When life gives you lemons... the possibilities are endless. Rediscover this seasonal ingredient with chef O Tama Carey, plus get your mitts on four new recipes that all hinge on this glorious golden citrus.
By
O Tama Carey

23 May 2014 - 11:00 AM  UPDATED 2 Sep 2014 - 1:50 PM

Origins

Citrus trees are evergreen, meaning they retain green leaves year-round, and can bear fruit for most of the year, though the peak for lemons is in winter. The two main sour types, and those most common in Australia, are the Eureka and Lisbon. They’re similar in appearance and flavour, though you’ll find that the Lisbon is usually seedless and juicier.

Two of my favourite varieties are the Meyer lemon and lemonade fruit. The Meyer is thin-skinned, has a golden yellow glow, and a delicious subtle sweetness. Even sweeter is the lemonade fruit that tastes as though it’s had sugar injected into it, while still retaining a fresh tang. Both types have a shorter season and are less readily available commercially.

 

Cleaning and health

Lemons are extremely good for removing smells, especially when you have stinky chef hands, and they're also an efficient cleaning agent. One of my chores when working at Bistro Moncur in Sydney was having to clean the copper using a halved lemon and salt; a particularly arduous task (however, the lemon did make it sparkle).

Due to a high vitamin C content, lemons are vouched as a health booster for, among other things, the immune system. My nana, who makes a most excellent lemon tart, starts every morning with a glass of water that’s been sitting all night with half a cut lemon in it – a tradition I’d better start too, as I’m sure I’ll then live forever with excellent skin. And whose mum hasn’t fixed them a honey and lemon drink when they have a cold? I still make one when I’m feeling under the weather, although, nowadays, I add a shot of grappa to it.

 

When life gives you lemons…

Lemons are as suited to sweet as they are to savoury. I love the smell and the flavour of lemons and the way they impart my food with extra zest.

The juice is often used to season, but also works as a stabiliser when making emulsions, such as sauces, and can also prevent cut vegetables and fruits from oxidising. The zest is very important, comprising the thin outer layer of skin where the oil lives, and livens many dishes, especially Italian gremolata, which is traditionally sprinkled over osso buco. When cooking, look for opportunities to sprinkle a little zest into your dishes. I add it to my pork and veal meatballs, ricotta and pea fritti, and duck egg tagliolini. Plus, any spare bits of peel can be candied or even kept in sugar.

At Berta, we always have jars of preserved lemons on hand; the skin is excellent used in a butter, and we even keep the oft-discarded pulpy insides. With the seeds removed and then pureed, it becomes an excellent yet powerful seasoning that’s used in everything from mussels to aromatic salsa verde.

Lemon's flavour, to varying strengths and degrees, is also found in other vegetables and herbs, such as Asian lemongrass, the pungent, strong lemon verbena, and even a tuber, oca, which has a potato-like texture and lemony flavour. Lemon thyme must be mentioned, too, despite it being the only lemon-related thing that I don’t really like.

And we can’t speak of lemons without mentioning limoncello, a popular Southern Italian digestive originally made with Sorrento lemons. It has a lovely sweet flavour completely devoid of bitterness. We’ve made several batches at Berta and the trick to it is using slightly green lemons. Oh and I do love a whisky sour.

 

Lemon recipes

 

1. Meyer lemon, button mushroom, fennel and radicchio salad with Parmigiano-Reggiano

2. Nettle risotto with lemon and black pepper

3. Pork neck cooked in milk with lemon and sage (maiale al latte)

4. Lemon polenta cake with limoncello and citrus syrup

Lemon polenta cake
 

Photography by Benito Martin. Styling by Lynsey Fryers. Food preparation by Suresh Watson.

 

For a taste of O Tama Carey’s cooking, visit her at Berta restaurant in Sydney. Like Berta on Facebook, and follow the restaurant on Twitter and Instagram.

 

Read our interview with Tama. View previous The Seasonal Cook columns and recipes.