I wonder which came first, summer or the lemon? The two are inextricably entwined through refreshing drinks, tart desserts, and casual cooking. Some say lemons are good for you, but most of us just enjoy them for what they bring to the party.
Sliced, juiced, wedged for squeezing, or grated for their zest, lemons can be used either fresh or cooked in countless recipes. Famous, along with limes, for rescuing the British navy from scurvy, lemons have become one of the most widely used flavorings around the globe.
It’s said that lemons came from India and then entered Europe through sunny Italy as early as the second century but were not widely grown until the 1400s. Christopher Columbus brought lemon seeds to the new world in 1493 and they’ve been an American favorite ever since.
Always-welcome lemonade has long been the beverage of choice for picnics, front porch chats, and as a product for young entrepreneurs. Even today’s media-enthralled kids find the time to set up an old-fashioned lemonade stand when the hot weather hits.
Lemonade recipes are all over the map, depending on how lemoney you like it and the calibration of your sweet tooth. A good place to start is with 6 cups of water, 1 cup of sugar, and 1 cup of lemon juice. Bring a cup of the water and the sugar to a simmer to make a simple syrup, otherwise the sugar might sink to the bottom undissolved. Let the syrup cool, add the lemon juice and the rest of the water, and give it a try. Depending on the fruit, more lemon or sugar may be needed. Remember: the ice will dilute it a little. Garnish with lemon slices, and serve cold.
If you’re making a lot, there’s no shame in using frozen lemon juice. The flavor will still be way ahead of the pre-mixed stuff.
Lemonade is great right out of the pitcher, but enhancements, like raspberry puree (my favorite), are welcome. Whirl up a basket of raspberries in a blender (save a few for garnish), and then pass them through a sieve. Add the puree to the lemonade and garnish with some whole berries. A few sprigs of mint will compliment the lovely color.
For the grownups, you can add a little kick to lemonade. Vodka is a natural as is tequila and a nice herbal gin works well too.
Right about now, when my craving is coming to a peak, lemon’s best buddy, blueberries, are coming into season. Just about any baking or dessert category can benefit from having blueberry-lemon as a prefix: muffins, cake, bars, bread, scones and and even french toast. Tessa Arias has an original recipe for Lemon Blueberry French Toast Casserole (which can double as a bread pudding) on her site, Handle the Heat.
Lemons are grown around the globe as well as in and Florida and California. India, Mexico, China, Argentina, and Brazil account for more than half the world-wide crop.
Right now, lemons are in short supply. The coastal California crop that usually ripens in summer is down due to the exceptionally hot weather. Chile and Mexico which usually fill in the summer lemon lull are down too – as much as 50%. The shortage should ease in September or October. In the meantime, be prepared to pay more.
Beyond baked goods and drinks, lemons are an essential cooking ingredient. A spritz of bright lemon acidity dresses almost every piece of fish I’ve ever eaten, fried, broiled, or sauteed.
Chicken has a special affinity for lemons. I always squeeze a few wedges over a bird before roasting and then stick the juiced rinds in the cavity. A few cloves of garlic and a handful of fresh herbs round out the flavors.
I’m eager to try a recipe for lemon chicken thighs that I just found in the April issue of Bon Appetit Magazine. (Yes, I’m that far behind on my reading.) It’s a quick saute of the thighs (finished in the oven), jazzed up with charred lemons, honey, and Aleppo-style pepper (available at Penzey’s Spices in Norwalk).
The 18th century writer and scholar Sidney Smith once remarked that his remote Yorkshire cottage was “Twelve miles from a lemon.” These days, it seems we’re never that far, and a good thing too. It wouldn’t be summer without them.