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Table Talk: When life gives you lemons, start cooking

  • Greek Roasted Beets with Lemon and Dill
  • PHOTO BY BOB HOPLEY<br/>The lemon can be used as a condiment, a garnish, an anti-oxidant and even a natural cleaner.
  • PHOTO BY BOB HOPLEY<br/>Chester Pudding may have been the inspiration for American lemon merengue pie.
  • Slices of lemon

Few of us eat lemons as is, but one way or another, lemons are pretty omnipresent on our tables and in our kitchens because they have so many uses.

As a condiment lemon juice sharpens salad dressings, zings fish and tangs drinks. As an aroma the zest flavors cakes and cookies. As a garnish a slice of lemon floats enticingly in tea or water, or sits prettily aside a dish of seafood. As an anti-oxidant lemon juice prevents browning in cut apples, avocados or other fruits and vegetables. You can even use lemons in cleaning: to freshen a fridge, for example, or cut in half and dipped in salt, to brighten copper bowls and pans.

No wonder Sydney Smith, a famous 19th-century English clergyman and essayist who loved good food, dramatized his distance from comfort and civilization by describing his Yorkshire parish as “twelve miles from a lemon.”

Lemons are natives of India, and though known to the ancient Romans, were not widely grown or used in Europe until the seventh century when the Arabs, who then ruled Sicily and Spain, created plantations of them. They wanted them for culinary purposes but they also used lemon trees — and also orange trees — ornamentally. The bright fruit and delicate white flowers often appear at the same time, and both are fragrant so the trees not only combined usefulness with beauty but lined walks with perfumed and dappled shade.

Lemons like sub-tropical climates, so for many centuries northern Europeans had only occasional imported, and therefore expensive, lemons. The first English mention of them comes from 1400, when Sir John Maundeville gave a recipe that called for the food to be anointed “with the juice of the fruit that is called lymons.” That antique spelling shows the close connection between lemons and limes, and indeed both English words derive from the Arabic limah.

It’s possible that 16th-century Spanish conquistadors brought lemons to Florida, and certain that Spanish missions grew them in California, which today produces more lemons than all the countries of Europe put together. As a result, we no longer have to pay a lot for them, and they are especially inexpensive and juicy at this time of year because winter is their harvest season.

It’s tempting to suggest that like oranges, which are also winter fruit, they are particularly welcome because their tartness sets off they heaviness of heavier winter food. True enough, yet lemons are equally welcome in hot weather because they are refreshing.

Since lemons are so welcome and useful, it’s no surprise that so many cuisines have classic dishes that depend on them. In Greece lemons are such a culinary staple that it’s a common weekend sight to see people carrying plastic supermarket bags full of them, and no taverna meal — whether meat, fish or vegetable — arrives without at least half a lemon on the side of the plate.

In combination with eggs lemon juice forms the avgolimono sauce used with fish and vegetables. In Morocco salted lemon is a vital flavoring for stews and many other dishes. Italy has lemon–flavored pastries and limoncello, a drink made by infusing vodka with lemon zest, sweetening it with sugar syrup, then serving it over ice or on desserts. Russia and Poland also make lemon-flavored vodkas.

England, too, has hard-wired lemons into its food history. From the mid-18th to the 20th century all British ships traveling to foreign waters were required to carry enough lemons to provide every man with a daily dose of lemon juice — delivered in a tot of rum — to prevent scurvy.

Landlubbers also valued lemons both for flavoring baked goods and drinks but also for preserves. Lemon marmalade is a lighter alternative to orange marmalade, and lemon curd is a favorite for layering cakes or just spreading on breakfast toast or any-time sandwiches. On Shrove Tuesday, which falls in February at the height of the citrus season, lemon juice and sugar are must-haves for the traditional Pancake Tuesday pancakes.

Lemons are easy to use — and also a pleasure because they smell so divine. Two things worth remembering are that if you want lemons for zesting choose shiny thick-skinned ones because they are more flavorful and easier to zest. If lemon juice is your interest, warm the lemon before squeezing it. You can do this by putting it in a warm oven for five minutes or so, or zapping it in a microwave for about a minute. The heat break downs the cell walls, so when you squeeze you get more juice. It’s a good idea to make an inch-long cut in the skin beforehand so if you leave the lemon too long it doesn’t burst. And, of course, should it feel too hot to hold, let it cool down a bit so you don’t risk getting scalding juice on your hands.

