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He’s counting his Meyer lemons before they’re picked

Times Staff Writer

While some people are house proud, I’d probably be better described as lemon happy. Right outside my kitchen window stands a Meyer lemon tree. It’s not too tall -- maybe 10 feet at most. Nor, to be honest, is it particularly beautiful. It’s slightly off balance, with an aspect that is more shrubby than sculptural.

But what fruit! The Meyer lemon has a taste that is like a combination of regular lemon and some other softer, sweeter citrus, such as orange or tangerine, with maybe a little of the brassy quality of a pink grapefruit. For me, this is the taste of winter in California.

And though I’ve always prized the fruit from my tree, this year I’ve gone completely around the bend, counting and hoarding lemons like Humphrey Bogart in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”

For years, I have nurtured my little Meyer tree as if it were some prized bonsai. The first several summers we lived in this house, it was terribly afflicted with whiteflies. So every other week, I’d go out with a sprayer full of insecticidal soap and wash off the leaves, one at a time.

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This babying has been repaid a hundredfold. What my Meyer lacks in eye appeal it more than makes up for in fecundity. Every year, the tree becomes so laden with fruit it sometimes seems the lemons outnumber the leaves. I can’t find enough ways to use them all. In fact, in late spring, I’ve taken to setting out boxes of the fruit at the curb, free to anyone passing by.

But there will be no lemon giveaways this year, I can promise you. Last summer I pruned my Meyer, a painful but necessary action. With improved air circulation and better exposure to sunshine, the tree’s future looks brighter and healthier. That’s good for both of us in the long term, but disastrous in the immediate. Decimated by the pruning, my normal bounty of fruit has become sparse.

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Hoarding the gold

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For the first time, I have to think seriously about how I’m going to use my Meyers. I have only 100 lemons on my tree (yes, an improbably exact number, but I have counted them twice). Using one of these to clean off the cutting board -- something I have always done without thought -- is out of the question. Even squeezing them over fresh fish seems profligate.

Like the old country song says: “You don’t miss water till the well runs dry.” There is nothing like sudden poverty to make you focus on what really matters. With only 100 lemons to last the season, I have to concentrate on what it is that makes Meyer lemons so special and how I can best cook to emphasize that.

Though we may think of the Meyer as having been discovered by the Chez Panisse crowd, it has been treasured by California foodies since shortly after its arrival at the turn of the 20th century. Granted, it was given a rebirth when Alice Waters and her crew adopted it as a signature ingredient back in the 1970s, but it was actually discovered in China -- the home of so many fine citrus fruits -- and brought back to the United States by a Department of Agriculture plant breeder named Frank Meyer (my father-in-law’s name, a coincidence?).

It was a wildly popular backyard fruit in the teens and ‘20s, but it was found to be a carrier of a virulent citrus disease with the operatic name tristeza and so was virtually eradicated. Almost all of the Meyers you’ll find today are from an improved, virus-resistant variety developed at UC Riverside in the 1950s.

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Meyers differ from common grocery store lemons -- predominantly the Eureka or Lisbon -- in a couple of ways. First, they look different. They are rounder, without the pronounced point at the blossom end that other lemons have. Their golden-orange peel is thinner and more delicate, with an almost baby-skin softness (at least until the end of the harvest, when it can get puffy and coarse). They are noticeably juicier: 40% juice by weight as compared with Eureka’s 30%.

But taste is the important thing. Meyers are sweeter and less acidic than other lemons, with a flavor that is much more nuanced.

While most lemons give a lightning bolt of acidity, Meyers are more like California’s soft, golden winter sunshine -- bright, yes, but not brutal.

Botanists lean toward a lineage for Meyers that includes either oranges or tangerines, and there’s evidence for that theory in the fruit’s flavor. As Harold McGee points out in “On Food and Cooking,” Meyer lemons share with most citrus the distinctive flavor notes given by the chemicals limonene (citrus) and pinene (pine), but also have a distinct whiff of thymol (thyme). The only other popular citrus with this herbal note is the tangerine.

