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Take A Lesson From The Lemon Tree - For those familiar with the 1962 song, sung by Peter, Paul & Mary


PUCKER UP

 

Ever watch a child bite into a slice of lemon? The reaction is pretty dramatic. And they can’t help it. They or we allow them to give in to their curiosity about how this common, everyday fruit actually taste, on its own. They’ve see us add a wedge of this bright, sun-colored fruit to our iced teas. They’ve watched us squeeze some of the juice onto fish or zest a teaspoon or so over a bowl of fresh fruit. But what’s it actually taste like they wonder. So they try it.

The result; eyes that fold into squinty slits. Noses that wrinkle and a grimace to beat any sour face the Grinch could muster. There’s a reason for this response, those young taste buds of theirs. While many of us know lemons are chockfull of vitamin C and we may know a bit about the sailors and explorers of days gone by who survived scurvy thanks to the lemon’s high concentration of the vitamin C, few are aware of this fruit’s ability to impact how well we taste our food.

 I often bring this topic up in my cooking classes. Our taste buds are like flowers. When inhaling the aromatics of something yummy cooking on the stove, baking in the oven or emanating from our plate, our tastes buds open and unfurl like the petals of California Poppy. Our taste buds awaken from their slumber just the way Aladdin’s genie would should he be gently nudged by the enticing scents emanating from the stalls of the local food vendors. Scents actually open our taste buds allowing us to more fully experience every sweet, sour, bitter, salty or umami sensation. Salt also does this. Which is why so many people in my demographic group, over sixty, add salt to their food even before taking the first bite?

My maternal grandmother was an absolutely amazing cook. And she knew how to properly season her food. But almost every time I saw her set a full plate in front of my grandfather, he would reach across the table for the salt and shake, shake, shake. This inevitably caused my grandmother to slam her open hand on the table angrily in response to Papa’s additional seasoning. As the years passed this exchange became less agitated and more shtick between them. Once I asked Papa why he did that, as I knew Noni already seasoned the food. I’d seen her do it, while helping and learning from her in the kitchen. His response, “Deborah, I can’t taste the food without the salt.”  He was right, he just didn’t know why.

Children’s taste buds open fully, think baby birds, little mouths wide and ready to receive mama’s serving. This is the reason we see the exaggerated facial response on child’s face after biting into a lemon. As we age, our taste buds open less and less until finally that punch of flavor we enjoyed in our youth, is far less impactful. This is when in we instinctively desire salt. Salt opens our taste buds. For those who need to watch their sodium intake, the addition of lemon, lime, orange or even grapefruit zest or juice, will also help open our taste buds.

Besides opening our taste buds and providing our bodies with vitamin C, Lemons can be added to a cup of hot water and used to sooth a mild sore throat. Add some honey and if appropriate, a little brandy. Lemons can serve as bleaching agents. Add a bit of lemon juice to baking soda when brushing your teeth. Although I’m not sure that should be done regularly as I’ve been told by a dentist friend of mine, the acid in lemons can damage the enamel on your teeth when done too often.  Once upon a time, lemons were even used as a remedy for epilepsy. And who didn’t make “invisible ink” with lemon juice?

Lemons and their close relatives have been used as an ingredient in magic and occult.  It is said, witches used lemon verbena, a citrusy herb, put it in a bag then placed the bag under the pillow of those who suffered from insomnia or poor sleep patterns.  is said, witches used lemon verbena, a citrusy herb, put it in a bag then placed the bag under the pillow of those who suffered from insomnia or poor sleep patterns. 

Lemon’s closest cousin, lemon grass, is an important flavor component in Thai and Vietnamese cuisines.  Easily recognizable in your produce section with its leggy, green-gray hued leaves and citrusy aromatics. I’ve used those long, woody stalks as Popsicle sticks for some of my over-twenty-one popsicles. Not only do they add visual interest to this otherwise common homemade summer treat, the lemon grass stalks infuse a pleasant high note to my “Adult Swim” refreshers



Here is a photo of my latest attempt at cultivating a lemon tree at home. I’ve dubbed her, Leona the Lemon Tree. Not yet bearing fruit since she’s still in her infancy, at least as far as citrus trees go. Lemon trees grown from seed, as this one has been, can take anywhere from seven to fifteen years to bear fruit! Meyer Lemon trees can bear fruit in as few as four years. But don’t be fooled by those lovely, little white blossoms that pop up overnight, your lemon tree can sprout flowers but still be too young to bear fruit. Patience, patience and mindfulness, the same tactics employed in the art of cooking also applies to the growing and cultivating of lemon trees.

