quarters lengthwise, but keep them attached at the stem end. Cover the flesh of each lemon with salt and place in the Mason jar, fitting them in tightly. Add any leftover salt and seal the jar. Store in a cool place for 4 days, turning the jar around once or twice.
Add the freshly squeezed juice to the jar, pushing the lemons down in the jar so they are very well packed, covering the lemons completely with juice. Seal the jar again and store in the cool space for 1 month, gently shaking the jar occasionally. Rinse before using the lemons.
Keep refrigerated after opening.

Chicken Tagine with Preserved Lemons, Green Olives and Thyme
By Ghillie Basan, Flavors of Morocco, 2008
Green olives and preserved lemons are a classic Moroccan flavor combination. Serve with Lemon Couscous, another North African staple, or steamed carrots tossed with spices and mint. The conical-shaped tagine is the traditional cooking vessel, available at cookware shops, but a heavy enamel pot, such as Le Creuset, will work just as well.

Serves 4-6
1 organic whole chicken or 8 chicken pieces, about 3 ½ pounds
1 TBS olive oil with a pat of butter
½ cup cracked green olives
2 preserved lemons, rinsed and cut into strips
1-2 tsp dried thyme or oregano, or a combination of both if desired
A small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
For the marinade1 onion, grated
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
A small bunch of cilantro, finely chopped
A pinch of saffron threads
Freshly squeezed juice of 1 lemon, preferably Meyer
3-4 TBS olive oil
Kosher or Sea Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

In a bowl mix together all the ingredients for the marinade and rub it all over the inside and outside of the whole chicken, or over all the pieces if using. Cover and refrigerate for 1-2 hours.
Heat the olive oil and butter in the tagine or pot. Add the chicken and brown on all sides. Pour in any leftover marinade and add enough water to come halfway up the side of the chicken. Bring the water to a boil, reduce the heat and cover. Simmer for about 50 minutes, turning the chicken from time to time.
Add the preserved lemons, olives and half the thyme. Cover again and simmer for another 20 minutes. Check the seasoning and add some salt and pepper if necessary. Sprinkle the rest of the thyme and the parsley over the top. Serve from the tagine or pot along with fresh crusty bread and Lemon Couscous.

Lemon Couscous
Serves 4
3 cups couscous
½ tsp Kosher or sea salt
2 ½ cups warm water
1-2 TBS olive oil
1 preserved lemon, rinsed and finely chopped
1 TBS butter
Place dry couscous in an oven proof baking dish. Stir the salt into the water and add to the couscous. Leave it to absorb the water for about 10 minutes. Using your fingers, rub the oil into the couscous to break up any lumps and aerate it. Toss in the preserved lemons and scatter with the butter over the surface and cover with foil or wet parchment paper. Place in a 400 degree oven for about 15 minutes, until the couscous is heated through. Serve warm with Chicken Tagine.


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