Friday, November 30, 2012

Lemon Drops

I live in the very center of California, in long valley formed eons ago that would be a vast floodplain in times of extreme rain if left to it's own devices.  The San Joaquin Valley is made up of large tracts of fertile dirt and just about everything you can think of is grown here.  From cotton to kiwis, a drive down I5 through the valley is an education in agricultural diversity.

The growing season is fairly long here too, it's almost December but there's still one chile plant fruiting in the garden along with a handful of onions.  What is abundant now are lemons, for me anyway since both my neighbor and mother in law have heavily laden trees ripe for the picking.  The winter lemons are the best in my opinion, they are big and I can practically hear them bulging with juice.

Like most seasonal fruits and vegetables, they come to me in large batches and it takes at least three weeks for the full lemon harvest.  Almost all the lemons get juiced, it's one of the most useful and versatile ingredients in my year-round kitchen, so many days are spent filling up ice cube trays with lemon juice.  But it is well worth the time and freezer space because bottled lemon juice is just yucky.  Pre-squeeze all your uncut citrus fruits between your palm and the counter top to get maximum liquid with minimal effort.

There is other valuable real estate in a lemon than just the juice, the thin bright yellow outer skin is packed with flavor potential too.  The zest is edible, it's filled with volatile oils that give it a richer, smoother lemon taste than the juice and is equally as versatile.  Zest that has been frozen loses a bit of its brightness, but not much and it doesn't take up much space.  Use a fine grater to shave only the yellow zest over a plate, stay away from the bitter white pith underneath.  Cover the plate loosely with plastic wrap and place in the freezer for an hour, after that gather up the zest in a small container and leave in the freezer until needed.

My neighbor Nat is partial to candied lemon peel, so I always make her a batch to say thanks for the fruit.  I just use a vegetable peeler to lightly scrape off chips of lemon rind, although more dexterous folk can get neat, tidy strips.  After that, it's about 30 minutes of boiling in a simple syrup that was made from equal parts water and sugar. Drain them well in a colander and dredge well on a tray in sugar; mine are still drying, it can take a few days so be patient.  Spread them out on a tray and stir occasionally with a fork until the peels are completely dry.  Eat like candy, garnish cakes with them, put them in tea, whatever pleases you.

So, let's say that you've gathered up some lemons of your own and done some juicing, what are those little cubes good for?  I'm a lemonade advocate, hot or cold, plain or dressed up with strawberries and basil, the only bad lemonade is an artificial one.  Lemon desserts are almost universally loved and made better when you use fresh juice; throw in two cubes when marinating chicken or fish or grab one to keep your chopped apples from browning.

I can say from personal experience that frozen cubes of lemon juice have formed the basis of a damned good cocktail and it really pays to experiment here.

The frozen zest can be used in all the same places as the juice, I generally use both if I have them for more depth of flavor.  I also make lemon sugar by mixing grated lemon zest with white sugar, about 2 lemons per cup of sugar for a really intense flavor.  Just mix it thoroughly and let it stand in a covered bowl in the refrigerator for about a week, stirring once a day.  Lemon sugar is fab for sugar cookies, rimming glasses, dusting pastries and putting in tea along with a host of other things.

Alright sous chefs that's what I do, but what about you?  What's your favorite tip or use for lemons? Leave a comment or send an email, the best tip will get posted soon.  Go forth and cook!

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