Lemon lover knows how very sweet it is

June 09, 1996|By Christopher Idone | Christopher Idone,UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE

Lemons were the basis of my first business venture -- a lemonade stand. Like so many kids, my brothers, sister and I would set little wooden chairs and a small table under a maple tree in front of our house with a big cardboard sign printed in pale, mint-green crayon that read "LEMONADE 5 CENTS." Our overhead was a galvanized bucket full of ice, a set of tall glasses and a white enameled pitcher with spout and handle outlined in cobalt blue filled with sweetened lemon juice and water that our mother had prepared.

There were no plastic straws and no plastic glasses in those days, nor was lemonade frozen and pink. My younger brother filled the glass with ice, my sister poured, and my second oldest brother and I would hawk to passing cars.

As kids we ate lemons on many occasions. We enjoyed lemon meringue pie for dessert and lemon curd when we visited our grandmother. We squeezed lemon juice on fish, and my mother had it with her tea. My father would make a salad by squeezing a half lemon and olive oil over a mass of greens.

Lemons have been with us all along. We know from the tomb paintings in the Valley of the Kings that the Egyptians had lemons, as well as dates, figs, bananas and pomegranates. In a country where trees were scarce, lemon trees were venerated in temple orchards and in the gardens of kings and princes. The Greeks were blessed with not only the olive tree but also the lemon tree to cure and clean, as well as to preserve, decorate and enliven their food.

The Romans took the lemon from Greece and planted it in France, Spain, Portugal and North Africa. When the Moors took over most of Spain in the eighth century, they planted lemon orchards throughout Andalusia and lined the paths and doorways of the grand palaces.

In the 16th century, the Spaniards carried lemons along with their saplings of figs, apricots, pear, oranges and apples to the New World. In the suburbs of Mexico City, Cortez divided his famous walled garden with shady walks of lemon and orange trees. In the Spanish church gardens of St. Augustine, Fla., walls made of concrete and sea shells protected the delicate date, fig, pomegranate, orange and lemon trees.

Today lemon trees thrive in backyard gardens from San Diego to San Francisco. When they bloom, their scent is fragrant and heady, their flower as white as moonlight. Commercial California orchards supply 80 percent of the lemons consumed throughout the country.

The lemon is delightfully versatile. Without thinking about it, we buy one or two along with a bunch of parsley -- sometimes before even deciding what we might be cooking for dinner. Sometimes lemon juice is incorporated into a dish during the early stages of preparation, and sometimes it is added after cooking.

Lemon juice freezes well, so save the juice when you have squeezed too much. When you have enough, make a souffle, sorbet, tart or curd. Even the zest is often an integral part of a recipe and should never be tossed away.

The smart cook adds some lemon juice to brighten a sauce, add piquancy to a marinade, and season a mayonnaise. He may also wrap the oily lemon leaves around fish when grilling to keep it moist. The baker fills pie shells with silken, sweet and tart lemon cream, melts the juice with sugar to glaze a cake, and preserves the peel to add delicious perfume to desserts.

The English have a particular fondness for the lemon. They add the juice to butter to spread on tiny cucumber sandwiches, which they serve with their tea. They also slice lemons thin and layer them on dense wheat bread to eat with oysters or smoked salmon, often accompanied by a glass of chilled, dry white wine.

The lemon lover likes the flavor of puckery citrus to shine through his desserts as much as the chocoholic wants the sensation of luxurious, rich chocolate to underscore his sugar. One taste is light and tangy, the other rich and earthy. Though rarely paired, candied lemon dipped in melted chocolate is an exquisite combination.

A bit of juice in fruit salads or a squeeze over strawberries or raspberries with a bit of sugar intensifies the flavor and excites the palate.

The good barman rubs a bit of the zest around a martini glass if the imbiber requests a twist.

Lemons help disguise the taste of bad water, suppress the sweetness of cola, enliven the flatness of root beer, and make beer taste dryer. For his part, the diner sprinkles the juice over clams, oysters, a piece of fish, a salad, or a slice of ripe melon. Lemon is like salt -- it brings out the flavors of food.

Mrs. Teddy Donahue's lemon cake

Serves 10

1 box Duncan-Hines Lemon Supreme cake mix

one 3 1/2 -ounce box Jell-O instant lemon pudding

1/4 cup lemon juice

4 eggs

1/2 teaspoon lemon extract

2/3 cup canola oil

GLAZE:

1/4 cup lemon juice

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

1/2 teaspoon lemon extract

1 cup confectioners' sugar

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare the cake: In the bowl of an electric mixer, add the cake mixture and instant pudding and set aside.

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