At one time I owned a full grown fruiting lemon tree while living in Vegas. Yes, Vegas. Vegas is high desert and can get quite cold to freezing during the winter months. Citrus trees like those cold snaps and chilly weather for a spell or two. And that does happen in Vegas. About every four of five years, a good amount of snow falls and sticks! Quite a sight; clumps of snow sitting atop the fronds of palm trees! That lemon tree was in a pot, as the “soil” in Southern Nevada is less dirt more caliche and when it got too hot or cold, I could bring her inside. But when our extreme weather finally curled up and retreated, allowing the temperament of April, May, October and November, to sing, I’d look out my kitchen window each morning and watch the emergence of beautiful, yellow spheres dome forth from small, delicate white buds.

No visions of sugar plums for me! The sight of lemons conjures images of Grilled Halibut accented with lemon rounds. A bowl of fresh fruit with a dollop of vanilla yogurt then topped with the high notes of lemon zest. And all those lemony desserts! Lemon Bars, lemon meringue pie, and lemon tarts. A very popular use of fresh lemon in my family is my lemon-mascarpone gelato. But it’s what’s at the heart of these zesty concoctions where our lovely lemons really shine, Lemon Curd. That creamy, rich, sweet & sour, lemony treat. When properly prepared, lemon curd is like liquid satin on the tongue. The contrast of bright, sour lemon against sweet sugar tamed and balanced with real butter. And so versatile! We can incorporate the curd into any of the dishes listed or simply add a not-so-small moundful of that deliciousness to a waffle, toast or scones.



In this photo you can see there is a delightful dollop of homemade lemon curd nestled next to a heaping spoonful of blueberry compote. Lemon curd beautifully highlights the airy, crisp rounds of baked meringue in my version of Pavlova.   

So Pucker Up, be they Meyer, Lisbon, Eureka, Ponderosa or Verna, to name a few: Lemons; so versatile and so sweet. Hmmm sour. Sour that can be transformed into sweet.

Alchemy at its best.

.

Recipe for Lemon Curd

Ingredients

1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (3-4 lemons)

Zest of 4 lemons                         

6 egg yolks

1 cup super fine sugar (Bakers’ or Caster)           

8 tablespoons unsalted butter – cut into cubes and held at room temperature

 

Process

Set a stainless bowl over a pot of simmering water, making sure the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water. In the bowl, whisk egg yolks for about 1-2 minutes.   Slowly whisk in sugar, so as not to “burn” the yolks, then add lemon juice and zest.  Continue whisking until yolks thicken and form ribbons.  This will take 7-15 minutes.  Be sure to check the water level so that it hasn’t simmered off.  Add more water if needed.

Once yolk mixture has thickened, begin adding the cubes of butter one at a time, waiting until each cube has completely integrated before adding the next.

When all butter has been incorporated strain curd through a sieve or strainer into a clean bowl.  Cover with plastic wrap, making sure the wrap touches the curd, just as you do when you prepare homemade guacamole.  Store in fridge for at least 2 hours then use as desired.

Curd can be stored, covered, in the fridge for up to 1 week.

 

Individual Pavlovas

 

Ingredients

 

1 ½ cups super fine sugar (Bakers or Caster)         

 2 teaspoons cornstarch - sifted

6 eggs whites (room temp)                                     

 Pinch Kosher salt

1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste                                  

1 1/2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

Parchment paper                                                      

1 pint of berries (your choice)                                               

 

Process                                                                      Heat oven to 250 Degrees F.                                                                             

                                                                            

Set sheets of parchment paper on 1 or 2 sheet pans (depends on the size you have at home)

Using a pencil, draw 3-4” circles, then flip parchment to other side so you can still see your template but no pencil will infuse into your meringues.  Set aside.

 

In a small mixing bowl combine sugar and cornstarch.  Set aside until ready to use.

 

In stand mixer or using a hand-held mixer in a large bowl, beat egg whites and salt together on high until soft peaks form.  Maintaining speed, add sugar/cornstarch mixture to egg whites, one tablespoon at a time, allowing about 1 minute between additions.  Continue beating until stiff peaks form. Turn off mixer; gently fold in vanilla paste and lemon juice, being careful to not deflate whites.

 

Using a small spatula, spoon meringue onto parchment paper using penciled templates as your guide.  They don’t have to be perfect circles. I like mine rather rustic. Use the back of a spoon to gently create a small indentation on each round of egg white. This will provide you with a little concave spot to fill with your lemon curd and fresh berries.

 

Place baking sheets in oven and bake for 45 minutes, or until peaks are a soft golden brown.  Turn off oven, crack oven door open slightly, all allow meringues to cool for 1 hour.

 

Meringues will be crispy on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside. They are now ready to be spread with your homemade lemon curd and topped with the fresh berries. 

 

                                                                                                    Serves 6 - 8

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