Produce of the Week - Lemons
sponsored by Coleman Farms
I've recently spotted one or two curbside lemonade stands run, of course, by pre-teens whose enthusiasm outruns their business sense. These entreprenurial efforts are, I suppose, a traditional sign of Summer, yet their image is so Midwestern as to seem out of place in California. Lemons are like Geraniums - in the Midwest they're an exotic rarity, something which, together with the refreshment it offers in Midwestern heat, makes selling lemonade from a front yard a commercial proposition there. Here, if you want lemonade, you don't have to look far for the lemons.
From about the end of the First War until the Sixties, Santa Barbara county was one of the world's major exporters of lemons; lemon groves stretched from Mission Creek by Constance Ave. nearly to Ellwood. They're much diminished now, but the warm but not hot climate of the lower areas along the coast, together with the fog and sea air, apparently are conducive to top quality lemons, so there has been a recent increase in lemon acreage, noticible on western Cathedral Oaks Rd. as well as between the Rincon and la Conchita.
Like last week's fruit, Lemons have a wide range of uses in cooking. They can be used as a condiment, the juice neutralising the 'fishy' flavor found in some fish, or otherwise enhancing dishes as different as seafood cocktails and fruit salad. In the latter, the antioxidant properties of citric acid - the sour factor of lemon juice - also prevent fruit such as apples and pears from browning where cut (though a really sharp knife also helps considerably). The juice, or water acidulated with lemon juice, can be used in this way to prevent fruit and other susceptible produce - potatoes, for example - from discoloring if the time between preparation and cooking is lengthy. The acid in lemon juice makes it a suitable substitute for vinegar in such things as salad dressing or on certain cooked vegetables. A cabbage-based salad dressed with lemon rather than vinegar shakes off any trace of Gallo-Germanic stolidity and assumes a flirtatious Mediterranean guise.
Apart from its flavoring properties, lemon juice is useful in marinades since the acid acts as a tenderizer. An extreme of this use is found in ceviche and sashimi where the lemon (or other citrus) juice both tenderizes the thin sliced fish and 'cooks' it by inhibiting microbial action and probably neutralizing the enzymes in the flesh.
There's more to a lemon than juice, though. Besides sourness, aroma is probably the most special thing about a lemon. This comes mainly from the 'zest' or outer peel, which contains little capsules of essential oil. This oil figures largely in many cooked dishes containing lemon, whether it be baked goods - pie, cookies, biscotti - in marmalade, or dishes using lemon as a component of a sauce, such as the pasta recipe we give a link to, or the complex stews of the Arab world and Persia. The entire lemon is so important in these cuisines that lemons (and limes) are preserved either by salting or by drying to be available year round.
One of the major failures of agromarketing is the use of fungicides to prevent spoilage of citrus during storage and transport. A mouldy lemon is useless in the kitchen, but as a thing I find it less objectionable than a lemon steeped in fungicide, which smells like the nastiest kind of petroleum derivative and whose peel will similarly contaminate any drink or dish it contacts. This is a good reason to be skeptical of supermarket lemons.
Facts and Food
photo courtesy of Wikipedia.org