When Life Gives You Lemons

Aerial POV of two glass mixing bowls and a dinner plate. A small mixing bowl in the upper left corner contains lemon juice in the bottom, in the upper right, a medium mixing bowl holds squeezed out lemon husks, chopped and tossed with sugar,  and a small, red rubber scraper, and in the lower left corner, a dinner plate holds scattered lemon zest in a single, patchy layer.

Harvest Every Single Bit of Them

I used to say, “make margaritas,” because I thought it was funny, though honestly, tequila is just not my drink of choice, and I don’t really think of margaritas when I think lemons. Wouldn’t that be limes, anyway? Come to think of it, my favorite follow up to “I like my coffee like my…” was for a long time, also because I thought it was funny, “like my future, dark and bitter,” and while I definitely have my moments of exestential crisis, I’m just not as goth as my 12-year old self would have wanted you to believe.

But lemons! Liquid gold, every last bit, and my heart aches everytime my SO wanders past the colander or bowl or bag in which they await me to come up for air from the rolling crises of my life to get into my kitchen for #KitchenTherapy to process or otherwise use them and picks out one that’s starting to mold and tosses it in the compost bin. It’s the same unnecessary and tragic death that stabs me deep in the heart when you feel air pockets when you gently squeeze an avocado and know that cutting it open, you’ll only find the disappointment of rotting avocado that is not fit to eat, or worse, when you take a chance on an avocado that feels just a tiny bit underripe and cut it open only to find weird, spongy, odd-tasting avocado that will never live to it’s creamy potential now that you’ve opened it up prematurely, a simultaneously watery and oily unemulsified tragedy.

But lemons! I had an orange tree in the backyard for those short pre-teen years I lived in my grandmother’s house in Westminster that I totally took for granted. The thing must have been in the prime of it’s fruit-bearing years, for it carpet bombed the ground beneath it with it’s juicy delights faster than we could keep up with. It, though I’m not sure we were trying that hard. I recall throwing them for the resident dogs, many of them molded and imploded quietly, filling the yard with the fermented smell of citrus death. I definitely ate some now and then, though when I think of the loss of all that delightful citrus, I cringe just a little. Oranges these days are purchased in 8-pound bags, we try to consume them before they die a moldy death, and I savor and maximize them by soaking peels in vinegar to make surface cleaner, freeze those peels and periodically grind them up in my garbage disposal to freshen things up a bit, and even made candied orange peel for a citrus loving friend during a holiday gift exchange. Also, sometimes I just eat them. Reflecting just a little more deeply, I can still smell the citrus blossom soaked air of the long dirt driveway of my grandparent’s house in Lynnwood that I visited in my earliest years until my grandfather passed away when I was 5 and feel the dusty earth of the whole front yard where my agriculturalist grandfather had planted about four different citrus trees, or rather, had grafted one kind of citrus tree onto another so that multiple kinds could be plucked from the same tree. My earliest memories of visiting this house alongside those years in Westminster deeply engrained the sweet smell of citrus blossom into my consciousness such that I notice it walking California neighborhoods from north to south. It smells like California in the same way that the dry brushy California smell does; chaparral smelss of powdery dirt, rosemary, sage, lavender, and sunshine, it smells like home.

But lemons! When I moved to the Bay Area, I moved in with friends who have a Myer lemon tree in their backyard. Here, too,much citrus came and went without purpose, other than the blossoms from whence they came created livelihood for bees. We’d grab them occasionally a few at a time to squeeze into salad dressings or cocktails, and when really ambitious, would juice them and freeze into cubes for easier cocktail making. There was also a peach tree, and it was my time in this house that started making me moderately obsessed with maximizing the use of backyard produce. The peaches tended to ripen and drop during early July, when we were often out of town at the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind. The year prior to my expected departure to the Peace Corps, I stayed home and was thrilled to take care of the peach harvest, dropping the mental and physical baggage of a long day at work and its related commute and slipping into the backyard with a glass of wine and a large mixing bowl while there was still plenty of warm summer sun and filling the bowl with ripe peaches while emptying my glass, take them inside to blanch them, remove their skins, cut them in half to remove the pit, then freeze them. There was plenty of peach puree for Belinis, peach salsa, peach rosemary jam, and cobblers, of course.

