Sunday, April 23, 2006

Adventures in Ingredients -- Meyer Lemons

Since I started obsessively paging through cooking magazines like Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Saveur, and Cooking Light a few years ago, I have seen many references to Meyer lemons. Often they are suggested in lieu of the more widely available Eureka lemons; occasionally they are mandated. I have never taken the magazines up on the suggestion, nor the mandate, simply because I couldn’t find the fruit at my usual marketing haunts. But so often were the Meyers recommended that they began to take on a mythical status in my mind – an ingredient revered by recipe writers and food editors, an ingredient that would make an ordinary dish sublime.

Last week over dinner at Crispo my friend Jessica let it slip that a pal of hers in California had sent her a box of ten Meyer lemons. In fact she used a few of them in the pie she made me recently. Sadly, the lemons had all been used… or so Jessica said. As we left Crispo I spotted Balducci’s across the street and, we went in on a hunch that the renowned food emporium would carry the coveted citrus. Lo and behold, there were the Meyer lemons – my first sighting in the flesh! I was surprised by the sunny orange rind and the softness of the fruit. Jessica graciously bought two for me and I took my bounty home to contemplate what to cook.

According to Splendid Table, the Meyer lemon is a hybrid fruit – a cross between a lemon and an orange or a mandarin orange. The fruit originated in China and was brought to North America in 1908 by Frank Meyer, a plant explorer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Today the fruit grows primarily in California with a peak season of November through January, but often extending until April.

So I got my hands on the Meyers just in the nick of time. Now, how to take advantage of the treasures? After a search on Epicurious, I chose the Meyer Lemon Buttermilk Pudding Cake, which had positive reader reviews and called for 1/3 cup Meyer lemon juice. I sliced one of the lemons horizontally, my knife easily sliding through the soft rind. If I hadn’t known better, I would have sworn I was about to juice an orange, for the flesh was even more orange than the rind. I smelled the fruit, and was rewarded with the frangrance of orange sherbet. A quick slurp of the juice confirmed my initial impressions. The Meyer tasted sweeter than a typical lemon – more like a sour orange or even a grapefruit. The Meyer lacked the straightforward, tangy kick of its yellow cousin, but released instead a subtler flavor that shifted in my mouth.

The Meyer Lemon Buttermilk Pudding Cake was tasty – but did it do justice to the elusive Meyer lemon? Or, put another way, did the Meyer lemon do justice to the cake? I’m not sure. I almost thought the cake would taste better with the zing of a regular lemon. But, I’m not ready to abandon Mr. Meyer’s lemon yet. Now that I know where and when to find it, I will continue to experiment with the food editors’ favorite fruit.

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