But springtime is lemon.
Think of any food at its peak now and chances are it goes better with lemon: asparagus and artichokes, soft-shell crabs and wild salmon, strawberries and rhubarb. Whether as just a squeeze of fresh juice or in a complete metamorphosis into hollandaise, lemon is the one taste that lifts and separates the seasons, from the stodginess of winter to the promise of summer.
Few supermarket shoppers probably ever associate lemons with seasonality, since they’re as omnipresent as onions in the produce aisle, with almost as long a shelf life.
According to Sunkist, California produces 95% of the nation’s crop, in two growing cycles, and that bounty is naturally on display year-round.
But while lemons are always with us -- and always useful -- they take on a particular power in spring. A lemon mayonnaise is the first thing I want to dip my first artichoke leaves of the season into. A lemon sabayon (the French version of zabaglione) is the best thing I want over my first strawberries.
Lemons also have a unique ability to ratchet up flavor, particularly in produce that isn’t quite at the peak of ripeness. An Italian friend taught me some years ago that lemons could transform strawberries that were a little on the hard, tart and cottony side: Marinate slices for an hour or so with a little juice and sugar and you edge them closer to sweet irresistibility.
Double the pleasure
What makes lemons so potent is their dual identity: The zest and the juice each has its own flavor and can be used in myriad ways. With ginger, you have one option. Lemons double the pleasure. The juice is a very direct taste. But by adding the grated peel to a cake batter or a mayonnaise, you intensify the lemony aspect through the fragrant oil in the rind. (If you’re cooking with the zest, grate it at the last minute because the volatile oils dissipate fast. The Microplane grater, which shaves off tiny wisps with no effort, works best. An old-fashioned box grater gives more texture, but is a risk to the knuckles.)
Surprisingly for a product of the light season, lemon has a real affinity for fat. It teams up well with oil, olive or nut, in a vinaigrette, a mayonnaise or especially an aioli. The classic sauce of Provence is just garlic, egg, lemon and olive oil, emulsified into a dipping sauce you can serve with shellfish, artichokes or new potatoes. Increase the juice and add zest for an extra-lemony version.
And lemon really blends with butter. Juice, zest and butter melted together are all you need for steamed clam bliss or asparagus nirvana. Lemon zest can also be used to make a compound butter to melt over grilled tuna.
All spring herbs seem to like lemon, especially chives and dill but tarragon too. Those three plus a little parsley make a great addition to a warm potato salad, especially with pancetta or bacon. Even chicken tastes more like spring with lemon. The old Marcella Hazan trick of roasting a bird whole with two whole toothpick-perforated lemons stuffed inside works magic -- the citrus perfumes the flesh and juices it up too.
While lemons seem forbiddingly tart, the pulp is actually just invigorating. Cut away the rind and the bitter membranes and you get something not much more acidic than a blood orange or a lime. Chunks of the flesh are an ideal accent for sauteed veal -- the kind raised humanely and naturally -- with chopped parsley, brown butter and lots of capers. The same dish made using pan-fried sole is that French classic Grenobloise.
Unlike the seasonings of other seasons, lemon does just as well in desserts as in savory courses. Lemon curd or sabayon is the prettiest pool for more berries to lie on. And lemon granita is one of the easiest spring sweets: Partially freeze a syrup made from lemon juice, zest, sugar and water in a metal pan, then scrape it up and refreeze repeatedly until you get a sweet-tart, flaky mixture.
A butter cake flavored with lemon and glazed with more lemon (juice and zest) is the perfect platform for macerated strawberries.
While the relatively exotic Meyer lemons are increasingly turning up in markets, two types dominate: Eureka and Lisbon. The former is from an Italian seed brought to the Los Angeles area in the 1850s; the latter apparently originated in Portugal but was introduced in California by way of Australia in the mid- to late 19th century. (Historians tend to differ on the dates.) The two varieties are so similar that only farmers markets seem to bother to differentiate between them.
I pick lemons depending on how I’m going to use them. If I want mostly zest, for a cake or cookies, I look for lemons with the thickest skins. If I want serious juice, I just squeeze. The greater the give, the juicier the lemon.
Either way, lemons are like eggs and butter: I’m almost never caught without them in my refrigerator. With a lemon or two you’re halfway to a pasta sauce with cream and prosciutto, or a pasta salad with smoked salmon and dill, or watercress with lemon vinaigrette or even an egg-drop soup. Lemons will keep for weeks in a plastic bag in one of those otherwise useless crisper drawers.
In the last few years, preserved lemons have become the new sun-dried tomatoes of trendy menus. They have their appeal, but to those of us who like our pleasures fleeting, there’s nothing like the fresh ones to punctuate the season.