But lemons! I never missed that Meyer lemon tree more than when my SO and I moved out of that house and into our own little townhouse, with not an inch of our own outdoor space available for personal pleasure. My housemate talked of taking out the tree to make room for repurposing that corner of their yard, and even offered to let me transplant the tree to our new future home while we were house hunting, and tragically, we have no place to put a tree should the day come when they finally renovate that little corner. So everytime we visit, I greedily harvest their lemons to bring home, or sometimes, I just think about it. And it makes me wonder how much backyard produce goes unloved because we don’t have the time, energy, interest, inclination, or know-how? I know there are organizations dedicated to liberating otherwise unwanted backyard harvests in the name of feeding hungry people, and I love that. As far as I can tell, the movement to do it for the love of preventing food waste while simultaneously indulging culinary passions is underground at best, random NextDoor postings that get buried in the litany of reports of package theft, lost dogs, vandalized property, and suspicious people. “Seeking fresh figs, willing to trade my apples,” and the like, and I read them from my fruitless townhouse and ponder the trading of my labor for a neighbor’s fruit.

Serena, Sterling, Bay Area Blind Mom, and her three kiddos, the smallest in a carrier on her back, stand together on a dry, grassy hillside near the entrance to the orchard, holding large bags full of apples.
Serena, Sterling, Bay Area Blind Mom, and her three kiddos fresh from apple-picking adventures carrying the actual fruits of their labor.

Then there was that time we went apple picking with Bay Area Blind Mom at a local apple orchard as a fun family activity and came home with 5 gallons of apples for $5.

Aerial POV of three large bags of mostly small apples of many colorings and varieties, excess bag rolled down to fully display the apples.
All these apples for 5 bucks?!

Bacon Fried Apples was my first go-to there, followed shortly by a large batch of Apple Butter (frozen and later went into Apple Butter Pumpkin Pie and Apple Butter Banana Bread), and an attempt at Apple Caramel Egg Rolls, which, sadly, was a reminder that I suck at frying things, and I learned that wonton wrappers don’t really do in a pinch when your local Asian market is out of egg roll wrappers, but mostly, I just suck at deep frying, which is probably a good thing, both for my health and the cleanliness of my kitchen. Giving up on little desserty fried things, I repurposed the remainder of the caramel apple filling by smashing it into a warmed round of Brie, and that was pretty amazing. Apples roasted with pork as a main, roasted with sweet potatoes as a side, and some just snacked on. I got really proficient with my apple coring tool. Aerial POV of Chopped apples in a cast iron skillet, flecked with bacon and gleaming with a thin coating of oil.

Bacon Fried Apples
Two stacks of clear plastic food tubs filled with applebutter, left, and pumpkin puree, right. Fresh sugar pumpkins are seen stacked in the background.
Applebutter and pumpkin puree freeze well for later use.
Sugar pumpkin quarters, scraped clean of guts and seeds and lightly oiled, lay roasted on baking sheets.
Little sugar pumpkins are the best for making your own puree for fall desserts or cubing into soups or curries.

As you can imagine, the apple picking trip was followed shortly by a visit to a local farm for pumpkins, a family trip mostly for the littles to pick carving pumpkins, run wild through the hay bale maze and scale the giant hay bale mountain, and take the hay ride tour of the farm. I, on the other hand, was there for sugar pumpkins and beautiful seasonal squash and other autumnal oddities, resulting in lots of home roasted pumpkin puree for breads and pies, and trying my new skills at roasting meat inside a pumpkin. I started with pork, though you could do many variations here; fish and curry was the suggestion of the farm staff who had to retrieve imperfect, unwanted pumpkins from behind a closed door for me because all the cute ones with stems had been claimed, probably for carving, sadly. I was happy to take imperfect, stemless pumpkins, for my intention was for eating, not decoration.

A whole pumpkin, without its top, browned from extended roasting, and oily from being brushed with it’s roasting juices, rests in a baking dish with a wedge cut out of the front, pumpkin laying out flat revealing roast pork inside.

Pig in a Pumpkin, thanks to Food Wishes.

But lemons! I started with known neighbors, one of whom has a lemon tree and is happy to share, tired of making lemon cookies, she said. Happy to walk a block and back as the crow flies, I retrieved the paper bag of liquid sunshine from her porch, a COVID-conscious, physically distanced transfer, and started breaking them down for their deconstructed goodness. With an eye on semi-regular fixes from my former housemate, I’ve catalogued an extensive list of lemon recipes to have on stand-by, and short of processing them into tangy and bright desserts directly, I harvest all the parts to preserve all the lemony treasure for future use. Aerial POV of lemon processing supplies: a dinner plate on the left with a layer of zest ready to flash freeze and a microplane rests across its bottom edge. A large bowl on the right containing zested and juiced husks, all pressed into similar dome shapes from the hand juicer. Centered at the top edge, a small bowl hold juice, and a yellow and green hand juicer lays across the top of the bowl.

