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Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008 04:12 pm

A little pucker, a lot of flavor

Getting excited about Meyer lemons at local groceries

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The sight of them stopped me in my tracks — literally. They were here? In a grocery store in Springfield? I only just stopped myself from letting out a whoop of joy. Getting excited about being able to buy Meyer lemons here unquestionably classifies me as a food geek (if there was ever any doubt), but Meyer lemons are so special, and I’ve gone to so much effort in the past to obtain them, that my excitement was not without cause. The Meyer lemon, which originated in China, is believed to be a cross between a true lemon and a mandarin or sweet orange. Sweeter and slightly less tart than the common lemon, it has a true lemon taste, but its flavor is much deeper and more complex. The Meyer lemon’s orange ancestry shows up as a perfumed, almost floral character that hints of citrus blossoms. The Meyer lemon is uncommonly beautiful, too, with a smooth skin of deep canary yellow — so beautiful, in fact, that in China the trees are primarily grown as potted ornamentals. The Meyer lemon was introduced to the U.S. in 1908, and became common throughout California until the 1940s, when it was found to be a carrier of citrus tristeza, a virus responsible for decimating many different varieties of citrus trees. Almost all Meyer lemon trees in the U.S. were destroyed, but in the 1950s a virus-free specimen was found in California. This new strain, called the Improved Meyer, was propagated and eventually once again grown in California and other warm climates, such as Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, where it become known as the Valley lemon because of its popularity there.
Meyer lemons, however, had never really been grown commercially. Though occasionally seen in farmers’ markets, the vast majority were grown in yards or, as in China, as a potted specimen. During the last half of the 20th century all U.S. commercial production was concentrated increasingly on varieties that could be produced year-round and subjected to long-term transportation and storage. Flavor and seasonality were of little interest to industrial agriculture. Another reason specific fruit varieties became commercial standards was the introduction of “flat-topping.” The fruit of a tree that could be flat-topped (sheared off horizontally at the top, basically a tree buzz cut) could be mechanically harvested, which is much cheaper than handpicking. As with transportation/storage issues, the most delicious varieties, including the Meyer lemon, couldn’t withstand the process, and once again flavor took a back seat to convenience. With their thin, delicate skins and limited season (they’re available only from late autumn to midspring), Meyer lemons just didn’t make the cut.
In the 1970s and ’80s, however, a vanguard of California chefs, most notably Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, emerged with a mission of finding and using outstanding local ingredients. Not surprisingly, the Meyer lemon was one of their first discoveries, and the previously unheralded fruit began appearing on their menus in such varied preparations as risottos, sauces for fish and poultry, tarts, cakes, and sorbets. I first encountered the Meyer lemon at Chez Panisse in the early ’90s and brought a bagful back home. As soon as I unpacked, I walked over to see whether my next-door neighbor Barbara Lary knew about Meyer lemons. Of course, she did. Lary, a native of Modesto, Calif., and an outstanding cook, grew up with Meyer lemons. Her mother, Billie Murray, has had a row of Meyer lemon trees since the 1950s. Now an active 92, she still trims them into a hedge and harvests the fruits each year. I’d always enjoyed talking with Murray on her visits here, but suddenly she wasn’t just my neighbor’s intelligent and interesting mother: She was a potential source. Shamelessly I cajoled Murray — through her daughter — into bringing a sizable quantity of Meyer lemons for me when she came for the holidays. (I never did have the courage to ask whether she’d had to carry her own luggage.) Murray was more than gracious, but I wasn’t comfortable asking her to be my ongoing supplier, and so I began looking for other ways to get Meyer lemons. I tried to find mail-order sources but had little luck. These days, Internet shopping and the demand for Meyer lemons makes them readily available by mail, but it wasn’t so easy a decade ago. Back then, the most reliable way to get Meyer lemons was to grow them yourself, regardless of where you lived. The trees are hardy and, as noted above, make excellent potted plants. Of course, during our harsh Midwestern winters they have to come indoors, but they do quite nicely in front of a sunny window with a southern exposure. They’re attractive, and the blossoms perfume the entire house. Lary’s 15-year-old tree regularly yields her a dozen or more lemons annually; with any luck I’ll someday have a tree that can match it. (My first fell victim to an early frost.) A few years ago Meyer lemons showed up at Whole Foods, and when they’ve been in season I’ve stocked up on trips to St. Louis and Chicago. Those trips are sporadic, though, so it’s especially nice to find Meyer lemons here. I use lemons and lemon juice year-round, but the flavor of the Meyer lemon is so incomparably delicious that dishes whose primary focus is lemon have become seasonal in my kitchen. Meyer lemons can be substituted for common lemons in any recipe and take standards such as lemon meringue pie to new heights. They’re wonderful in savory dishes, too, especially pasta and risottos that contain asparagus.
Locally I’ve found Meyer lemons at Schnucks and Meijer.  

Contact Julianne at realcuisine@insightbb.com.
Nothing highlights lemon better than lemon curd, an English creation used as a spread for toast, biscuits, and scones; as a filling for tarts or between cake layers; over ice cream; or — perhaps best of all — eaten straight from the jar with a spoon. Meyer lemon transforms this delectable traditional treat into something insanely delicious.
Meyer Lemon Curd

2 cups sugar 2 tablespoons grated Meyer lemon peel 12 large egg yolks 1 cups Meyer lemon juice 1/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt 1 cup unsalted butter, cut into small chunks
If you have a food processor, combine the sugar and the grated peel and process until the peel is ground into the sugar. Put the sugar and lemon peel in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and whisk in the egg yolks. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens and coats a spoon. It should register about 168 degrees on a thermometer. Do not allow the mixture to boil! Remove the pot from the heat, still stirring constantly. Continue to whisk for a couple of minutes, then begin adding the butter a few pieces at a time. When all of the butter has been incorporated, pour the mixture into jars and refrigerate. Makes 2 pints
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