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Ken Morris, Cooking for Comfort: Winter's bright spot: Lemons

Winter shifts the cooking menu of grilling and salads to heavier foods, such as stews and long-cooked braises but in the market, there is one bright spot: lemons.

If you do a Google search of best lemon recipes, the first thousand or so entries are desserts. But, when I was in Italy I discovered lemons a constant in savory dishes there.

When my wife and I stayed in Positano, a cliffside village just barely clutching onto southern Italy’s Amalfi Coast, we enjoyed seeing the huge local lemons, which were the result of local farmers crossing local lemons with bitter oranges until they produced orange-sized lemons called Sfusato d’Amalfi.

The fruit was grown to provide vitamin C to prevent scurvy on long sea voyages and by the 19th century, the lemon had transformed the previously unproductive rural landscape along the Amalfi coast into a major economic creator.

But, it’s not just these unique lemons that are part of the Italian cuisine. Helena Attlee’s “The Land Where Lemons Grow” unfolds the citrus’ long voyage from its home in the Himalayas to southern Italy, and its spreading out through the country, appearing in ancient Roman and Renaissance cookbooks and it is still important today.

Locally, the Meyer lemon is so ubiquitous that some think that it originated in California but all citrus species that we eat today were first cultivated in Asia. At the turn of the 20th century, America’s US Department of Agriculture had an Office of Seed and Plant Introduction staffed with a team of botanists sending explorers to areas unknown to the Western world to find “plants of economic value.”

The program’s founder, botanist David Fairchild, had been responsible for the introduction of avocados, mangoes, and dates, and with hundreds of other crops to the US. Read “The Food Explorer” by Daniel Stone to discover this little-known culinary hero. Having recently married, Fairchild decided he had traveled enough and hired Frank Meyer as a special agent for the USDA to search China and acquire hardy crops.

Meyer is credited with 2,500 plant introductions, such as alfalfa, drought-hardy small grains, including sorghum, and many varieties of citrus, including a small tree with bright yellow fruit that he discovered in 1907, in a small village near Beijing.

A man told him the fruit was only ornamental, but Meyer cut a lemon to taste it, finding it sweeter than a lemon but more tart than an orange. Meyer sent cuttings back to the US where it was first grown in Chico, California, and eventually the other citrus hubs of Florida and Texas but its thin skin made it difficult to ship.

It was a century before Meyer lemons became popular in the United States, after being rediscovered by chefs such as Alice Waters at Chez Panisse during the rise of California cuisine, starting in the 1970s. It gained an even larger audience when Martha Stewart began featuring them in some of her recipes. For all of these recipes, I use Meyer lemons since I have a prolific Meyer lemon tree in my backyard.

Potato, Shrimp, Orange, and Fennel Flan

Adapted from “Tanina’s Kitchen Diary” by Tanina Vanacore

Serves 4

During our trip to Positano, Italy we discovered Casa e Bottega, a little cafe and homeware boutique owned by Tanina Vanacore, We immediately liked the open, Mediterranean coast feel. The light food and beach atmosphere was so enjoyable that we ate there twice and purchased a slim booklet of Tanina’s recipes to remind us of our trip. This is a good example of the straightforward cooking of the Amalfi Coast and how cooks there use lemon and orange, instead of vinegar, to provide a pleasing acidity.

500 grams (just over a pound) of boiled potatoes, skin removed

1 small celery stick, minced

Grated zest of organic lemon (make sure the skin is clean)

Kosher salt and pepper to taste

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

500 grams (just over a pound) of steamed shrimp

3 oranges, peeled, seeds removed and sections chopped

2 small fennel bulbs, core removed and finely chopped

4 handfuls of salad. Choose a colorful mixture of radicchio, arugula, endive, mizuna, kale, or mustard.

Lemon, cut into quarters

Mash the cooked potatoes roughly with a potato masher or fork. Mix with the celery, add a dash of salt and pepper and all of the lemon zest.

Mix the salad with olive oil and add a sprinkling of salt and pepper. The oil should just flavor the greens, not overwhelmed (delete) them.

Distribute the greens to four chilled plates. Place the potato mixture into a small pastry cutter disk (you can free form the flan if you don’t have a disk) forming a small potato flan on each salad.

Add the chopped oranges and fennel around the flan and place the steamed shrimp on top of the flan. Sprinkle each flan and salad with lemon and a dash more salt.