You can take advantage of winter’s lemon harvest with these recipes.

Greek Roasted Beets
with Lemon and Dill

Though almost all beets are eye-candy purple, some local farmers and gardeners also grow orange and yellow beets. If possible include one or two of these in this dish for the vivid contrast of color. Choose medium beets; big ones take too long to cook and little ones don’t yield enough.

6-8 beets

1 tablespoon chopped dill

2 lemons

Salt to taste

Dill springs for garnish

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut off and discard all but the last 2 inches or the beet stems. Wash the beets; dry with paper towels and wrap each one in foil. Bake them for an hour or until tender when poked with a skewer. Let the cooked beets cool until you can handle them, then slip off the skins and the remains of the stems. Cut the beets into chunks and toss with the chopped dill. Arrange on a shallow dish. Using a lemon zester, scrape thin strings of zest from one lemon. Halve the lemon and squeeze its juice on the beets. Garnish with the zest strings and dill sprigs. Cut the remaining lemon in wedges and serve at the side for people to use if they want a more lemony flavor.

Lemon Potatoes

Like the beets above, these are also standard Greek fare invariably served with chicken and also good with lamb.

4 large potatoes weighing in total about 2 pounds

Salt to taste

2 teaspoons dried oregano or herbs de Provence

¼ cup olive oil

Juice of 2 lemons

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Peel the potatoes and cut each into 8 or 10 long thick chunks. Place them in a single layer in a baking dish, ideally one that can be taken to the table. Season them with salt and sprinkle with the oregano or herbs. Pour the olive oil on them and then turn so each piece is coated with the oil. Warm the lemons, halve them and then squeeze the juice over the potatoes. Finally add a cup of boiling water and transfer the pan to the oven. Bake for 1 hour or until the potatoes feel tender when poked and have absorbed the liquid. If the potatoes are not golden on top, trickle on a little more olive oil and broil for 3-4 minutes. Serves 4.

Pasta with Smoked Salmon, Olives, Capers and Lemons

Salmon used to be a luxury, and smoked salmon was especially so. But salmon farms now produce so much that it has become an affordable treasure. Traditionally served without further cooking, it nonetheless has tasty potential in prepared foods such as this easy pasta dish, in which capers and lemons set off its rich smokiness.

2 teaspoons salt

2-3 lemons

1½ tablespoons butter

1 cup whipping cream

Salt and pepper to taste

12 ounces fettuccine or other pasta

10 black olives, each chopped into 3-4 bits

2 teaspoons capers, drained

12 oz. smoked salmon cut in ¾-inch ribbons

1 tablespoon chopped chives or parsley or a mixture of the two

Put on a large pan with 3-4 quarts of water and 2 teaspoons of salt to boil. Grate the zest from one of the lemons, and squeeze 1 or 2 lemons so you have 3 tablespoons of juice. Put the butter, lemon zest and juice into a frying pan and let the butter melt and sizzle for about half a minute. Stir in the cream and let it bubble, stirring often until it has reduced by a third. Set it aside. Boil the pasta in the salted water, following the package directions for timing (which varies from one type of pasta to another but usually between 8 and 10 minutes). When the pasta is al dente, that is tender but not mushy, drain it, and return it immediately to the hot pan. Reheat the lemon sauce and add it to the pasta along with the olive bits and the capers. Stir over low heat for a minute to warm the cold ingredients, then finally remove the pan from the heat and stir in the smoked salmon ribbons and the parsley or chives. Turn onto a heated platter or plates and serve garnished with more parsley and with lemon wedges. Serves 4.

Lemon Drizzle
Pound Cake

The lemon drizzle is a variation on the basic pound cake. It goes well with berries or is delicious on its own, especially with a cup of tea.

For the cake :

2 sticks unsalted butter

1½ cups cake flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1¼ superfine or granulated sugar

Grated zest of 1 lemon

1 tablespoon lemon juice

4 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the lemon drizzle:

1/3 cup sugar

1/3 cup lemon juice, preferably freshly squeezed

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan either by greasing it with butter and dusting it with flour, or by lining it with parchment paper. (The latter makes it easier to get the cake out of the pan without fears of it sticking.) Melt the butter in a microwave or a small pan but do not let it bubble. Whisk it briefly to recombine its milk solids, and set aside. Mix the flour and baking powder and set aside. In a food processor, pulse the sugar and lemon zest. Add the lemon juice, eggs and mix until thoroughly combined. With the machine running, add the butter in a steady stream. Transfer this to a large bowl. Sift about a third of the flour mixture on top, and whisk until it has just combined. Repeat twice to combine the rest of the flour mixture.

