When life gives you lemons..

If I were a lemon farmer, I'd be the Forrest Gump of the lemon grove. Lemon squares, lemon pie, lemon risotto, lemon sauteed prawns, pasta con limone, preserved lemons, limoncello.. I'm a huge fan of citrus in all its forms and the brightening effect it has on flavour.

Historically, lemons are native to the Northern Indian subcontinent. They arrived in Italy courtesy of the Crusaders, who, returning from Palestine and the Holy wars, brought with them citrus fruit trees so they could have the juices that they had become accustomed to drinking during their travels. The first groves were cultivated along the Amalfi Coast in 200 A.D. where they flourished in the ideal climate. Lemons were recognised for their medicinal properties and even as a symbol of love. They were very highly prized and given as gifts to royalty. The origin of the now traditional orange blossom adornment in bridal bouquets comes from a gardener's daughter stealing a cutting of the King's orange tree to sell for a dowry. The original orange blossom was placed there in recognition of the orange tree's "contribution" to the marriage.

Me, I prefer to eat that heady, fragrance in blossom honey. It adds a delicate nuance to baklava, and honey syrup soaked cakes. And don't tell my husband, but I even drizzle the one we brought back from our "honeymoon" on toast.

Beginning with the most common, supermarket lemon, the Eureka and the Lisbon, are probably the most widely available in New Zealand and far as I know, are typically imported for year round availability. They have true "lemon" characteristics, bitter, high in acid and juice. But availability isn't really a problem when they can be grown here.

If you're a bit of a green thumb, other types (borrowed from Copperfield Nurseries, Tauranga) are:

GENOA: Eureka type of lemon. Tree smaller than other lemons and is well suited to most home gardens. Bears heavily while still young and produces a heavy summer crop.

LEMONADE: Fast growing and bears quite heavily when young. Bears July to August. Fresh tangy flavour, fruit has pale yellow rind and relatively easy to peel.

LISBON: A strong growing, fairly large tree, bearing its heaviest crop in late winter and spring, a very hardy standard variety.

MEYER: Most popular lemon for the home garden but not a true lemon. May be a cross of a lemon and an orange or mandarin. Fruits heavily year after year. Thin-skinned, smooth, bright golden fruit throughout the year. Hardiest of all lemons.

VILLA FRANCA: Thornless and a smaller tree than Lisbon. Prolific and bears a heavy summer crop.

YEN BEN: Lisbon type but with a thin skin and smaller in growth. Fruits July. Fruit very juicy popular export variety.

Makes me want to plant a grove! And more importantly, it makes me want to cook.

So what to do with all these lemons and oranges..

My favourites are adding orange juice to the egg mixture for french toast and the juice and finely grated rind to muffin and cake batters. It brightens up a berry smoothie and nothing tastes like home-made lemonade (hot if you are unwell - with a drizzle of honey). Moving into salads and appetizers, dressings, marinades and homemade hummus taste fuller with a bit of lemon juice. Blood oranges and thinly sliced fennel with a wine citrus vinaigrette.

Careful when marinating meat though, if you are after flavour. Salt and strong lemon will "cook" the meat and cause a loss of moisture. This is the working theory behind ceviche and carpaccio. The seafood and meat are cooked (i.e. the protein is denatured) by the acid but not something you are after if you plan to roast, sear or barbecue the meat after marinating. With the quality of fresh beef in New Zealand, carpaccio is a treat with the fresh lemon juice permeating the meat and leaving flavours to soak up with good bread.

For crab cakes with a spicy aïoli, lemon juice is a must! Slice lemons and roast with chicken and potatoes. Preserve them with spices and salt for a Moroccan-style chicken and green olive tagine. A little lemon juice is essential in a stracciatella (egg drop soup) for me after having lime juice in a tortilla soup in Mexico. It might not be an authentic addition for most but a drop of real lemon just puts that little bit of sunshine in my bowl of wintery brodo di gallina.

Desserts are lovely with the addition of lemon as a focus or an accompaniment. I love rich lemon squares with a pudding-like cream over a dense buttery shortbread base. I think the cafe that used to do these so well at home used one from the Moosewood cookbook but I'll have to check. Lemon curd is an amazing filling for a 5 layer chiffon cake with Italian meringue icing. It looks fantastic and compliments the moist cake and silky meringue. It also is a good recipe for those who hate to waste because the yolks are used in the curd and the whites in the meringue. Likewise, blood orange curd and a softly spiced angelfood cake also makes good use of the entire egg. Lemon ices or granitas are an easy and refreshing end to a meal or anytime on a warm day. Not to mention a shot of straight-from-the-freezer limoncino or limoncello.

And the weather is getting warmer.

Bring on summer.. and bring me the limoncello.


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