Lemons (Recipe: avgolemono — chicken soup with rice and lemons)
Peter, Paul and Mary, I love you guys.
I love Puff, that magic dragon, and the big blue frog, too. I know where all the flowers have gone, and what's blowin' in the wind.
But when you dissed the lemon ... well, what you were thinking?
Lemon tree, very pretty,
and the lemon flower is sweet.
But the fruit of the poor lemon
is impossible to eat.
Impossible to eat?
More like impossible to do without.
Whether you're going sweet or savory, unless you live in a country that grows limes instead of lemons (Mexico, for instance, or much of Southeast Asia), you probably can't imagine cooking without lemon.
The Citrus limon, native perhaps to northwest India or China, is a thorny and prolific tree, a cross between a lime and a citron; though it grows only 10-20 feet tall, it flowers year-round and can produce up to 2,000 fruits per year. Leading producers are the United States (California, Arizona and Florida), Italy, Spain, Greece, Israel and Turkey.
Eureka and Lisbon are the most common varieties; in my local grocery stores, the lemons are never labeled. Eureka has a textured skin, a short neck at one end, and a few seeds; Lisbon has a smoother skin, no neck, and is seedless. In California you can find Meyer lemons, in season; a hybrid of lemon and mandarin orange, they're sweeter than the other varieties.
How to choose and use a lemon (this applies only to fruit, and not to defective cars):
- Look for fruits that are thin-skinned and heavy for their size, to yield the most juice.
- Make sure the fruit is fully yellow; if it's greenish, it's not quite ripe, and if it has brown patches, it's overripe.
- Store lemons at room temperature, out of direct sunlight, for up to a week. For longer storage, refrigerate for up to a month.
- For even longer storage, strain and freeze the juice (handy to do in ice cube trays), and dry or candy the lemon peel.
- For storage up to a year and a whole new world of culinary possibilities, turn fresh fruits into preserved lemons.
- To get the most juice out, press down gently but firmly and roll the lemon back and forth on the countertop a few times.
- Room temperature lemons will yield more juice, so if your lemon is cold, pop it into the microwave for a few seconds before squeezing.
- If you don't have a lemon reamer, stick a fork into the side of the whole lemon, and twist the lemon back and forth while holding the fork still; you'll be amazed at how much juice comes out, and the seeds stay behind.
Lemons are one of the world's healthiest foods, for exactly the reason you'd guess: an abundance of antioxidants and Vitamin C. They're also one of the world's most versatile flavorings, starring in (and perking up) lemon meringue pie cupcakes, sesame and lemon chicken, strawberry-lemon bars, Meyer lemon butter cookies, hashed Brussels sprouts, and, of course, lemonade.
So, Peter, Paul and Mary, maybe it's time to rethink the whole love-and-betrayal theme of the Lemon Tree Song. After all, lemons -- the ones you keep in the kitchen -- never let you down.
Avgolemono -- chicken soup with rice and lemons
My friend Greg makes a wonderful version of this famous Greek soup; this recipe, slightly different, came to me from Effie Pesiridis, whose family owned a convenience store for many years in Boston's South End. Serves 6-8 generously.
3 whole boneless chicken breasts
3 heaping handfuls long-grain rice (approx. 2 cups)
3/4 stick butter
Juice of 2 lemons
In a large stock pot cover the chicken breasts with water. Bring to a boil and continue to cook 20 minutes, or until the chicken is just cooked through. Remove the chicken and set aside to cool. To the stock in the pot, add rice, butter and a pinch of salt (or more to taste). Cook at a low boil for 20 minutes, or until the rice is cooked (if the soup is too thick, add some boiling water). Shred the chicken with your fingers into large pieces, and add to the soup. In a small bowl, beat the eggs until frothy; slowly beat in the lemon juice. Mix 1 cup of the hot soup slowly into the eggs, being careful not to cook the eggs. Then slowly beat the egg mixture back into the soup, stirring constantly. When all the egg is incorporated and the soup has thickened slightly, it’s done. Serve hot, with crusty bread.
More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:
Honey and lemon green tea cupcakes
Spiced lentils with squash and raisins
Brick-grilled chicken breasts or thighs
Lentils with spinach and preserved lemon
Shish taouk (garlic chicken on skewers)