Meyer lemon, the higher lemon

By From page A11 | January 12, 2011

Like you perhaps, Diane and I have sibs in distant parts of this roiling nation, and each needs a Christmas present as a token of remembrance.

What to send? Not long ago a sister-in-law sent us a collapsible basket for gathering vegetables from our garden. In fact, she apparently thought it was such a good idea that she sent us the same thing the following year, with no memory that she’d sent one already. (Of course we said nothing.) But this illustrates the problem. Who remembers?

However we meet that challenge, we often enclose a pound of pistachios and a number of Meyer lemons as well, as we did this year.  People in New York and Wisconsin always marvel at the Meyer lemons, which are aromatic in the box. They’re more cold-hardy than limes or ordinary lemons, which is why you find them in so many Davis yards, ours included.

If you’re not familiar with Meyer lemons, they have a thinner skin than regular lemons. They’re not as tart, they’re highly aromatic, and Meyer lemons are very, very juicy. Given those traits, it’s a specialty citrus for local use, as it’s not going to ship well at all. The rest of America hardly knew a thing about Meyer lemons until Martha Stewart started promoting them in her recipes during the decade just past.

Neighbors and acquaintances are the best source of Meyer lemons, which are very much in season right now. Offer neighbors some zucchini futures from your garden. No? Tomatoes might work. I bring a lot of my extra lemons to a friend with a restaurant, where I’ll see homemade Meyer lemon sorbet as a dessert special on his menu in the days following.

Often you can find Meyer lemons at farm stands, farmers markets, in the Food Co-op and Nugget stores, and elsewhere. You want Meyer lemons that are fulsome, fragrant if held to the nose (unlike regular commercial lemons) and neither dull nor soft. A bit of an orange hue hints at full flavor; too much so and it’s past prime.

I love the story of how this lemon got its name. A gent named Frank Meyer brought back a tree in 1908 from China, where it was originally crossed with either a mandarin or an orange. His job title with the USDA was “agricultural explorer.” That’s right, he scoured distant lands for trees, fruits and other products we might have wanted in our new land. He died in Shanghai, which seems more fitting than Gridley.

I visited a fellow at the USDA operation in Beltsville, Md., some years back. He and his team were exploring botanists. They traveled the globe to gather a few pounds of everything growing anywhere, ranging from the mountains of Peru to the dry hinterlands of Ethiopia.

Their haul was tested in laboratories for medicinal possibilities in the fight against cancer. I sat at his desk, taking notes for a column about something else actually, while we chewed coca leaves from his drawer. A mellow afternoon.

— Dan Kennedy, a Davis resident, has a long history with the bounty of gardens and small farms. Reach him at [email protected]

The recipes
Meyer Lemon Zest
Putting it together:
Use a zester  — a specialized scraper that costs a few bucks — to scrape the yellow zest from Meyer lemons (see photo at left). Add it to soups, salads, chicken breasts and whatever else would benefit from its aromatic tang. Zesting yields concentrated flavor without liquid, which at times is desirable. Avoid the white pith.
Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette
Here’s the simplest of recipes, from none other than Martha Stewart. Make it exponentially in a jar and keep in the refrigerator for ready use. Martha did a lot to popularize Meyer lemons, so she gets her star turn here.
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
11⁄2 teaspoons zest of a Meyer lemon
21⁄2 tablespoons Meyer lemon juice
A few pinches of kosher salt
6 tablespoons salad-worthy olive oil
Putting it together:
Add first four ingredients to a bowl. Gradually whisk in the olive oil. Now adjust to taste, as you may want more or less tart, more mustard, etc. Extras might include a touch of honey or sugar; finely chopped shallot; anchovy paste. Martha cleverly suggests you have it at the ready in the refrigerator.

I’d consider this for robust greens, like arugula, and to drizzle on avocado slices.

If you want the whole megillah, with Martha’s recommendations on silverware, tablecloth, napkins and floral arrangement to accompany your salad with two scrapping children eating mac and cheese at your elbow, hey, you’re on your own.

Dan Kennedy

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