Pour into the prepared pan. Bake in the center of the oven for 15 minutes then lower the temperature to 325 degrees and bake for about 35-45 more minutes or until the surface is deep gold, and a skewer or knitting needle inserted in the center comes out clean. Most likely the top of the cake will crack; this is typical of pound cakes. While the cake is cooking, make the lemon drizzle by mixing the sugar and lemon juice with 1/3 cup of water. Boil for 2 minutes. As soon as the cake comes from the oven, place it on a rack (still in its pan) and poke the surface all over with a skewer. Slowly pour on the hot lemon drizzle, aiming to have it seep into the holes, which you can enlarge somewhat by wiggling the skewer. Leave the cake in the pan for 10-15 minutes, then remove and let cool to room temperature before serving with berries or wrapping in cling wrap for storage.

Chester Pudding

Lots of towns in Europe have local cakes or pies. In the 19th century many English towns made a point of publicizing their local specialty — or in some case inventing one — so that the number of English baked goods that have a town in the moniker is quite high. Bakewell Tart and Eccles Cakes are two examples that have achieved national fame. But many of these confections are unknown beyond their local region, and some like this Chester pudding — actually a tart — have disappeared from everywhere except the pages of cook books. It’s tempting to agree with the English food writer Jane Grigson that this tart may be the ancestor of America’s Lemon Meringue Pie, though the almonds, which appear in all recipes, make it different and more sophisticated.

An early 20th-century recipe from Erddig Hall in North Wales — just 12 miles from Chester — omits the meringue top, but includes a layer of jam. This version has both. It’s delicious. (Ground almonds are sometimes sold in gluten-free sections of supermarkets, or you can make your own by whizzing flaked or slivered almonds in a food processor along with a teaspoon of the flour called for in the recipe.)

Pastry:

2 cups (8 ounces) plain flour

1 tablespoon sugar

6 tablespoons cold butter

3 tablespoons lard or vegetable shortening

About ¼ cup chilled water

Filling:

2 tablespoons raspberry or strawberry jam

1-2 lemons

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 cup caster sugar

2/3 cup ground almonds

4 eggs, separated, plus 1 additional yolk

To make the pastry in a food processor, put the flour and sugar in the bowl. Cut the butter in 2 to 4 chunks, drop in and pulse a few times to break it up. Now add the lard or vegetable fat, turn on the machine and immediately add the water. Run just until the mixture is a mass of small lumps that clump together when you press a fistful. (To make by hand, cut the butter into small bits and rub it into the flour and sugar. Then rub in the lard or shortening, and add the liquid a spoonful at a time until you get the right lumpy mass.) Next, take egg-sized handfuls of the mixture, squeeze slightly and smear them away from you on a pastry board or marble surface so each becomes a smooth ball. Pile the balls together and shape into a thick disc. Wrap it in plastic wrap and chill for an hour or up to a day or two later.

To proceed, preheat the oven to 425 degrees and grease a 9-inch loose-bottomed tart tin. Put a circle of parchment in the bottom. Roll out the pastry and fit into the tin. Cover with foil and dried beans and bake for 20 minutes or until set and pale gold. Remove the foil and beans.

To make the filling, spread the jam in a very thin layer on the baked pastry shell. Finely grate the zest from a large lemon. Warm the lemon (either in a warm oven or by microwaving it for a minute), then halve and squeeze out the juice, which will be more plentiful because of the warming. If you don’t get ¼ cup of juice, make up the amount from the additional lemon. Put the zest, juice, butter and half the sugar in a small saucepan. Separate the eggs. Beat the yolks, including the additional one, and add them to the pan. Stir over low heat until the mixture is warm and thick, then stir in the ground almonds. Spread this mixture carefully over the jam.

Whisk the egg whites, preferably with an electric mixer. When they form soft peaks, add a third of the remaining sugar. Whisk again until the whites look glossy. Repeat this step twice, adding more sugar only when the mixture is glossy. Finally, you have thick and shiny meringue. Spread it on top of the lemon layer and bake at 400 degrees for 5-7 minutes or until the meringues peaks are taking color. Turn down the heat to 325 degrees and bake for another 30 minutes or until the surface feels firm and crisp. Remove from the oven and cool on a rack. Best served warm or at room temperature. Serves 8.

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