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You’ll find traces of this in the juice, but as with most citrus, it’s most pronounced in the peel. Meyer skins are rich in oil and transmit the fruit’s distinctive floral quality well, so when cooking with them, I like to use preparations that emphasize that -- favoring fragrance over plain old tartness. The best way to do that is to simmer the zests in sugar syrup or cream. In just a short time you’ll start to smell that irresistible perfume.

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Nuances of taste

That’s the secret behind this granita, which perfectly captures that distinctive Meyer flavor. If you’ve ever wondered whether one variety of lemon could really taste all that different from any other, try this. It couldn’t be easier to make. You don’t even need an ice cream freezer -- because of its relatively high sugar content, the mixture will form a perfectly fine-grained slush just stirred with a fork.

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When these lemons are cooked with cream, the effect is slightly different. In this panna cotta, the Meyer stays in the background, waiting until the very end to assert itself. It rounds out the sweet, slightly green nuttiness of the pistachio without overwhelming it.

And if you really want to see what a Meyer can do with the flavor of butter, try using it in this lemon curd, which I make three or four times every winter. Rich and creamy with a perfect balance between lemon and butter, it can be used on scones or toast or, my personal favorite, as a filling for a tart.

Because of Meyer lemons’ relative lack of acidity, I don’t like to use them in savory dishes -- at least not by themselves. Make a vinaigrette with a Meyer lemon and you’ll find yourself admiring the nuance, but noticing that something important is missing. That something is zip. If you use a Meyer lemon this way, back it up with a little Champagne or Sherry vinegar.

If you don’t have a tree in your backyard (or a neighbor’s) and you don’t go to farmers markets, you may have a little trouble finding Meyer lemons. Though they are popular almost to the point of cliche in California restaurants, they have not been widely adopted by mainstream agriculture. Both Frieda’s and Melissa’s, Southern California-based specialty produce companies, supply them to some supermarket chains.

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But the surest way to acquire a Meyer lemon is to plant a tree. Fortunately, that’s not difficult. They’re widely available at nurseries, and I’ve even seen them at hardware stores. They grow easily, with hardly any care. You can even plant them in patio pots. A little water, some sporadic feeding (and, yes, the occasional leaf shampoo), and you’ll have Meyers for months. You’re best off waiting until spring to plant them, once the ground has warmed.

Just don’t take them for granted. Take it from me, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.*

Meyer lemons can also be ordered directly from Melissa’s, (800) 588-0151 or www.melissas.com, and Frieda’s, (800) 241-1771 or www.friedas.com.

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Meyer lemon granita

Total time: 40 minutes, plus freezing time

Servings: 6

Note: If you’ve ever wondered what’s so special about the Meyer lemon, taste this granita, which perfectly captures that character.

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1 1/2 cups water

1 1/2 cups sugar

2 tablespoons Meyer lemon zest (about 5 lemons)

1 cup Meyer lemon juice

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1. Heat the water and sugar just until clear, about 5 minutes. Add the lemon zest and remove from heat. Let the syrup steep for at least 30 minutes.

2. Stir in the lemon juice. Strain the mixture into a shallow 9-by-12-inch glass baking dish.

3. Freeze the mixture for an hour. Remove from the freezer and stir with a fork, breaking up any chunks of ice. Return it to the freezer. Repeat 4 or 5 times over the next 2 to 3 hours. Each time, the ice will be a little less liquid and will stick together more. When it is firm enough to hold a shape, it is done.

4. Try not to let the ice freeze solid. If it does, chop it into small pieces in the dish and grind it in the food processor. (The result will be lighter and fluffier and the flavor will not be as intense.)

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Each serving: 205 calories;

0 protein; 54 grams carbohydrates;

0 fiber; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat;

0 cholesterol; 1 mg. sodium.

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Meyer lemon curd tart

Total time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Servings: 8

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Note: This is an old favorite recipe. The tart filling is my idea of the ultimate curd, buttery and lemony in perfect balance. While the tart shell chills and bakes, make the curd.

