Down to earth – life could give you Meyer lemons

(Originally published February 4, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life.)

It isn’t my intention to brag but right this minute there are no less than five ripe lemons on my Meyer lemon tree, four of them hanging from a single bowed branch tip. It’s a bumper crop this year — we have already used two — and I wish I could share the wealth. Instead I’ll just tell you that if I can grow this fruit indoors, so can you. And I’ll follow that statement with a couple of reasons why I think you should.

A perfectly ripe Meyer lemon waiting to be turned into ice cream...Number one, you don’t have to love lemons to think that this one is delicious. Whatever it is in lemons that makes my face implode in an agony of tartness is almost missing from this species. Meyers, thought to be a cross between a lemon and an orange, are much sweeter and less acidic than an everyday lemon. And although they can be used for normal things like lemonade, squares, and garnish, a quick internet search will result in a stack of gourmet recipes from savory root vegetable roasts to custardy desserts.

Some sources credit Martha Stewart for popularizing cooking with Meyer lemons but I suspect Alice Waters of Chez Panisse had something to do with it too. Or maybe I only think that because my chef has made the Meyer lemon relish from her cookbook, The Art of Simple Food, on several scrumptious occasions. Part of what makes Meyer lemons extra special and particularly necessary for a recipe like Waters’s relish is that their yolk-orange rind is edible, nearly pithless, and delicious. But the rind is also why they are expensive and hard to come by: it’s too thin to protect the fruit during shipping.

So number two, if you want a Meyer lemon for a recipe (and are reluctant to pay dearly for the pleasure) you’ll have to grow it yourself. Many of our local nurseries sell good-sized plants, or you could start small with a cutting from Logee’s Greenhouses in Danielson, Connecticut (They do mail-order but I recommend taking the hour-long trip.) They’ll start flowering and fruiting young.

Meyer lemons need all the sun they can get in the winter — your sunniest south-facing window — and will be perfectly happy in temperatures that hover near or below the 60º mark at night. They prefer to be potted in unglazed terracotta so that oxygen reaches their roots, but mine survives in plastic. They also require well-drained soil, and to be drenched when the soil is dry to the touch, but shouldn’t sit for long in a saucer of overflow. Come summer, move your plant outside into shade for a week or two, then morning sun. I’m sorry to say that all citrus species are prone to scale insects, mealy bug, and an unpleasant sooty mold. But none of these will be horribly disfiguring or fatal if you periodically pick off the bugs (scale is why I grow fingernails) and give the plant a bath.

Fragrant flowers that start opening in winter and continue intermittently through the summer are a real bonus. They also present us with the best challenge: they need pollinating to produce fruit. When bees are scarce, I use a soft watercolor paintbrush to dab dusty anthers of one flower and the receptive pistil of another. An attention to detail that can pay off bountifully nearly a year later. Such a slow ripening allows plenty of time to do a thorough recipe search. Even though it’s the middle of a shivery winter, my chef and I have finally decided that when life gives us these lemons, he should make Meyer lemon cardamom ice-cream. The recipe I found calls for five exactly.

(Z has assembled all of the ingredients for the ice cream recipe but hasn’t attempted it yet. Maybe tonight!)

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