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A&E >  Food

Meyer lemons balance blend of tart and sweet

There is nothing like the scent of Meyer lemons to lift us out of our winter doldrums.

In season from November through March, they bring a much needed cheeriness to the kitchen. To me, they are pure aromatherapy, never failing to boost my spirits when I slice one open. It’s one of my all-time favorite scents, one that stops me in my tracks, filling me with intense gratitude over the simple fact that I am able to smell.

A cross between a lemon and a mandarin orange, they are similar to lemons yet deliciously different. Their plump tender flesh tends to be juicier than regular lemons. And their flavor sets them apart as well: slightly sweet, less acidic with notes of honey, orange and blossoms.

“They are fragrant, have a lighter acidity, and are slightly sweeter than the common lemon, which makes them a very versatile and delicious fruit to use in my food,” said Italia Trattoria chef and co-owner Anna Vogel.

Because Meyer lemons are only here for a short time, Vogel features them whenever she can.

“I believe in using produce when it is at its best – and they are in season right now,” Vogel said. “We use Meyer lemons in butter sauces, relishes, lemon curds, stuffing for chicken or quail, and with fish dishes,” she said. “And I also like to confit Meyer lemons in olive oil, removing a little of its bitterness, while infusing the oil with its flavor at the same time.”

In Vogel’s recipe for grilled golden trout with Meyer lemon sauce, the trout is rubbed with olive oil, ground fennel seed, salt and pepper. It’s grilled whole until the skin is crispy, and served alongside roasted cauliflower and potatoes. A savory caper relish is made with the flesh of Meyer lemons and spooned atop the fish. And, on the side, there’s a buttery, tangy Meyer lemon sauce, balancing out the dish.

Meyer lemons originated in China and were predominantly cultivated as ornamental house plants until they were brought to the states in the early 1900s by agricultural explorer Frank Meyer. Named in his honor, they were produced in citrus growing regions of California, Florida and Texas, but their thin fragile skin made them impractical to distribute commercially. It really wasn’t until the 1990s that they began venturing out beyond their growing areas into the culinary world. Many credit Martha Stewart and Alice Waters for bringing them into to the limelight.

Use Meyer lemons as you do regular lemons whenever you want a burst of lemon flavor with a less acidic bite. Try them in baked goods and sweets like lemon bars, tarts, cakes or scones. Or use them in roasted or savory dishes for an unexpected twist.

In this recipe for roasted chicken with Meyer lemon and sumac, a whole chicken is quartered and rubbed with sumac and garlic. Meyer lemons are thinly sliced and placed in the bottom of the roasting pan with thyme sprigs strewn over top. This creates a base for the chicken to roast upon. The flavorful pan juices are spooned over the chicken before serving. Aromatic and zesty without being overly tart, the chicken is infused with flavor. If you only have a precious few and want to experience Meyer lemons to their fullest, use the juice in simple salad dressings, fresh-squeezed cocktails or sparkling Meyer lemonade, where their sweetness allows for less sugar.

In this Meyer lemon gimlet, homemade simple syrup infused with fresh thyme is added to gin and Meyer lemon juice. Shaken with ice and served up, it’s refreshing and delicious.

Be sure not to waste the incredible zest. When using the juice of Meyer lemons, zest them first, even if the recipe does not call for it, and save it for this easy Meyer Lemon Sea Salt, preserving their bright cheery flavor for days to come. Massage the zest and sea salt together, then spread out the mixture on a sheet pan, letting it dry in a warm oven set to the lowest temperature for 15 to 20 minutes. Let it cool and store it in a jar or salt cellar and use as a flavorful finishing salt. Meyer lemon zest can also be used to brighten up roasted vegetables like cauliflower or broccolini, or to finish pasta, risotto, fish and chicken dishes.

And a little tip: zesting right over your dish directly, before serving, sprays a fine mist of Meyer lemon oil all over your food (and your hands) and instantly adds flavor and aroma. For an immediate mood booster, rub your Meyer lemon misted fingertips on your temples or forehead and feel your tension melt away. Kitchen therapy.