Toasted Bread and Chicken Salad with Roasted Lemon-Shallot Vinaigrette

Adapted from “The Lemon Cookbook’ by Ellen Jackson

Serves 6

Sometimes I think all recipes are just variations on someone else’s recipes. This recipe is inspired by the famous roasted chicken and bread salad served at San Francisco’s Zuni Café. By the way, if you have the outdoor grill going, it is always a good idea to split a lemon and roast it on the open fire, you can always use it as a marinade or to make a salad dressing.

Vinaigrette

1 lemon, halved

8 ounces shallots, peeled, halved if large

3 large garlic cloves, unpeeled

¾ cup extra virgin olive oil, divided

4 springs fresh thyme, divided

2 ½ tsp. kosher salt, divided

Juice of 1 lemon

Chicken salad

One loaf peasant-style rustic bread, roughly torn into 1-inch pieces

3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

Freshly ground black pepper

4 cups of leftover roast chicken (or purchased from the market)

3 Tbsp. currants, plumped in warm water for 10 minutes and drained

4 cups lightly packed peppery greens, such as arugula, watercress or small mustard greens

To make the vinaigrette, preheat the oven to 400°F. In a medium bowl, combine the lemon halves with the shallots, garlic, ¼ cup of olive oil, 2 sprigs of thyme, and 1 teaspoon of salt and then transfer them to a baking dish.

Place the lemon, cut side down and distribute everything in a single layer. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and roast, stirring occasionally, until the shallots are soft and caramelized, 45 to 55 minutes. Remove the pan and set aside to cool.

Increase the oven to 425°F. Toss the bread with the 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large bowl and season to taste with salt and pepper. Arrange the bread on a baking sheet in a single layer and toast for 10 to 12 minutes, or until lightly golden brown and still slightly chewy. Leave the oven on.

As the bread is toasting, seed and coarsely chop the pulp from the roasted lemon halves, discarding the peel. Trim the root ends from the shallots and peel the garlic.

Add everything to a blender, along with the remaining 1½ teaspoons of salt, the lemon juice and any juices left in the baking dish.

Blend until smooth and keep the blender running to slowly drizzle the remaining ½ cup of oil until the mixture is emulsified.

Coarsely chop the thyme leaves from the remaining sprig and add them to the blender. Pulse again to combine, then taste and then season with salt and pepper.

In a large bowl, toss the chicken with just enough vinaigrette to moisten it. Add the toasted bread and more vinaigrette, until everything is lightly toasted.

Spread everything in the bowl in a single layer on a baking sheet and place in the oven just long enough to warm through, about 5 minutes.

Remove the pan from the oven and slide the bread and chicken into a serving bowl or platter, along with the currants and greens. Toss well to combine, adding more vinaigrette or salt as needed.

Lemon Risotto

Serves 4

Adapted from “Cooking A to Z” by Jane Horn and Janet Fletcher

Again, I’m turning to the Italians, because of their wonderful food that showcases lemons. This is from a book I purchased some 30 years ago when I was learning how to cook and I still find it useful. Of course, if you have some extra asparagus or shrimp that are already cooked, you can add one of them at the end. Don’t overwhelm the great tastes of rice and cheese that you worked so hard to create with too much stuff).

2 Tbsp. plus 2 teaspoons unsalted butter

2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 small onion, minced

1 lemon, rind grated

1 ½ cups Arborio rice (If you can find Carnaroli rice, this has great flavor and turns creamy while each grain of rice maintains its shape.)

5 cups chicken stock, heated and next to risotto pan for easy transferring

¼ cup plus 2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Kosher salt and pepper, to taste

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a heavy wide saucepan over moderately low heat. Add olive oil, then onion and lemon, rice, and sauté slowly for 5 minutes until it turns translucent.

Add rice and stir to coat each grain with oil. Turn up heat to high and toast, stirring for 30 seconds. It should start to quietly crackle.

Immediately add ½ cup of the hot stock and reduce heat to medium-low. Stir constantly until stock is absorbed. Keep adding more stock, ½ cup at a time, stirring constantly adding more only when the previous quantity has been absorbed.

When all the stock is absorbed, stir in ¼ cup lemon juice. Rice should be tender (you’ll need to use a spoon to remove a few grains to cool enough to taste). This usually takes me around 20 minutes. If not tender, add a little warm water bit by bit until rice is tender but still firm.

