When life gives cooks lemons, they get creative.
Right now, lemons are enjoying a surge in popularity among both restaurant chefs and home cooks. That’s due in part to the zesty versatility of this familiar citrus.
“Lemon demand is definitely on the rise,” said Joan Wickham, spokeswoman for Sunkist Growers, the giant citrus cooperative.
And California is lemon central, annually producing about 84 percent of the national crop. Despite the statewide drought, the current Central Valley lemon harvest is “very strong,” reports Sunkist. That’s good news for consumers as lemon demand has never been higher.
In 2014, U.S. retail sales shot up 22 percent over the previous year. That trend has been spearheaded by restaurants where lemon in all forms has become a juicy star.
“Fresh ingredients are dominating restaurant menus across the country and nothing denotes ‘fresh’ more than crisp, bright, refreshing lemons,” Wickham said. “From fast-casual to special occasion, from appetizers to entrees, desserts and beverages, diners are embracing the zesty flavors of fresh citrus as part of their culinary experience.
“According to Technomic, a menu research company, fresh lemon use in restaurants for entrees has increased by 20 percent since last year alone.”
Most often, chefs use lemons in seafood and salads, Wickham said, but they don’t stop there. Lemons are becoming a favorite cocktail ingredient, too.
And it’s not just fresh lemons that are getting a star turn. Chefs are discovering the pucker power of preserved lemons, a Mediterranean staple that easily can be made at home. For example, Sacramento’s famed The Kitchen featured preserved lemons in a lobster-abalone risotto, an Italian seafood salad and a rich sauce atop halibut.
Sacramento cooking teacher Paulette Bruce loves lemons. She tries to keep at least a couple of fresh lemons handy year round.
“To me, a lemon is a world-class seasoning second only to salt and pepper,” said Bruce. “Lemons are to European cooking as the lime is to Asian and Mexican cooking.”
Bruce adds a little (or a lot) of lemon often.
“You can squeeze lemon on raw or cooked vegetables, on meats, poultry, fish, and even on fresh fruit in desserts,” she said. “The Italians do it right; after they grill meats or cook chicken, a big fresh squeeze of lemon juice is added just like a sauce.”
Lemon works wonders on the grill, too – and not just on fish.
“The simplest and best low-fat dish is to grill, broil or roast anything with fresh lemon and herbs,” Bruce said. “The fresh lemon juice brings out the flavor of beef and chicken. Cut a lemon in half, rub each cut side with olive oil and grill until beginning to show grill marks. Then, squeeze it over grilled meats.”
For anyone on a low-salt diet, lemons may be the best salt substitute, Wickham said. In 2014, Sunkist launched a campaign to urge consumers to reduce their sodium intake with a simple squeeze instead of a salt shaker.
Research by the Providence, R.I., Johnson & Wales University concluded that lemons can be used to reduce salt by as much as 75 percent without sacrificing flavor, she said.
On the other hand, salt is the essential ingredient to preserve lemons, a technique that traces back many centuries in Morocco, Northern Africa and the Middle East. Fresh lemons are cold-packed with salt and lemon juice; spices such as cinnamon, coriander and cloves are optional.
Always use non-iodized salt in preserving lemons; iodine will discolor the fruit. Although any variety can be used, thin-skinned Meyer lemons are ideal for preservation. It’s the skin of the preserved lemon that’s used in most recipes, adding a unique tart-tangy-salty burst of super lemony flavor.
As for Meyer lemons, they’ve gone from backyard favorite to commercial viability.
“Meyer lemons are quickly growing in popularity among consumers, and with more acreage coming into production, demand is increasing along with availability,” Wickham said. “There are currently around 750 acres of Meyer lemons in California and Arizona, up from around five acres in 2005.”
That’s still a small slice of California’s 46,000 commercial acres of lemons. But it doesn’t count the millions of Meyers that grow in California backyards, where the Meyer craze really began.
Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.
Nutrition: One cup of lemon juice contains 61 calories (less than 4 calories per tablespoon) and no fat. The average whole lemon contains about 17 calories and yields 2 to 3 tablespoons of juice. The juice is 5 to 6 percent citric acid. Lemons are extremely high in vitamin C and also are a good source for vitamin B6, potassium, calcium and copper.
