Food Snob Chronicles — Meyer Lemons 101
Google ‘Meyer Lemon’ and you’ll get more than 2.95 million returns. That’s a far cry from the 300-500 returns of just 10 years ago. What makes the increase especially interesting is that Meyer Lemons are just barely more commercially available now than they were then — which is not much.
Why the increase in popularity? Meyer Lemons became en vogue a few years back, showing up in jellies, jams, olive oils, soaps and lotions. But I also believe the spike in popularity is because more people are growing their own.
First things first
Of all citrus trees, the Meyer Lemon is one of the hardiest and easiest to grow. It is also extremely productive. It’s not a true lemon though. In fact, the mature fruit of the Meyer Lemon tree looks more like a large orange with a small nipple – which is fitting – since the Meyer Lemon is a natural hybrid of sweet orange and lemon (hence the X < in the botanical name). Compared with a true lemon, the Meyer Lemon also has very little pith and a much thinner skin.
A brief Meyer Lemon history
Introduced to the United States (from China) in the early 20th century, the Meyer Lemon was discovered by Frank N. Meyer, who was on assignment from the USDA as an agricultural explorer. Meyer was originally hired by the USDA as a gardener and worked his way up the bureaucratic ranks by studying flora in Mexico at his own expense. By the time his career was over, Meyer had introduced more than 2,500 plants to the U.S., including the ever-popular southern ‘Centipede’ grass variety.
The Improved Meyer Lemon is not something you’d concern yourself with when buying the fruit at a farmer’s market, but it is worth mentioning for people who want to grow it. In 1975, the University of California released virus-free Meyer Lemon trees to the citrus industry. Such was necessary because old-clone Meyer Lemons generally carried tristeza and tatter leaf viruses. In 1976, the California Department of Food and Agriculture ruled that propagation of non-improved Meyer Lemon trees should be stopped. Currently, when a legitimate nursery or citrus farm propagates Meyer Lemon trees through grafting techniques, it uses budwood that originated in the California Virus Free Budwood Program.
Lemon with an Orange tang
The easiest way to describe the flavor of a Meyer Lemon is that its tart like a lemon, with the tang of a sweet orange. It’s definitely sweeter than common Eureka or Lisbon lemons (both true lemons), but will still make you pucker.
Though true lemons are higher in sugars than their Meyer Lemon cousins, I have often found it necessary to reduce the amount of sugar for a recipe in which Meyer Lemons are being substituted.
How much sugar should you leave out? Well, that’s up to you, but I typically reduce it by 25 percent in pies (curds) and cakes. — When it comes to substituting Meyer Lemons for true lemons in main dish recipes (such as Meyer Lemon Piccata or the delicious creamy Meyer Lemon Pasta listed below), I usually substitute even-Steven.
How do I know that you can grow your own?
For about six years during the early 2000s, I operated an upstart dwarf citrus tree farm in northeast Texas. Funny thing is, when the Texas Dept. of Agriculture visited our facility for the purpose of issuing a nursery license, he let us know that citrus wouldn’t grow beyond the Rio Grande Valley (11 hours and 3 heat zones south of us). Really?
Within about three years, we’d shipped thousands of trees — including to every state north of Florida along the East Coast — with great success. Our trees were featured in Family Circle, the Associated Press (more than 120 newspapers) and on the ‘Regis and Kelly Show,’ to name a few.
If I had to guess how many trees we sold to Meyer Lemon-lovers in the Tri-State and Down East, I’d have to say at least 10,000. (The syndicated AP article came from a surprised and happy customer who lived on a mountain in Maine. He just happened to be an editor.)
The only real keys to growing your own Meyer Lemons are:
- Make sure the soil drains well (use sand/bark mixture).
- Elevate the potted tree above the drain tray (just place some stones in the tray).
- Leave it alone. Too much TLC is just bad.
Of course, there are some minor fertilizer requirements, which are easy enough. And you might have to move your tree to a bedroom or living area during the worst part of the winter. But, since Meyer Lemons are everbearing trees — fruit and/or blooms at all times — your house will smell like a citrus grove, which is a good thing.
