When Life Gives You a Lemon Tree

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When life gives you a lemon tree, you might have to get a little more creative. Lemonade gets old after the hundredth glass, so each winter, when citrus is ripe, you may need to diversify into other citrusy products; anything you can do to deal with the tangy bucket of fruit that’s just been dropped on your doorstep. What does one do with seasonal produce? Even if you don’t grow them yourself, seasonal goods are far cheaper, likely much more local, and taste better because they are in season. How can you personally make the most of a feast-or-famine situation?

This is more than a hypothetical question for us. When we first moved to California, we bought a dwarf Meyer lemon tree to celebrate our relocation to the Fruit Eden that is the San Francisco Bay area. We put it in a pot, pretty much leave it alone, and it gives us 15-20 lemons each winter. It’s just the magic of what was once the Valley of Heart’s Delight, the world’s largest fruit producing region, which we now call Silicon Valley. And no, we didn’t know until our first batch of lemons that, while some species produce year round, most citrus peaks in late winter or early spring.

This year, we compounded the issue by visiting a friend who has some citrus trees planted and was handing fruit off to whomever would take them. We generously offered to take some off her hands, “You gonna eat that?” style. You know how sometimes your eyes are bigger than your stomach? Soon after, when we took a look at the 50 or so lemons we had to deal with, we knew it was time to get serious about our food preservation.

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Umm, help?

Food preservation comes in may forms, whether you’re drying, pickling, freezing, or canning, but each method has the same intent: to convert spoilable food into something that can be stored for longer without loss of flavor or nutrition. Some of the procedures are better suited for different applications – you won’t see us burying the lemons in the ground, but we’re just crazy enough that we might do that with cabbage to make traditional kimchi (don’t tell our landlord) – but people have been dealing with preservation for eons, and, historically, it’s been easier to preserve food than to ship it, so we have the benefit of culinary experience to choose our methods.

Food preservation has been around since, well, food has been around. Those who lived in frigid climates could freeze their food. The peoples in desert areas could dry their food in the sun and wind. Fermentation was likely an accidental discovery, but some anthropologists believe that it inspired mankind to cultivate grain for beer all the way back in 10,000 BC. Pickling preserves food with acid instead of alcohol and has been around for nearly as long as fermentation. Even advanced storage methods like canning have been around for over two centuries. People all over the world and all across history use salt or smoke to dry and preserve food; it’s obvious when we eat bacon or sausage, but it’s theorized that even the earliest sushi was raw fish preserved using salt.

The best preservation methods actually enhance the food being preserved, which is a great reason to try a variety of techniques to save your seasonal food. Here are some of the things we did with our lemon bounty:

Lemon curd

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It's yellow from the lemons. And vast amounts of butter.

[recipe]

While the name sounds like a description of the color and texture of last month’s milk that sat hidden in the back of your fridge, lemon curd is a great choice when you’re looking for something fancy to make. It’s moderately difficult, but not ridiculous; it still tastes awesome even if you mess it up, and it’s always, always better when fresh than what you can find in the store. Eat it on any bread product – the english muffins we made in the picture are perfect for this. Mix it into plain yogurt, fill a tart with it, dunk a cookie in it or fill a doughnut hole (bomboloni). Lemon curd uses some of the zest of the lemon, but mostly its juice; it therefore goes hand in hand with:

Limoncello

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Limoncello: a "digestive assistant"? Just go with it.

[recipe]

Soak lemon zest or peels (but no pith!) in vodka. Drink. Wait until you can handle a knife again. Repeat. OK, it’s a little more complicated than that – there’s a week-long infusion period, then you remove the peels and add simple syrup – but that’s it, and the result is shockingly good. You can use it in any cocktail that calls for citron or lemon vodka, but we like it neat or with selzer water. We don’t know how long it can keep – years, probably – because, in our house, it’s gone in one month.

Lemon-infused olive oil

This is one we do all the time, no recipe required. If you make a dish that uses the juice of the lemon, just peel the citrus first and throw the peels in enough oil to cover them. You’ll get the max flavor from the peels in around a week, but you don’t even really have to remove them. You can cook with this oil, but the heat can do funny things to the flavor – it’s best as a finishing oil for salads, in a vinaigrette, in hummus or pesto. You can find lemon olive oil in the store (for a buck or so above plain olive oil, of course), but why not just make some for free dollars and free cents more?

Meyer lemon and vanilla bean marmalade

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Gotta stock up. Winter's coming.

[recipe]

One of the nice things about lemons is that the bright, citrusy flavor they have works well in sweet, salty, and bitter applications. This is a new one to us: we like to can things, as it’s a great way to preserve almost anything, but it works best for items that can withstand, or are enhanced by, being heated. Marmalade is traditionally made with the peel – including pith – and juice of citrus, and, as unusual as a “bitter jelly” is, it’s one of those things that has passed the test of time.

Preserved lemons

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Preserved lemons. Pretty obvious way to preserve a lemon.

[recipe]

Where marmalade is sweet and bitter, preserved lemons are salty. That’s because they’re lemons… wait for it… in salt. You can add other spices, like coriander, fennel, pepper, cinnamon, and so forth, but it’s not required. All you need is the salt – over time, the salt pulls the juice out of the lemons, making an acidic brine that kicks the butt of any bacteria or fungus that wants to spoil the day.

The result will be salty, but a quick rinse will get most of the brine off. Chop them up and add them to Moroccan dishes, pasta sauce, marinades, or set them on fish or chicken as they grill or roast.

Lemon juice

It’s worth noting that the juice of the lemon is itself acidic enough to last for quite some time. While the peel will get moldy off of the tree, you can just juice extra lemons and stick it in the fridge for months. Whenever you need bright or tangy flavors, toss it in, and away you go. If push comes to shove, well, you can always just add simple syrup for a nice winter’s mug of lemonade.

Preserving your food allows you to take seasonal produce at its peak of flavor and transform it into something that will last through the lean months. You know exactly what goes into your food, which is always a good thing. As a bonus, you can make your food even more flavorful and ready to eat at a moment’s notice. Cooking is simple when you prepare the ingredients six months in advance and just pop open a can when you’re hungry.

Traditional methods of preservation have lasted because they capture and enhance the best qualities of fresh food for the off season. All it takes to make the most of your produce is an afternoon or two of work – which is paid back when that produce jumps up in price four times when it’s shipped in from South America. Besides, it tastes better than store-bought preserves or food that requires a passport; your taste buds will thank you for the effort.

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Good thing we've got a year before the next harvest.

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