Selection: Choose firm, relatively smooth fruit that seems heavy for its size. The skin should have a fine grain and bright yellow color. (Streaks of green usually indicate more acidity.) Avoid lemons that feel soft or spongy with skin that looks or feels wrinkled, bumpy, rough or hard. Coarse, thick-skinned lemons and lemons that feel relatively light for their size contain less juice.
Storage: Commercially, lemons are usually picked when still green and artificially ripened. They can be kept indoors at room temperature for about a week before they tend to become soft or wrinkled. For longer storage, wrap lemons in paper towels, place in a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator’s crisper drawer. Wrapped, refrigerated lemons will keep at least three months.
Freeze it: Instead of keeping whole lemons, freeze the juice. Squeeze lemons, pour juice into an ice cube tray and freeze. Once the juice is frozen solid, transfer the lemon cubes into a freezer bag, where they will keep for several months. Each cube equals the juice of one medium lemon, about 2 tablespoons (a perfect amount for use in many recipes). Lemons may also be frozen whole and juiced (after thawing).
Maximize juice: To get the most juice out of a lemon, warm it up. Before cutting, roll the fruit between your palms or on a hard surface such as the kitchen countertop. Or pierce the lemon with a fork and zap it in the microwave on high for 30 seconds. If working with a lot of lemons, put them in a colander and pour boiling water over the fruit. Let drain, then juice. Or plunge the whole lemons into boiling water; parboil for 2 minutes and drain.
Keep zest, too: Adding grated zest – the outer skin on the rind – increases the intensity of lemon flavor in baked goods and many other recipes. The zest also can be frozen for future use. Grate the zest, spread on waxed or parchment paper on a cookie sheet and freeze. Once frozen, transfer the zest to a zippered plastic bag and store in freezer for later use.
Lemon up your salad: Substitute lemon juice for vinegar in your favorite vinaigrette. The lemongrette salad dressing will instantly have more nutrition as well as a refreshing citrus flavor and scent.
More lemony ideas: Sunkist Growers offers a wealth of lemon recipes as well as household and beauty tips using lemons. Find them at www.sunkist.com.
Makes 1 quart
This super-easy technique is simpler than most canning – no hot-water bath or special equipment necessary. The salt mixed with lemon juice preserves the lemons and softens the skin, which is used in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern recipes. Almost any variety of lemon will work, but Meyer lemons are ideal; they’re thin-skinned with less bitter pith. This recipe can be adapted to accommodate your crop.
10 to 12 lemons
1/4 cup or more non-iodized salt (coarse preferred)
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
4 whole cloves
8 coriander seeds
Freshly squeezed lemon juice, if needed
Sterilize quart jar and lid.
Wash lemons well, lightly scrubbing the skin. Remove any stem.
With a sharp knife, slice the lemons from their pointed end to the stem end, stopping a half inch from the bottom. Make another downward slice in each lemon to form an X, again stopping a half inch from the bottom. The result looks like a quartered lemon, still joined on one end.
In each lemon, liberally sprinkle the cut flesh with salt, then reshape the lemon so it looks whole.
Put 1 tablespoon of salt in the bottom of the jar. Add lemons, one at a time. Use a wooden spoon to press them down into the jar and squeeze out some juice. As you pack the jar, add in the cinnamon stick, bay leaf, peppercorns, cloves and coriander. If the juice released from the squished lemons does not cover the fruit, add more fresh lemon juice to cover. (Do not use bottled lemon juice or water.) Once jar is full, add 1 more tablespoon salt. Allow a 1/2-inch head space at the top of the jar.
Let the lemons ripen at room temperature (a spot on the kitchen counter is ideal). Each day, shake the jar lightly to redistribute the salt and juice. After 3 or 4 days as the lemons ripen and settle, you may need to add a little more fresh lemon juice to cover.
After 30 days, the preserved lemons are ready for use. Before using in a recipe, rinse the preserved lemon under running water to remove excess salt. Store jar in refrigerator; preserved lemons will keep at least a year.
