Lemon Lust

As a small child, I remember, my Italian grandmother, Maria Spagga, taking a tablespoon of freshly-squeezed lemon juice every morning before her first cup of strong, black coffee.  Ways of the old world die slowly, and my Nona probably preferred this pure source of vitamin C—also known as ascorbic acid— to a pill or even a glass of OJ, certainly an unobtainable luxury in her early years growing up as a peasant’s daughter in the Italian Alps.

An obsession with lemons

For years I’ve used lemons extensively in cooking as they add a brightness to even the dullest of foods.  There’s not a day when I don’t pull out my Microplane to zest a lemon for some dish I’m making, even if the recipe does not call for it. As I am writing this post, I am sipping on a Citron Pressé imaging myself en terrace in Paris. There, in the City of Light, a waiter will set down on the tiny table in front of you a glass of freshly-squeezed lemon juice (about 1/3 cup), three ice cubes (never enough for Americans!), a small pitcher of water—often decorated with a Pastis logo—and a sugar dispenser.  It’s up to you to make your own lemonade just the way you prefer it.

The health benefits of lemons

Lemons have always held a place of fascination for me as they have so many uses outside of culinary.  They are also so sensually beautiful that I often use them for my center piece at dinner parties.  Their abundant health benefits are well known such as for helping to treat indigestion, fever, internal bleeding, and respiratory disorders. Lemons can even help prevent certain cancers because of the elevated level of flavonoids in the juice which contains antioxidants. And, that is not all! Consuming lemons can also help with kidney stones, lowering blood pressure, and even promoting weight loss. 

How lemons are used in Africa

In researching the wonders of this miracle fruit, I queried my friend Michael Donkor who comes from Ghana. I asked how lemons were used in his African country.  His eyes lit up brightly as he rattled off the many uses of lemons he remembered as a child.  “In the villages where we don’t always have much money, lemons come in handy.  We use them to temper the strong flavors of fish and meat. Cooking outdoors over a wood fire blackens our pots and we use lemons to help clean their exteriors.  Naturally, we know about lemons’ many health benefits.  But, we also use them for personal hygiene for example as a deodorant!”

A brief history lesson

So, what is the origin of this fruit used so extensively throughout the world? Lemons are a natural cross between the lime and the citron. While no one is 100% certain, most likely lemons originated from Assam in India.  By the 8th century the Moors had cultivated them in Southern Spain and Sicily.  The world was catching on to something good.  Columbus brought lemons to America during his second voyage in 1493. Today, lemons are a major food crop in California and Arizona which provides 33% of the world’s crop.   

In our country, there are two major varieties both with essentially the same look and flavor: Eureka, a descendant of the Sicilian lemon, which matures in spring and summer; and Lisbon, which ripens in the winter.  In much smaller amounts, you can also find Meyer lemons which have a thinner skin, lower acid level and more flavor complexity. For home gardeners, the Eureka lemon tree, which produces a variegated green and yellow-skinned fruit with a pale pink flesh, is gaining in popularity.

How to select, store and use lemons

A lemon is comprised of a paper thin yellow exterior—also called flavedo—which contains the essential lemon oil.  Underneath this is the bitter white part of the peel called albedo. Its primary role is as a pectin for thickening jams and jellies. The rest of the lemon is the flesh.  On average, a lemon will yield about ¼ cup of juice.

Avoid thick skinned lemons as they have less flesh and therefore, are less juicy.  Select lemons which are bright yellow without any signs of green which means they are under-ripe.

Even if you are using organic lemons, always thoroughly scrub the exterior of your lemons before using them.  To get the maximum amount of juice from the flesh, be sure lemons are at room temperature.  If you forget, no worries.  Just pop them into the microwave on high power for 20 seconds. Then, roll the lemons on the countertop to break the juice sacs. Now, you’re ready to start juicing.

For later use, put freshly squeezed lemon juice in ice cube trays until frozen. Then store them in plastic bags in the freezer.  You can also put dried lemon zest in an airtight glass container and store in cool and dry place.

You can keep lemons at room temperature for about a week but be sure they are not exposed to heat and excessive light.  Lemons will also remain fresh for up to four weeks in your refrigerator crisper.

How to enjoy lemons

When added to EVO, they make a refreshing salad dressing (3 parts olive oil to 1 part lemon juice along with salt and freshly ground pepper). If you are serving a fine wine with dinner, always opt for lemon in your salad dressing as vinegar which would alter the wine’s flavor.

If you’re watching your salt intake, serve lemon wedges with your food as their tartness works beautifully as a salt substitute.

Squeeze on a fully ripe avocado, sprinkle with sea salt, and you have a perfect light lunch which can be enjoyed in the palm of your hand with a spoon.

Lemons are great when added to fish and meat dishes.  Baking or broiling softens the skins so they can be enjoyed along with the rest of the ingredients.

Unlock one of the secrets of Moroccan and Middle Eastern cuisine by using preserved lemons (lemons cured in salt) and transform a dish into something magically and indescribably delicious.

You can add lemon zests and juices to an endless list of dishes from stews to sauces to desserts.  The apogee of lemon-based dishes, however, is lemon meringue pie.  No doubt, you already have your favorite recipe for this quintessentially American dessert. If you would like to share your recipe, please contact me at marsha.palanci@gmail.com

And, you can always make your own citron pressé and stay cool and calm in the summer heat!

Alternative uses of lemons

In addition to culinary and medicinal uses of lemons, there are other practical applications.  For example, lemons can be used for eliminating strong orders, as a natural household cleaner and for removing bathroom stains.  It does wonders on cutting the grease when cleaning dishes and is an inexpensive alternative for cleaning stainless steel.  If you put it on your hair before going out in the sun, it helps to produce highlights.  It whitens nails and lightens age spots on your skin.  And, if you don’t want to use bleach or chemicals to brighten your laundry, try using lemon juice.  But the most unexpected uses of lemon juice are as a natural weed killer and ant repellant.

With so many varied uses of this small fruit, who wouldn’t want to own of an orchard filled with lemons?  Or, you could start small and plant a Eureka lemon tree in your back yard as they are easy to grow.  You’ll be the envy of your neighbors when you harvest your first crop!