Lemons

Lemons

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
5 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667678
Photographer
William Meppem

When we were first married, we lived in an inner-city suburb of Melbourne that sported all the signs of a neighbourhood on the up-and-up. The streets were crowded with skips full to the brim with cast-off furniture and the noise of builders’ drills filled the air. Although bright young things are flocking to suburbs such as this, they are still peopled, in the main, by the same Greek and Italian families who moved in during the 1950s. Many still live in the same old workers’ cottages, some have renovated, or added grand extensions, but the one thing they have in common is a lemon tree in the garden.

For our Greek neighbours it is inconceivable that they could live without a lemon tree close at hand. It is easy to understand why. The lemon must surely be the most indispensable item for any cook. Lemon is one of the most popular flavours for desserts – both its juice and its zest add a refreshing zing to cakes, tarts, puddings, sorbets and refreshing summer drinks. Lemon juice adds a piquant tang to salad dressings and brings grilled meat and poultry to life, while fried fish and seafood are unthinkable without an accompanying lemon wedge. As well as bringing out the flavours of most foods, lemon juice is also useful as a tenderiser and colour preserver. Rubbing the cut surface of an avocado with lemon juice will stop it going brown, and similarly, fruits and vegetables such as apple and artichoke can be prevented from discolouring by keeping them in acidulated water.

We tend to think of lemons as being quintessentially Mediterranean, but it seems likely that the lemon and its forebear, the citron, originated in northern India, and from there spread to Mesopotamia and Persia. But lemons and other citrus fruits (apart from the thickly pithed bitter citron, which was widely cultivated by Jews for use in religious ceremonies) were not widely known in the Mediterranean until the spread of Islam in the seventh century.

The Arabs loved citrus trees, not just for their fruit, but for their fragrant blossoms and leaves. They treated their empire in Spain as a big citrus orchard – it was they who planted the courtyards of the Alhambra with orange and lemon trees, and who filled the Patios de los naranjos outside the Great Mosques in Cordoba and Seville.

The Arab and Persian penchant for sour flavourings is evident in their use of ingredients such as verjuice, tamarind, pomegranate and, of course, lemon in many dishes. A lemony tang is the unifying characteristic of most Middle Eastern dips – baba ghanoush, hummus, skordalia and taramasalata all have a distinctive lemon flavour. This preference also underpins many of their fruit and meat combinations. The strong, fatty mutton which is the basis of most meat dishes benefits enormously from sharpening with fruits like apricots, pomegranates and lemons. One of the characteristics of Moroccan cuisine – learned from the Arabs – is the use of whole preserved lemons in meat stews known as ‘tagines’.

Selecting and storing lemons

If you have had the foresight to plant a lemon tree in your backyard you are very fortunate. The rest of us have to make do with lemons from the local market, greengrocer or supermarket and there are a couple of things to bear in mind. Firstly, choose organically grown fruit if you can. Most commercially grown lemons are picked green, when they are most acid – this is also what makes them keep so well. Once picked, though, lemons do not ripen any more, so to make them that bright sunshiny yellow we all love, lemons are treated with ethylene gas. This destroys the chlorophyll and leaves behind only the yellow pigment.

Thin-skinned lemons tend to be juicier and are ideal for preserving. Thick-skinned lemons are good for zesting. However, any lemon you buy should feel weighty, an indication of its juiciness. Lemons should be wiped dry, as they have a tendency to go mouldy if damp. They can sit happily in a bowl on the kitchen table, where they will cheer up the room with their sunny hue. In a humid climate, though, they will last better if refrigerated.

Lemons, and indeed other citrus fruits, are often waxed to a shiny gloss before they are stored. So if you are planning to use the zest, make sure you wash and dry the skins very well before zesting.

Using lemons

To improve the yield of juice from lemons, soak them in warm water for 20 minutes of so before squeezing. Lemon juice will keep for 4–5 days in the refrigerator and can also be frozen. To maximise the lemony flavour, add lemon zest to a dish, as it is the skin of the lemon that contains the intense essential lemon oil. To zest a lemon, carefully remove the yellow skin (avoid the pith, which is bitter) with a zester. This will peel away long, thin threads of lemon skin, which usually need to be chopped more finely with a sharp knife. If you don’t possess a lemon zester, then a vegetable peeler will also do for removing thin slices of peel, which, again, will need to be chopped finely. A grater will also work, but tends get clogged up with a wet, sticky mess.

Recipes in this Chapter

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