Let Meyer lemons brighten up winter's dark days
Pour it on in the form of vinaigrette
WHEN THE dark days of winter set in, I turn to a bright beacon of tongue-tickling goodness — the Meyer lemon — to lighten my mood and palate.
Citrus meyeri, a hybrid fruit believed to be a cross between the common lemon and the mandarin orange, is named for Frank Nicholas Meyer. An "agricultural explorer" with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Meyer first encountered the lemons — on purely ornamental trees — in 1908, while on an expedition to China. He brought them back to California, where they flourished until blight and quarantine (plus the fact that their thin skin made them difficult to ship) confined them primarily to that state.
Enter virus-free Improved Meyer Lemon trees in 1975, combined with the marketing clout of Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters and Martha Stewart, and soon cooks around the country began to discover these low-calorie, vitamin C-rich fruits.
Tasting like a cross between lemon, lime and mandarin oranges with hints of honey and herbal notes, Meyers are sweeter, more aromatic and flavorful than "regular" lemons. And their smooth, thin skin is entirely edible, so you can use the whole fruit. Zest the sweet outer skin over seafood or asparagus risotto, rice or couscous, or pasta dishes sauced with tomato or citrus cream. Thin strips or twists make pretty garnishes.
Among the local chefs making magic with Meyers is Amy McCray, co-owner with husband James Hondros of Eva restaurant near Green Lake. She champions Meyers in vinaigrettes because they provide "lemon flavor without all the acid."
Over the years, she's whisked up Meyer Lemon-Coriander Vinaigrette and served it with Grilled Chicken Breast, Lebanese Nut Rice and Sautéed Leeks. Meyer Lemon-Mustard Vinaigrette partnered with Grilled Chicken, Asparagus and Fontina Bread Pudding.
"Looking back at the dishes from the menu, it seems like we always pair Meyer lemons with poultry or seafood," McCray says, "but it is also great with pork or lamb, like lamb tagine."
Fresh or preserved Meyer-lemon gremolatas (an Italian garnish made of garlic, parsley and lemon zest), Preserved Meyer-Lemon Butter, Meyer Lemon-Yogurt Drizzle and Meyer-Lemon Tzatziki are other creative ways that McCray employs Meyers on her menus.
At Trellis restaurant in Kirkland, executive chef Brian Scheehser wishes Meyers were in season year-round instead of just November through March. So he preserves their flavor by making Limoncello, Italian lemon liqueur, which he uses throughout the year.
"We suspend the lemons in cheesecloth over vodka for six weeks, which draws off all the essential oils. This is done in the dark," he explains. "Then we make a delightful syrup from fresh-squeezed Meyer lemons and simple syrup to blend with the vodka, and Trellis house-made Limoncello is born."
Scheehser also chars Meyers, then tosses them into Pan-Seared, Free-Range Chicken with Olives, Tomatoes and Garlic. A drizzle of Meyer-Lemon Citronette (a simple vinaigrette composed of Meyer lemon juice, olive oil, chopped shallots, salt and pepper) shines atop Salmon Bruschetta.
On the sweet side, Trellis pastry chef Sandra Wilson whips up a signature dessert — Meyer-Lemon Sage Flan — and serves it with candied Meyer-lemon zest and sage syrup.
Meyers grow well in our mild Northwest climate, although their output is sometimes questionable.
"I have a Meyer lemon tree in a pot at my house that produces exactly one Meyer lemon a year," says owner Travis Rosenthal of Tango restaurant in Seattle. "I'm not sure why my tree only produces one lemon, but I can tell you that, honestly, it is the best lemon I've ever had (at least last year's crop). I plan on enjoying my glass of Meyer lemonade next week."
For something to tide the rest of us over, I consulted Carole Cancler, who offers "natural gourmet" meals through her Seattle-based company, The Private Chef, and teaches cooking classes — one devoted entirely to lemons.
I asked her to reformulate her basic Lemon Vinaigrette recipe strictly for Meyers. She deleted chopped parsley, substituted fresh tarragon for basil, added a touch of honey and white pepper and blended olive and canola oils to best bring out the lemon's unique flavor.
She likes to serve her Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette over cold seafood salads, steamed asparagus, bibb lettuce salads, poached chicken or fish.
I'm feeling better just thinking about the possibilities.
Braiden Rex-Johnson is a Seattle-based cookbook author and food and wine columnist. Visit her online at www.NorthwestWiningandDining.com. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette
Makes about 3/4 cup
Carole Cancler of The Private Chef says this vinaigrette will be thinner than regular vinaigrettes; it should taste fruity and only slightly salty.
1 clove garlic, minced (1 scant teaspoon)
3/4 teaspoon sea salt, plus extra for seasoning
1/3 cup freshly squeezed Meyer lemon juice
1 tablespoon (2 to 3 sprigs) chopped fresh tarragon leaves
1 teaspoon mild-flavored honey
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper, plus extra for seasoning
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup canola oil
1. In a small bowl, mash the garlic and salt with the tines of a fork until they form a paste. Whisk in the lemon juice, tarragon, honey and pepper until the honey dissolves. Then whisk in the oils, a few drops at a time, whisking well after each addition, until thoroughly combined. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
2. Use immediately or cover and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature and whisk just before serving.
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