PLYMOUTH, Mass. - Lemons get a bad squeeze. Think about it: Why is a clunker of a car called a lemon? Why isn't it called a kohlrabi? Or a kumquat? Who eats those things anyway? Who even knows what they are? "Hey, Bob. How's the new car?"
"Terrible. It's a real kumquat!"
Works for me. I'm starting a campaign.
Lemons are beautiful. They're the color of the sun on a July day. They are versatile. Half a lemon rind ground up in the kitchen sink garbage disposal makes it fresh as spring. A few grates of lemon zest adds pizazz to salad dressings. And a world without lemon meringue pie? Unthinkable.
And what's a hot summer day without a tall, frosty glass of tart lemonade?
I'll never forget the glass of lemonade that saved my life, or so I thought at the time. It was during my late teens while spending a few months hitchhiking through Europe.
This particular day I was working my way down Italy's famous Amalfi Coast.
It was blisteringly hot and I had been waiting for a ride for hours and had the thirst of a camel. Finally, a kindly Italian couple picked me up.
They didn't speak a word of English, and I was as fluent in Italian as I was in Serbo-Croatian. That didn't stop my new friends from talking to me as I tried to get some rest in the back seat.
We finally pulled into a delightful seaside restaurant outside Positano.
Lemonade. That's what I wanted, just lemonade.
All down the Amalfi Coast, among the stucco, pastel-painted homes were lemon groves where the heavy, golden fruit hung on the trees like hundreds of Japanese lanterns.
I guzzled the first icy glass quicker than I could say grazie, ordered another, and after so many slices of anchovy pizza, had one more. Never did anything taste so good. I was alive again. Refreshed.
My other great lemon awakening was years later under far more favorable conditions in Morocco. It was at the unspeakably beautiful La Mamounia Hotel in Marrakech. The main entree at dinner was a traditional tagine.
Among the succulent pieces of lamb, were quinces, raisins, dates, vegetables, almonds, and a blend of aromatic spices. Most surprising, to me, were golden wedges of salty, silky lemons that brought a tartness to the sweetness of the stew.
Next day, while strolling through one of the many souks, I saw barrels of preserved lemons, and found that they are indeed an indispensable ingredient in the cuisine of North Africa. And more recently I discovered, as have many cooks in the West, that they make a wonderful addition cooked with most any stew, or simply used as a simple condiment.
Lemon Pepper Chicken
There are many interpretations of Lemon Chicken. I like this because it's very lemony and spiced with plenty of black pepper. Don't skimp on the salt, it tones down the tartness of the lemon.
4 skinless, boneless breasts of chicken, halved (about 2 pounds)
1-1/2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1-1/2 sticks cold butter, cut into small pieces
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1-1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 lemon, thinly sliced
Place chicken breasts between waxed paper or plastic wrap. Pound them with a rolling pin or small skillet until they are about 1/2-inch thick. Season chicken with the salt.
Heat olive oil in a large sautee pan over medium-high heat. When hot, add chicken and cook about 3 minutes on each side.
Transfer chicken to a large, warm serving platter.
Without cleaning, heat the sautee pan over high heat. Whisk in butter, lemon juice, and pepper. Cook for about 1 minute, whisking constantly.
Pour sauce over chicken. Garnish with lemon slices.
Serve with a simple green salad and French bread.
Preserved Salted Lemons
This recipe is a wonderful accompaniment to any Middle Eastern or Moroccan dish and is especially fine with spicy meat stews. Use Meyer lemons if available; they are milder, jucier, and have very thin skins.
6 juicy, ripe lemons, scrubbed well
1/4 cup kosher or sea salt
1 cinnamon stick, snapped in half
6 whole cloves 6 whole peppercorns 1 bay leaf Extra lemon juice as needed
1 pint pickling jar, sterilized
Put one tablespoon of the salt into the bottom of the jar. Trim tops and bottoms of lemons and cut them into quarters. Sprinkle salt on the exposed flesh. Firmly press lemons into the jar, packing down tightly as you go, adding the spices and more salt evenly between layers. If there is not enough juice to cover the lemons, add more until the lemons are completely covered.
Seal jar and shake thoroughly.
Leave the lemons on the counter at room temperature for three to four weeks, shaking the jar each day to distribute the juices.
Rinse the lemon wedges thoroughly before using. A thin, white, lacy film may appear on lemons over time. This is completely harmless. Simply rinse it off for aesthetic reasons. Preserved lemons can be kept refrigerated for up to a year. The salted juice may be reused or drizzled into a salad dressing.