Stir in Parmesan and remaining butter. Continue to cook briefly to blend and melt the cheese. Season to taste with salt (adding black pepper makes it look like black flecks from the chimney have landed in your creamy white risotto but it’s a personal decision).

Add remaining lemon juice and serve immediately in warm bowls (this really helps the rice from not turning gummy by not landing on a cold surface when you serve)

Preserved Lemons

Not only does this add a sophisticated splash of flavors and acid with just about anything you’re cooking, it’s a great use of lemons when you have a happy lemon tree loaded with fruit. I’ve seen recipes that add cinnamon sticks and coriander, black pepper and other spices but I keep mine simple.

Please note: it will take at least a month for the lemons to start being transformed by the lemon juice and salt, so you do have to plan ahead. Once converted, the lemons seem to keep forever, so I always have a jar of preserved lemons in my refrigerator, ready for adventure.

8 or more organic, unwaxed lemons

Box of Kosher salt

1-quart glass jar with a lid that you can seal

Wash 4 to 5 lemons, then quarter each one lengthwise but don’t cut all the way through. Take each one and pour salt into it and then slide into the jar, jamming them together as close as possible.

Pour more salt over the lemons, then juice the remaining four lemons, adding the juice to the jar. You may need more lemons to juice with the goal to cover the cut lemons completely with juice.

Seal the jar and place it in the refrigerator, shaking occasionally to distribute the salt over the lemons. In a month or two, the acid and salt will have transformed the skin of the lemons. I use my Meyer lemons but any thin skinned lemon will work.

Spiced Chicken on Melting Onions with Preserved Lemon

Serves 4

Adapted from “Crazy Water Pickled Lemons” by Diana Henry

Paula Wolfert is the better known expert in Middle Eastern food (“The Food of Morocco” is a good example) but I love Diana Henry’s informal, chatty instructions in her several books. This is a slightly revised Moroccan tajine, and Diana only specifies a shallow, ovenproof pan, but if you’ve got a tajine and you preserved your lemons, now is the time to flaunt them.

1 chicken, cut into serving pieces is how I do it but Diane makes it easy by listing the protein as 4 chicken breast joints, skin on and partly boned

2 Tbsp. olive oil

3 onions, halved and sliced into half-moons

½ tsp. ground turmeric

1 cup (8 ounces) chicken stock

½ tsp. saffron threads

3 ounces green olives

For the marinade:

½ preserved lemon

6 garlic cloves, crushed

1 tsp. ground ginger

½ tsp. each of ground cumin, paprika and cayenne

4 Tbsp. olive oil

2 Tbsp. lemon oil from the preserved lemons (You can buy these on well-stocked supermarkets or Middle Eastern groceries, but it’s easy to make them. See above.)

Kosher salt and pepper

To serve

A good handful of flat-leaf parsley or coriander, roughly chopped

For the marinade, remove the flesh from the inside of the lemon and chop it up, retaining the outer rind to use in the sauce. Mix the flesh with all the other marinade ingredients. Rub the marinade all over the chicken, spooning some marinade just under the skin if you can. Cover and leave in the fridge for at least 3 hours or overnight. Turn the pieces every so often.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Heat the olive oil in the bottom of a shallow, ovenproof pan. Add the chicken and quickly cook the outside until nice and golden. Put the chicken aside.

In the same pan, start to cook the onions. When they are softening and beginning to turn translucent, add the turmeric and continue to cook stirring, for another minute.

Bring the stock or water up to the boil and dissolve the saffron in it. Add this to the pan, along with the chicken pieces and any juices that have come out of them. It will look as if you don’t have much liquid, but this is all it needs – the chicken will continue to get nice and golden on top while the sauce makes itself underneath. Cook in the preheated oven for 30 minutes.

Cut the lemon rind into fine strips and add it to the dish with the olives 15 minutes before the end of the cooking time. (You’ll need to rinse the olives if they are in brine, but if they’re in olive oil just drain them.) Scatter with parsley or coriander. Diane recommends serving with rice, couscous or flatbread.

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Ken Morris has been cooking for comfort for more than 30 years and learning in kitchens from Alaska to Thailand to Italy. He now cooks and writes from his kitchen in Napa. Email macmor@sbcglobal.net.

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