Perfect Fruit Tree for Benicia
If there were one indispensable, perfect fruit tree for Benicia gardens, it would have to be the Meyer lemon. These prized ornamentals with waxy, evergreen foliage are a delight for the senses at all times of the year. They offer up a profusion of sweet, jasmine-scented blossoms in the fall and early spring. In Benicia their main crop begins to ripen sometime between the Thanksgiving and New Year holidays to brighten the onset of winter. But in a sunny location, an established tree can produce smaller crops that ripen in different seasons. Meyer lemons have an exceptionally long hang time; the winter fruit can stay on the tree well into early summer. In this way local families blessed with a mature tree will nearly always have ripe lemons available for the kitchen. Once established, a Meyer tree grows with surprisingly little care, and will naturally maintain a manageable dwarf or semi-dwarf size.
Not a Lemon After all?
Introduced from its native China over a century ago by the botanical explorer Frank Nicholas Meyer, the Meyer lemon is actually not believed to be a true lemon at all. It is most likely a genetic cross between a lemon and a tangerine, and this parentage is expressed in a slight orange tinge to the fruit's golden skin when fully ripe. Commercial production has been limited, as the fruit doesn’t travel or keep as well as its more familiar, thicker-skinned cousins such as the Lisbons and Eurekas. Meyers are notably sweeter than other lemons, requiring less sugar in lemonade and other recipes. But what truly distinguishes the Meyer lemon fruit is its unmistakable floral aroma and richness of flavor.
High Productivity = Great Recipe Options
Meyer trees are lavishly productive, and if you have a tree or two in your yard, you will probably enjoy an abundance of fruit at this time of year. And luckily the utility of this crop matches its fecundity. When cooking with Meyer lemons, it is important to understand that they can yield disappointing results in conventional lemon recipes. With their higher sugar content and lower acidity, Meyers often require the use of recipes specific to their flavor profile. Bearing this caveat in mind, the internet yields up a profusion of recipes for the aficionado: Meyer lemon bars, meringue pie, poke cake, gelato, cookies, marmalade, syrup and mousse, in addition to a wealth of savory uses in lemon soup, cream sauce, salad dressing, glazes, and others. What follows is a family favorite that demonstrates the versatility of this glorious fruit.
This sweet, golden ambrosia hails from southern Italy, where it is enjoyed after meals as a digestif. Stored in the freezer and served ice-cold, limoncello is traditionally flavored only by the zest of the lemon. The producers in Sorrento use lemons that aren’t readily available in the U.S., but our Meyers make an excellently flavored limoncello, more golden-hued than the Italian product. “Family secrets” for making this elixir abound, though perhaps scorned by purists, adjuncts such as vanilla, lavender, lemon juice, anise, ginger, and other flavorings can be added in subtle quantities to good effect.
15 Meyer lemons
1.75 liter Everclear or vodka
3 cups sugar
3 cups water
Remove the zest layer from the lemons with a sharp peeler into a large pitcher, crock, or other food-grade container. Be careful not to peel off any of the bitter white pith layer. Juice the peeled lemons and set the juice aside for another use. Pour the alcohol over the lemon peels. Cover and let rest, out of the direct sunlight, for 40 days. Make a simple syrup by mixing the water and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat until the sugar is completely dissolved. Filter the alcohol by pouring through a coffee filter set inside a strainer, and discard the peels. Stir half of the simple syrup into the alcohol. Gradually add the remaining syrup while tasting, until desired sweetness. Let rest for another 40 days. Filter once more through a coffee filter or cheesecloth. Transfer into tall, clear bottles and cap with a stopper cork.
Meyer Lemon Curd
Nothing brightens up the cold, rainy months like the tangy, buttery snap of fresh lemon curd. The ultimate winter comfort food, lemon curd is like all the promise of the coming summer bursting on the tongue. Try it on scones, English muffins, as a pastry filling, or with warmed croissants. Most likely you will end up eating it out of the jar with a spoon. You will not find fresh lemon curd for sale, you simply must make it.
2 cups sugar
Zest of 6-8 Meyer lemons
9 egg yolks
2 cups Meyer lemon juice
2 ½ sticks of butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
Place the sugar and zest in a large saucepan. With the bottom of a jar or wine bottle, press the zest into the sugar for 2-3 minutes to release the oils. Whisk in eggs and yolks over low-medium heat, stirring and scraping continuously. When mixture thickens considerably, whisk in lemon juice. Bring to a simmer and continue to stir until it thickens again (160º on an instant thermometer, if you have one). Remove from heat and stir in butter pieces until incorporated. Pour into a strainer over a large bowl or pot, pressing the curd through the strainer with the back of a wooden spoon (save the spent zest, it’s great in yogurt or over oatmeal). Ladle curd into 6 pint-sized canning jars and screw the lids on. Refrigerate when cool. Fresh lemon curd will keep in a refrigerator for 4-6 weeks, but it usually gets gobbled up long before then.
Preserved Meyer Lemons
The simple practice of preserving lemons in salt comes from Morocco, and is a revelation. Use the preserved rinds in soups, stews, sauces, salads, paella, pizza, Martinis, and as a low-fat, salty alternative to kalamata olives or pancetta. The pulp and juice are great in Bloody Marys, chili, and anything else that could benefit from a touch of brightness and pizzazz. Jars of carefully preserved lemons are beautiful gifts for the foodies in your social circle.
7-8 Meyer lemons
½ cup coarse kosher or sea salt
Scrub the lemons clean and blanch 5-6 of them in boiling water for 2 minutes. Take them out with a slotted spoon and allow to cool on a kitchen towel. Cut into wedges lengthwise and remove as many seeds as you can. Place into a quart-sized jar, alternating layers of lemon wedges and salt. Compress with the back of a wooden spoon as you pack the wedges to within ½ inch of the rim. Juice the remaining lemons and pour in enough juice to cover the top of the lemon wedges, and sprinkle over any remaining salt. Fit the lid tightly, and keep in a cool, dark cupboard or food pantry. Every day for one week, continue to compress the lemon wedges with a spoon, and if there is enough space to add more lemon wedges, do so. Leave the jar alone to age for at least a month, and up to one year. Refrigerate the jar after opening, preserved lemons will keep for several months in the refrigerator.
Meyer Lemon Margarita
If you have a lime tree, you probably have noticed the sad truth that lime season doesn’t coincide with margarita drinking season. The long hang time and everbearing habit of Meyer lemon trees, however, ensure that you will almost always have ripe lemons on hand for this recipe, even through the hottest months of summer. The heady, floral perfume of Meyer lemons pairs wonderfully with tequila. And especially if you use your own Meyer Limoncello, the satisfaction of this zippy, home-grown cocktail is tremendous on a balmy Benicia afternoon.
¼ cup fresh squeezed Meyer lemon juice
2-3 ounces premium tequila
1 ounce limoncello, Cointreau, or Grand Marnier
Dash of orange bitters (optional)
Coarse salt for the rim, ice cubes
Rub a lemon wedge around the top of your favorite margarita glass and swirl the rim through a small plate of salt. Fill the glass with ice cubes. Combine lemon juice, tequila, liqueur, and bitters in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake vigorously to thoroughly blend, and pour through a cocktail strainer into the prepared margarita glass. Squeeze a twist of lemon peel over the surface of the drink to infuse the aromatic oils, and drape the twist over the rim as a garnish.