Deeply golden, bright and sunny, with a surprising sweetness, Meyer lemons might be the quintessential California fruit. While they’ve only recently started to become well known outside the state, here in Sacramento it seems everyone knows someone who has a backyard tree heavy with the rounded, thin-skinned, aromatic fruit.
Thank goodness for that, because these chilly, gray, drizzly January days certainly need something to brighten them up. Citrus fruit, paradoxically in season during the year’s darkest days, is your kitchen’s secret weapon against the winter blahs – not to mention a bracing counterattack against the rich overindulgence of Christmas past.
Ultra-juicy and aromatic, Meyer lemons swing easily from sweet to savory applications. No wonder they’ve become a favorite with area chefs, according to Scott Rose of local supplier Produce Express, which sells some 1,000 pounds of Meyer lemons to top area restaurants during the season. (Produce Express sources local fruit from Twin Peaks Orchards in Newcastle.) This year, he says, the season has been unusually prolific and long.
“Usually, people start asking us for them way before they’re ready,” Rose says. “In years past we haven’t seen them until December, but we started getting Meyers from Twin Peaks at the end of October.” The local season, he guesses, will continue until the first week of February.
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What sets Meyers apart from standard lemons (known as Eurekas), Rose says, is the history of their breeding. “Meyers are a cross between a lemon and mandarin, so you get a lemon that’s a little rounder,” Rose says. “The skin is smoother, the flesh is really juicy, and they have a really nice rich balance of sweet and tart, which is the appeal to most chefs.”
That balance lends itself equally well to marinating a chicken, infusing olive oil (or vodka) with the flavorful peels, enhancing a cup of tea or flavoring a simple cake, classic lemon bars or a French-style lemon tart. And there’s no need to hesitate if your recipe doesn’t call specifically for Meyer lemons.
“Anything you use a lemon for, you can certainly use a Meyer lemon for,” Rose says. “This time of year, chefs really should be using a Meyer. There’s a few short months where you can use them and chefs really should take advantage of that.”
So should home cooks. If you don’t have a tree (or a friend with one), Meyer lemons are available at specialty and farmers markets. Once you have a store of lemons, use them up.
One of the few disadvantages of Meyer lemons is that they don’t keep as well as their sturdier, thicker-skinned counterparts, Eureka lemons. Meyer lemons’ thinner skin and juicier flesh – plus the fact that, unlike supermarket lemons, their skin is typically not coated with wax to preserve them – means they are more perishable and should be used quickly.
But there are ways to preserve their unique flavor. In North African cuisines, lemons are often preserved with salt, then used to flavor savory, stewlike tagines and other dishes, where they add a distinct tangy-salty note. (Think of them as a south-Mediterranean parallel to the capers used in Italian and other Mediterranean cooking.)
Meyers’ thin peels lend themselves well to this treatment, and making a jar of preserved lemons you can use year round might be the easiest preserving project you’ll ever undertake (see the following instructions). The juice also freezes well, for use in summer lemonade stands or refreshing cocktails. (They’re great in margaritas.)
If your lemon love runs in a sweet direction, our recipe for simple, buttery lemon curd shines in shortbread thumbprint cookies – and also freezes well for future treats. But don’t put up so much sunshine in a jar that you neglect to enjoy the most golden of California’s produce right now.
More ways to use preserved lemons
- The sunny, salty note of preserved lemons is surprisingly versatile; use them like capers or olives, wherever you would like a salty, tangy burst of flavor. A few ideas: Mince well and combine with olive oil, minced shallots, and lemon juice for an all-purpose salad dressing
- Add to a simple sauté of shrimp with garlic, chili flakes, white wine and herbs
- Roast shaved Brussels sprouts, lacinato kale, or other winter vegetables with olive oil and toss with chopped preserved lemon
- Mash preserved lemon with garlic to make a flavorful rub for roast chicken or fish
- Chop coarsely and use in a rustic tomato sauce to top pasta or to braise lamb
- Sauté fresh spinach with slivered garlic, preserved lemon and slivered almonds for a side dish
Preserved Meyer lemons
Time: 10 minutes, plus 3-4 weeks to ferment
Packing lemons in salt, North African style, is an easy way to intensify their flavor to use all year round. The thin, fragrant skins of Meyer lemons lend themselves well to this simple preserve. To use them, discard the flesh and rinse the soft peels thoroughly, then chop or mince.
