THE WASHINGTON POST – In his 1925 poem I Limoni (The Lemons), Eugenio Montale calls the scent of lemons “a restless sweetness raining on the heart” and “riches”, and the fruit itself “sunlight’s golden trumpets” that “pour their songs into our souls”. Ripe for metaphor, lemons are a kitchen mainstay and a cook’s favourite parlour trick, pulled out for surprise and delight like the rainbow of scarves up a magician’s sleeve.
“Cook without lemons?” Alice Waters wrote in Chez Panisse Fruit (2002). “Unthinkable!”
Unfortunately for those who don’t live in Southern Italy, like Montale did, or California, like Waters, lemon groves are few and far between. For those in the Northeastern United States (US), for most of the year, acquiring lemons requires a trip to the grocer. Fresh lemons last up to a week at room temperature, and two in the crisper – depending on your kitchen’s temperature and humidity. But lemon’s floral fragrance and tart flavour are easy to preserve in pickles, sauces and pantry shelf-stable seasonings.
North African-style preserved lemons are a popular option, requiring only lemons, salt and time for a pickle-like condiment that adds nudges of pucker to savoury dishes of all sorts.
The process is simple: Cut lemons into quarters, and coat cut surfaces with salt at a ratio of one teaspoon of salt to one lemon. Pack into jars, and let the salt pull the juice out of the lemons until they pickle in their own brine. Spike preserved lemons with bay, peppercorns or saffron, which will add another layer of verve.
Similarly simple are roasted lemons, wherein the fruit’s bitter edge softens while the sugars in the fruit caramelise and intensify as it cooks slowly in the oven. Try roasted lemons next to roasted poultry or diced and added to salads or soups.
Embrace the astringent tang of lemons in a relish. The whole fruit, save its seeds, is chopped into bits and mixed with shallots, coriander, mustard seeds and red chile flakes.
It’s a spicy, spoonable condiment that’s great with grilled or smoked fish, chicken or all manner of lightly charred vegetables.
On the sweet side, there’s lemon marmalade. Many marmalades can be cloying, but this one, with a touch of salt and freshly chopped rosemary, is great on biscuits with butter or – quickly blended into a puree – as a glaze for roasted chicken, or turkey. Roast the meat 90 per cent of the way, then spread on the pureed marmalade, letting it set into a glaze for the last few minutes in the oven.
Lean into the sweet side of lemons by making lemon sugar: Blitz one cup of sugar and one teaspoon of freshly grated lemon zest (from one lemon) in a food processor for 30 seconds.
Spread it on a sheet tray lined with parchment paper and allow it to dry in your (turned off) oven overnight. The next morning, store it in an airtight container, where it will keep for six months (it won’t spoil, but the lemon flavour will fade). Pull it out to sweeten tea, sprinkle on French toast or make butter or sugar cookies with a lemon accent.
While you’re at it, make lemon salt with coarse or kosher salt using the same process, but one cup of salt to one tablespoon of zest. Use it anywhere you would use plain salt: roasted chicken, sauteed shellfish, a pot of beans or a bowl of popcorn.
All these dishes work well with the standard Eureka or Lisbon varieties of lemons that are found across the US.
But if you see piles of Meyer lemons – a variety imported from China in 1908 that’s thought to be a cross between a lemon and a mandarin orange – snatch them up. Their floral scent is more pronounced, their skin thinner and less bitter, and their bellies full of juice. Speaking of juice, Meyer lemons make a fine lemonade. And though lemonade can be made simply by whisking lemon juice, sugar and water together in a pitcher, consider a slightly more elegant version: Start by making a lemon syrup from lemon zest, sugar and water. Mix this with freshly squeezed lemon juice and store it in a bottle in the fridge.
Whenever you want lemonade, quickly mix it in a glass with chilled still or sparkling water. The tart flavour of the juice is tempered by the sugar and enhanced by lemon oils infused in the syrup. It lasts a month in the refrigerator.
Sweet, with a savoury edge, this marmalade is good on buttered toast, in the dimples of a thumbprint cookie, or as a glaze for roasted chicken. If you don’t like rosemary, you can omit it, but don’t skip the salt.
The lemons must be sliced very thinly and simmered over low heat until the pith is translucent to avoid bitterness.
Three lemons, preferably Meyer
Four-and-a-half cups water
One cup granulated sugar
Half teaspoon kosher salt
One teaspoon minced rosemary
Thoroughly wash the lemons. Using a sharp paring knife, cut the stem and pointed end off each lemon, deep enough to expose the flesh. Quarter each lemon lengthwise, from top to bottom. Lay each quarter on the cutting board and remove the thin centre core of the lemon.
Repeat with remaining quarters. Then, slice each quarter very thinly across, as close to one-eights-inch as possible.
You should have about one-and one-third cups of lemon slices.
Transfer the sliced lemons to a wide saucepan. Add two cups of water and bring to a boil over high heat. Decrease the heat to medium, and simmer for about five minutes. Turn off the heat.
Strain the lemons, rinse briefly under cool, running water, and then return them to the saucepan. Add the sugar, the remaining two-and-a-half cups of water and the salt.
Bring to a boil over high heat, and then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring often, until lemons look visibly softened, about 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring often, until the lemon rinds look translucent and syrup has thickened considerably, another 10 minutes.
Turn off the heat. Taste one piece of lemon; it should be sweet, not too bitter, and just a bit softer than an al dente noodle.
Stir in the rosemary, then transfer the marmalade into a lidded container or jar and refrigerate until needed.
FRESH LEMON SYRUP
This simple lemon syrup made from the lemon juice, zest, sugar and water takes minutes to put together and is great to have on hand whenever you want to fix a lemony recipes. It’s great in lemonade, or to drizzle over fruit salad.
To make a pitcher of lemonade, combine a cup of lemon syrup with three cups cold water, still or sparkling.
Stir and serve, with ice, if desired. If you want a single glass, combine one-quarter cup of lemon syrup with three-quarters cup of cold water.
Four medium lemons, preferably organic, or more as needed
Half cup granulated sugar
Half cup water
Wash the lemons well. Using a Microplane zester, zest two lemons into a small saucepan, being careful not to scrape off any of the bitter white pith just beneath the yellow zest.
Juice the zested and unzested lemons, and strain their juice into a liquid measuring cup. You should get about half cup of lemon juice.
Add the sugar and water to the lemon zest. Set the saucepan over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves, about one minute.
Do not let the syrup come to a boil. Strain the syrup through a fine-mesh sieve set over the lemon juice and stir to combine. (Discard the lemon zest.)