Note: Most recipes that call for preserved lemons use just the skin, not the pulp. The pulp can be scraped off the skin and discarded or reserved and strained for its juice. That juice also can be used in recipes. The skin can be used in quarters, sliced into thin strips or minced.
Shrimp with preserved lemons
Preserved lemons are a natural accompaniment to many seafood dishes. Recipe by Daniel Neman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
1 preserved lemon
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 small tomato, cut into chunks
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/8 teaspoon (2 pinches) Old Bay or other seafood seasoning
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper
1 pound shrimp, shelled and deveined
Scrape pulp away from skin of preserved lemon and discard pulp. Chop skin into 1/4-inch squares and reserve.
Heat oil over medium-high heat in a large, heavy skillet. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute (toss occasionally to keep garlic from burning). Add tomato, wine, Old Bay, bay leaf and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer 3 to 5 minutes, occasionally pressing down on tomatoes with spoon or spatula to help soften them.
Add shrimp and reserved preserved lemon skin. Cook, stirring occasionally, until shrimp is fully cooked, about 3 minutes. Remove bay leaf and serve immediately.
Per serving: 165 calories; 5g fat; 1g saturated fat; 180mg cholesterol; 20g protein; 4g carbohydrate; 1g sugar; 1g fiber; 820mg sodium; 90mg calcium.
Collard green, potato and chickpea salad with spiced lemon dressing
Serves 2 to 4 (4 appetizer or side-dish servings or 2 main-course servings)
If your collards are not particularly tender, blanch or steam them first, just until tender, then drain them thoroughly before tossing with the dressing.
Note: The cooked potatoes and chickpeas can be dressed and refrigerated 2 days in advance; bring to room temperature before serving. The spices can be toasted and ground 3 days in advance and held in an airtight container at room temperature.
From Washington Post food writer Emily C. Horton.
1 pound fingerling potatoes, scrubbed well
1 bunch collard greens (about 1 pound)
5 pitted oil-cured black olives, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon cumin seed
1/2 teaspoon caraway seed
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon plus 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup cooked or canned, no-salt-added chickpeas
1/3 cup packed cilantro leaves, for garnish
Freshly cracked black pepper
Bring a medium pot of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add a generous pinch of the kosher salt, then add the potatoes. Reduce the heat to medium; cook uncovered just until the potatoes can be easily pierced with the sharp tip of a knife, about 15 minutes. Drain and cool.
Cut the ribs from the collards by slicing along both sides of the stalk from the top of the leaf to the stem end; discard or reserve the ribs for another use. Stack the halved leaves and cut them into thin ribbons. Rinse in a bowl of cool water, spin dry and transfer to a medium bowl. Add the chopped olives.
Heat a small skillet over medium-low heat. Add the cumin and caraway seeds; cook for about 3 minutes, until lightly toasted and fragrant. Let cool for 5 minutes, then grind to a coarse powder using a mortar and pestle. Transfer to a small bowl and add the crushed red pepper flakes (to taste).
Use the same mortar and pestle to reduce the garlic to a paste. Add the lemon juice and the 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt; mix until the salt has dissolved. Transfer to a bowl; slowly whisk in the oil to form an emulsified dressing.
Once the potatoes are cool, cut them into bite-size chunks. Add to the bowl, along with the drained chickpeas.
Add 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons of the dressing to the bowl of collards and olives; use your hands to toss gently until well incorporated. Pour the remaining dressing over the potatoes and chickpeas, along with the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of sea salt. Use a spatula to fold it in until well coated.
To serve, scatter the potatoes and chickpeas over the bottom of each plate. Mound the collard-olive mixture on the top, and garnish with cilantro leaves. Season lightly with the black pepper. Serve right away.
Per serving (based on 4): 240 calories; 8 g fat (1 g sat.); 0 chol.; 37 g carb.; 10 g fiber; 5 g sugar; 10g protein; 520 mg sodium
Scallopine in lemon-caper sauce
From “Lidia’s Italian American Kitchen” by Lida Bastianich.
This recipe can be made with boneless turkey or pork cutlets (eight 3-ounce pieces) or 12 pieces of veal, each 2 ounces.