Grilled Golden Trout with Meyer Lemon Sauce

From Anna Vogel of Italia Trattoria in Spokane

For the trout

4 whole trout

4 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons ground fennel seeds

1 tablespoon salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

For the butter sauce

2 Meyer lemons, zested and juiced

2 cups of Riesling

1 tablespoon finely chopped shallots

3 tablespoons heavy whipping cream

8 ounces of butter, cubed

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 pinches white pepper

For the caper relish

1 Meyer lemon, rind peeled

2 tablespoons capers

3 scallion stalks, chopped

4 tablespoons olive oil

3 pinches salt

1 pinch black pepper

For the roasted potatoes and cauliflower

1 whole cauliflower, cut into 2-inch florettes

2 pounds red potatoes, cut in wedges

1/2 cup parsley

1/2 cup oil

1 teaspoon of salt

3 pinches black pepper

For the trout: Set grill temperature to medium. Prepare trout by drying excess water and rubbing them with the oil, fennel and salt and pepper. Grill trout, taking care not to rotate them until they are no longer sticking to the grill. Turn only once, cooking about 10 minutes on each side until they reach a certain firmness. Place trout on a large platter, and keep them warm in the oven.

For the butter sauce: reduce the Riesling, lemon juice, zest and shallots in a nonreactive pan until mixture reduces to about 1/4 inch, then add cream and on low heat whisk in the all of the butter cubes. Season, and keep warm.

For the relish: saute scallions in hot oil for 10 seconds until soft, cool and mix with capers and lemon segments, olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

For the vegetables: roast potatoes in a 400-degree oven for about 10 minutes or until golden brown. Roast cauliflower for 10 to 15 minutes or until golden brown. Cool potatoes and cauliflower at room temperature, toss with parsley and season with salt and pepper. Serve along side the trout.

For serving: Spoon relish over the plated trout, and serve the butter sauce on the side

Serves: Four

Meyer Lemon and Thyme Gimlet

4 ounces gin

1 1/2 ounces Meyer lemon juice

1 1/2 ounces thyme simple syrup (or plain simple syrup)

Thyme simple syrup

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup sugar

Handful thyme sprigs

To make simple syrup, bring sugar, water and thyme to a low simmer in a small pot over medium heat. Stir until sugar is dissolved. Let sit 30 minutes or overnight for a more intense flavor. Strain. Cool.

In a cocktail shaker add ice, gin, Meyer lemon juice and simple syrup. Shake well. Pour into two small chilled glasses and garnish with sliced Meyer lemons or zest. Serve immediately.

Yield: Two

Roast Meyer Lemon and Sumac Chicken

5 to 6 pound whole chicken

2 Meyer lemons

1 tablespoon sumac

4 cloves garlic, finely minced

1 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon cracked pepper

1/8 cup olive oil

6 to 8 sprigs of fresh thyme

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Pat dry chicken. Remove backbone of chicken using kitchen scissors and cut chicken into 4 quarters. In a small bowl, mix garlic, oil, salt, pepper and sumac and juice from half a Meyer lemon (about 1/8 cup). Cut the remaining 1 1/2 lemons into 1/4-inch slices and spread out on a baking dish or sheet pan. Add a few springs of thyme over the lemon slices. Rub each piece of chicken, coating all sides well with the sumac marinade, and lay skin side up, over the sliced lemons and thyme. Roast in the middle of the oven for 45 to 55 minutes or longer, until chicken is cooked through, reaching 170 degrees in the thigh. If needed, broil for just a few minutes to crisp up skin. Let rest 5 minutes before serving. Spoon a little of the sauce from the pan over the chicken and garnish with fresh thyme sprigs.

Meyer Lemon Finishing Salt

1 cup sea salt

2 to 3 Meyer lemons

Preheat the oven to 150 degrees or lowest setting. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and pour the salt in the middle. Zest the lemons directly over the salt, and massage the zest into the salt with your finger tips. Spread the salt evenly around the pan and place in the oven. Bake for about 15 to 20 minutes until the salt feels dry and the zest dries. Let cool completely. Transfer to a jar or salt cellar. Use on popcorn, roasted vegetables, fish and pasta.

The Seasonal Kitchen is a monthly feature. Local chef Sylvia Fountaine writes about seasonal foods she’s making in her kitchen, sharing recipes and a passion for local foods. Fountaine is a caterer and former co-owner of Mizuna restaurant. She writes about home cooking on her blog, Feasting at Home,

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