Buying a Meyer Lemon tree
Trust me. You want a grafted Improved Meyer Lemon tree (not the rooted cuttings that occasionally show up at Lowe’s and Wal-Mart). Grafted trees have more cold hardiness and a better shape. Fruit production also increases on a tree that has been grafted.
If you live north of Florida, there is only one source for Improved Meyer Lemon trees (and several other varieties of Citrus) that I’d recommend. Stan McKenzie owns and operates McKenzie Farms in South Carolina. In addition to being an old friend of mine, he also happens to be one of the premier citrus tree grafters and purveyors in the U.S.
He’s also a really nice guy who finds pleasure in helping people.
That means, he’ll ship a tree right to your door for a reasonable price (a bargain, really) and answer any question you have. He’ll also offer up unsolicited advice that will help you get the most Meyer Lemon bang for your buck. Before you know it, you’ll be ‘friending’ Stan on Facebook and passing his name along to your friends. Yep. He’s that good.
If you are in Texas, Arizona, Florida or California your state laws prohibit Stan from shipping you a citrus tree. Talk to your elected officials about changing those (ridiculous) laws, or shoot Stan an email. If anyone knows of the good sources in those states, it’s Stan McKenzie.
By the way, if you tell Stan that I told you to call him ‘Outlaw,’ you might get a bonus (funny) story out of it. Whatever he tells you, though, I swear I was unaware of local laws and ordinances.
It’s rare, for me anyway, to incorporate lemons with a side dish. After all, lemons work in just about any cuisine and, because of that, generally get the centerpiece. Think about it … Lemon Chicken. Shrimp Scampi. Piccata. The dishes pretty much run the gamut — far beyond what I’ve featured. But, lemons also make a for a nice supporting cast, especially when the main dish — such as Garlicky Sun Dried Tomato Shrimp (listed below) — is savory.
I’ve made Meyer Lemon Pasta 15 different ways through the years — with Ricotta, heavy cream and Mascarpone. I’ve prepared it with a few herbs and I’ve also served it with artichoke hearts, asparagus, spinach and sugar snap peas. I finally decided that I needed to come up with a recipe and stick with it. The version below is similar to Jamie Oliver’s, but I prefer a dry white wine to thin out the sauce. Also, roasted almonds add a nice element.
Creamy Meyer Lemon Spinach Pasta
1 – Meyer Lemon*
1 cup – Mascarpone cheese**
1 tsp – Kosher salt
1 tsp – Dried Thyme
½ tsp – Freshly ground black pepper
1 lb – Pasta
8 cups – Fresh baby Spinach (9-10 oz. bag)
½ cup – Dry white wine
Chopped roasted almonds (optional)
In a medium-sized bowl, zest and juice Meyer Lemon. Add Mascarpone, salt, pepper and thyme. Mix well.
Boil pasta in salted water to the al dente stage. Drain.
Add pasta back to pan over low heat. Add Mascarpone mixture and fresh spinach. Stir gently until combined. (The spinach should begin to wilt fairly quickly.) Add wine to thin sauce somewhat. Stir until spinach is slightly cooked — about 3-4 minutes.
Top each serving with a small handful of chopped roasted almonds if desired. Serve immediately.
Serves 4 as a main dish, or makes about 6-8 side dishes.
* – Substitute 2 TB Lemon juice and 1 TB Orange juice — and 1 tsp (each) of zest
** – Substitute 4 oz. Cream cheese, 1/4 cup sour cream and 1/4 cup heavy cream
Garlicky Sun-Dried Tomato Shrimp
1 lb – Large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 TB – Extra virgin olive oil
2 – Garlic cloves, minced
2 TB – Sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil, chopped finely
1 tsp – Freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp – Dried Thyme
½ tsp – Dried red pepper flakes (optional)
½ cup – Dry white wine
2 TB – Butter (cold)
In a saucepan, heat olive oil to medium high. Add shrimp and stir-fry for about 30 seconds. (Shrimp will be partially pink at this point.)
Add minced garlic and stir-fry for another 30 seconds. Add sun-dried tomatoes, black pepper, Thyme and (if desired) red pepper flakes. Add wine.
Liquid should begin to boil fairly quickly. Once boiling begins, cook shrimp another minute, or so. Remove from heat. Add cold butter and swirl, until melted. Serve immediately.