Crust

1 1/4 cups flour, plus extra for

rolling

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1 tablespoon sugar

Pinch of salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, cut into small pieces, plus extra for preparing the pan

2 to 3 tablespoons ice water

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1. Combine the flour, sugar, salt and butter in a food processor or large bowl and cut them together until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. Add the water 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring constantly or processing until the mixture just begins to come together.

2. Remove the dough from the bowl and knead it lightly and briefly to make a smooth mass. Wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

3. On a well-floured work surface, roll out the dough into a circle about 11 inches in diameter. Roll the dough back onto the rolling pin and transfer it to a buttered 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Unroll the dough and gently press it into the pan. Trim the excess dough to 1 inch from the pan edges and fold the extra dough over itself between the pan and the dough rim to make a sturdier, taller edge. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

4. Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Prick the crust with a fork. Line the crust with a sheet of aluminum foil and fill it with rice, dried beans or pie weights. Bake the crust 10 minutes. Remove the foil and beans and bake until the crust is golden brown and firm, another 15 minutes.

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5. Remove the crust from the oven and cool to room temperature.

Curd

2 whole eggs

2 egg yolks

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1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup Meyer lemon juice

Zest of 1 Meyer lemon

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6 tablespoons cold butter,

cut in pieces

1. Beat the eggs, yolks, salt and sugar in a small saucepan until smooth and light colored.

2. Add the lemon juice, lemon zest and butter and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until butter melts, about 2 minutes.

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3. Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue cooking and stirring until the curd is thick enough that it coats the back of the spoon and when you draw your finger across the curd it leaves a definite track, about 5 minutes. The curd should be as thick as thick hollandaise. Pour it through a fine strainer into a chilled bowl.

4. Spoon the curd into the prepared crust and smooth the top with the back of a spoon. Refrigerate the tart for at least an hour to set the lemon curd.

Each serving: 342 calories; 5 grams protein; 31 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 23 grams fat; 13 grams saturated fat; 161 mg. cholesterol; 130 mg. sodium.

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Meyer lemon and pistachio panna cotta

Total time: 20 minutes, plus 8 to 10 hours chilling time

Servings: 4

Note: This recipe is adapted from pastry chef Nancy Silverton’s justly celebrated version made with bitter almonds. You can serve this as is, or it is very nice with sugared fruit, such as strawberries.

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1 1/2 cups whipping cream

3/4 cup milk

3 tablespoons sugar

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon chopped pistachios, divided

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Zest from 5 Meyer lemons

1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin

2 tablespoons cold water

Oil

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1. Combine the cream, milk and sugar in a saucepan and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes.

2. Combine one-half cup pistachios and the lemon zest in a food processor. Pour the heated cream mixture over the top and pulse 3 or 4 times to break up the pistachios. Transfer to a covered container and refrigerate 2 hours to infuse the flavors.

3. Place the gelatin in a large stainless steel mixing bowl. Pour the water over the gelatin, adding more water if necessary to moisten all of the gelatin.

4. Place the mixing bowl over a saucepan of barely simmering water and heat until the gelatin melts, about 30 seconds. Do not stir the gelatin, as it will scald on the sides of the mixing bowl. Turn off the heat and keep the gelatin warm.

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5. Using your fingers, lightly coat 4 (one-half-cup) ramekins with oil.

6. Bring the cream mixture to a simmer and pour it through a fine mesh strainer into the gelatin. Whisk to combine thoroughly, scraping the bottom of the bowl to free any gelatin that may have solidified there.

7. Divide the mixture evenly among the prepared ramekins and refrigerate for 6 to 8 hours. To unmold the panna cotta, run a thin knife around the side of each ramekin, dip the bottom in hot water for a few seconds and invert onto a plate. Sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon chopped pistachios.

Each serving: 478 calories; 8 grams protein; 20 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 43 grams fat; 22 grams saturated fat; 128 mg. cholesterol; 58 mg. sodium.

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