Kosher salt, 4-5 cups
8-10 Meyer lemons, skins scrubbed
2-3 whole dried red chilies or 1 teaspoon red chili flakes
1-2 cinnamon sticks
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
Pour 1 cup salt into a large jar and spread evenly across the bottom. Cut the lemons vertically into sixths, leaving them attached at one end. Discard excess seeds. One at a time, pry the lemons open slightly and stuff salt into the center. Put the lemons into the jar, cover completely with salt, and press down, wedging the lemons in tightly. Layer lemons with chilies, cinnamon sticks and coriander seeds. Cover the jar and let stand in a cool, dark place until lemon skins appear slightly translucent and most salt has dissolved into brine. Lemons will be ready to use after 3-4 weeks; to use, scrape away and discard seeds and the lemon flesh and rinse the peel.
Quick chicken and artichoke tagine
Time: 40 minutes
The bright, sunny Moroccan-style flavors of this easy weeknight dish warm up a chilly January evening. Serve it over couscous. If you want to make it before your jar of preserved lemons is ready, substitute fresh Meyer lemon zest and juice to taste to brighten the flavor.
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1/2 cup flour
Salt and fresh-ground black pepper to taste
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 red pepper, cut into slivers
1 onion, cut into slivers
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon red chili flakes
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons chopped preserved lemon peel (see recipe above and notes)
1/4 cup chicken broth
1 can (15 ounces) diced tomatoes
12 ounces thawed frozen artichoke hearts
1 tablespoon Meyer lemon juice, plus fresh sliced lemons for garnish
Chopped fresh parsley, for garnish
Roll the chicken thighs in the flour and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the chicken thighs, spacing evenly, and cook, turning as needed, until browned, 8-10 minutes. Transfer to a plate.
Add remaining olive oil to pan, reduce heat to medium-low, and add the red pepper and onion.
Cook, stirring occasionally, until very soft, 12-15 minutes. Add the garlic, preserved lemon, and spices and stir until garlic is translucent and spices are fragrant, 1 minute more.
Increase heat to medium-high and add the broth, stirring and scraping pan to release browned bits. Add the tomato, artichoke hearts, and reserved chicken. Cook, stirring occasionally, until chicken is cooked through, 10 minutes more. Stir in lemon juice and add salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.
Meyer lemon gems
Time: 1 hour, plus 1/2 hour to chill dough
Makes 16-20 cookies
These little cookies are an intensely lemony spin on classic thumbprint cookies, a shortbread base filled with lemon curd. The recipe makes more lemon curd than you will need for the cookies. The sweet-tart curd keeps well in the refrigerator and also freezes well, making it another great way to preserve the flavor of Meyer lemons. If you don’t eat the extra lemon curd with a spoon, use it to sandwich between cake layers or fill cupcakes, beat it into whipped cream to make a lemon filling, or serve with scones at an English-style afternoon tea.
1/2 cup (1/4 pound) butter, at room temperature
1/3 cup sugar
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon grated Meyer lemon zest
1 tablespoon Meyer lemon juice
1 cup all-purpose flour
Lemon curd (recipe follows)
In a bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light and creamy. Beat in the egg yolk and lemon zest
and juice. Stir in the flour and salt.
Chill the dough for 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line baking sheets with kitchen parchment. Roll dough into 1-inch balls and set on baking sheets, spacing evenly. Flatten dough balls slightly and make a thumbprint indentation in each. Fill with lemon curd (reserve remaining curd for other uses).
Bake until cookies are lightly golden and lemon curd is set, 15-18 minutes.
2 egg yolks
1 large egg
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons finely grated Meyer lemon zest
1/2 cup Meyer lemon juice
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks
In a heatproof, nonreactive bowl or the top of a double boiler, whisk the egg yolks, egg, and sugar until thick. Stir in the lemon zest and juice. Set the bowl over (but not touching) a pan of simmering water. Whisk until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon, 5-8 minutes (it should reach 160 degrees F). Remove from heat.
Stir in butter until melted and smooth. Strain through a fine sieve, if desired, into a bowl. Cover with plastic wrap (lay it directly on the warm lemon curd to prevent a skin from forming)