24 ounces boneless chicken breast halves, prepared for scallopine (see below)
Freshly ground black pepper
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 garlic cloves, peeled,
10 large green olives (preferably Cerignola), cut away from the pit in wide strips
1/4 cup capers in brine, drained
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup homemade chicken stock or canned low-sodium chicken broth
2 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley, chopped
To prepare scallopine: You will need is a meat mallet with both smooth and toothed sides. It doesn’t have to be a large and heavy professional chef’s model–a smaller “home version” will do. If the chicken breasts you are working with have the “filet” – the long strip of meat that runs the length of the underside of the breast–do your best to keep it attached to the breast as you cut and pound them. Cut each breast crosswise on the bias into two more or less equal pieces. Place the pieces, two at a time, between two sheets of plastic wrap and pound them with the smooth side of a meat mallet to a thickness of about ¼ inch. Proceed with the recipe.
Squeeze the juice from one and a half of the lemons and reserve. Lay the remaining half-lemon flat side down and cut into very thin slices with a paring knife. Remove the pits and set the lemon slices aside.
Season the scallopine with salt and pepper. Dredge in flour to coat both sides lightly and tap off excess flour. Heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil and 2 tablespoons of the butter in a wide, heavy skillet over medium heat until the butter is foaming. Add as many of the scallopine as will fit without touching and cook until golden brown on the underside, about 3 minutes. Flip and cook until the second side is lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Remove and drain on paper towels. Repeat with remaining scallopine.
Remove all scallopine from the pan. Pour off the fat and carefully wipe out the skillet with a wad of paper towels. Pour in the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil and add the remaining 4 tablespoons butter, the garlic, and lemon slices. Cook, scraping the bottom of the skillet, until the garlic is golden brown, about 3 minutes. Scoop out the lemon slices and set aside. Scatter the olives and capers into the skillet and cook, stirring gently, until they begin to sizzle, about 4 minutes. Pour in the wine, bring to a vigorous boil, and cook until the wine is reduced in volume by half. Pour in the chicken stock, bring to a boil, and cook until slightly syrupy, about 4 minutes. Add the reserved lemon juice, to taste.
Return the scallopine to the skillet, turning the cutlets in the sauce until they are warmed through and coated with sauce. Swirl in the parsley and divide the scallopine among warm plates.
Spoon the sauce over them, including some of the capers and olives in each spoonful. Decorate the tops of the scallopine with the reserved lemon slices.
Chicken tagine with preserved lemon
Recipe adapted from Gourmet magazine.
1 teaspoon saffron threads
3 garlic cloves, minced
1½ teaspoons salt, divided
One 3½-pound chicken, cut into quarters
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium red onions, sliced lengthwise
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon lime juice
4 tablespoons chopped cilantro, divided
½ teaspoon black pepper
2 preserved lemons
½ cup purple Moroccan or Greek olives
Lightly toast saffron in a dry, small, heavy skillet over moderately low heat, shaking skillet, until just fragrant, about 1 minute. Transfer to a small dish, let cool, then crumble with fingers.
With a mortar and pestle, mash chopped garlic and ½ teaspoon salt to a paste.
In a large bowl, toss chicken with oil, onions, ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, lime juice, 3 tablespoons of the cilantro, the remaining 1 teaspoon of salt, pepper and reserved saffron.
Separate the chicken from the onions, and spread the spiced onions across the bottom of a 12-inch tagine, 12-inch heavy, covered skillet or a shallow, covered casserole. Place the chicken on top. Cut the preserved lemons into quarters and scrape the pulp from the peel. Coarsely chop the pulp, and sprinkle over the chicken. Cut the peel into ½-inch pieces, and reserve.
Add ae cup water to the tagine, skillet or casserole, cover and bring to a simmer. Cook 30 minutes, until chicken is almost cooked through. Check occasionally toward the end of cooking time to be sure tagine is not dry, adding more water if necessary to keep meat from burning and sticking to pot. Add olives and simmer, covered, 10 minutes longer until chicken is cooked through. Just before serving, sprinkle with preserved lemon peel, remaining cilantro and salt to taste.
Per serving: 600 calories; 38 g fat; 9 g saturated fat; 165 mg cholesterol; 55 g protein; 10 g carbohydrate; 3 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 1,155 mg sodium; 80 mg calcium.