If you can’t use your lemons now, zest, juice, and macerate with sugar to preserve them for future use.

Zest

Zest first. My microplane might be my favorite kitchen tool and one of the best investments I’ve made. Spread the zest in a thin layer or portioned out in single teaspoon mounds if you like, flash freeze, and relocate to an airtight container in your freezer. Amazing to add to sauces, dressings, pastas, stir-frys, rice dishes, baked goods, frostings, or anywhere else that would benefit from a bright pop of lemon zing, which is almost anywhere.

Juice

I like to give them a firm rolling on the cutting board to loosen the pulp inside, cut them lengthwise to maximize surface area, and squeeze them out in a hand citrus juicer. This will yield a pretty generous amount of juice, and if a little is left behind, that’s ok, because we’re not done with these lemons. Strain the juice through a fine mesh sieve to remove seeds and pulpy bits and keep in the fridge for weeks or freeze in ice cube trays in teaspoon or tablespoon portions and relocate to an airtight container to keep in the freezer for later use. Anywhere that would benefit from a bright pop of acidity, soups, dressings, pastas, chicken, fish, beverages, it’s now at hand and ready to splash.

No-cook Lemon Syrup

After juicing, toss those husks in a glass bowl, there’s still goodness in there, and we’re going to take all of it. Chop them into small bits and add equal parts sugar by weight, tossing to combine. Cover it with cling wrap and return every hour or so to stir and mash it around a little more. Repeat for at least 3 hours, overnight if needed, then strain through a fine mesh sieve and/or squeeze through some cheesecloth. Refrigerate and enjoy for weeks, anywhere that would benefit from tangy lemony sweetness, teas, cocktails, pastries, desserts, dressings, marinades, knock yourself out.

Get Salty

In processing the last of this bag of citrus love, I was heartbroken to realize just a moment too late that I’d neglected to salt preserve a few lemons, a great condiment to have on hand for adding that same citrus punch to savory dishes when fresh lemons aren’t to be had. Now that I’m stocked up on juice, zest, and syrup, this will certainly be top priority the next time life gives me lemons.

Just Desserts

In a mad dash to use all the lemons acquired recently, my SO and I. Were both at work in the kitchen giving purpose to our liquid gold over the last month or so. A hand holds a small ginger snap cookie that has been generously frosted with a very pale yellow lemon buttercream. A plate of uniced cookies is visible on a black platter in the background.

Improved upon these made-from-box ginger snaps with a bright, zingy lemon buttercream frosting.
A double crust pie with simple radiating slits in the top and a single slice removed, revealing the pie in cross section. The missing piece sits on a small dessert plate in front of the pie just to the left, fork laid across the plate.
Sterling made Lemon Pie.
A light, airy white cake baked in a bundt pan sits on a platter and glistens slightly with glaze, dominating the upper left of the frame, with a slice removed from the front. The missing slice lays on it’s side on a small dessert plate with a fork alongside it, in front of and just to the right of the cake.
Sterling made a Sponge Cake with Lemon Glaze.
Landscape orientation of a black, rectangular food container holding six bright yellow dessert squares.These are not Lemon Brownies.

While the recipe title claims that these are not just Lemon Brownies, but Lemony Lemon Brownies, I argue that they are not. They are delightful and bright with lemon flavor. A characteristic they share with brownies, or even closer, fudge, is that they are sweet, rich, and best enjoyed in bite size portions. The similarities, however, end there. These are a light cake with a fluffy crumb, saturated with syrup. What I expect from a recipe name like Lemony Lemon Brownies is something like a Blondie with generous use of lemon, something dense and chewy, perhaps with a crust of glaze. If I can’t find this recipe, I will create it.

A tall, fluffy cheesecake sits on a black platter with a slice missing from the front. Lemon drizzle is visible on top of the cheesecake. The missing slice rests on a small dessert plate in front and just to the left of the cheesecake.This Lemon Ripple Cheesecake is whipped into a delightful, fluffy cloud.

A pie with a whipped topping and a slice removed from the front, the missing piece plated just in front and to the left. In cross section, it has a custard base with a thin layer of finely chopped sweet pickles between the custard and the whipped topping.

This Pickle Chiffon Pie has lemon zest in its custard layer.

And just because I kept straying away from lemons as subject matter in this post, here’s the Orange Pie my SO made today from an old, hand-transcribed recipe that belonged to my grandmother, taken originally from “Mrs. Langlo’s White House Cook Book February 16, 1927” according to her handwritten notes. We had an extra pie crust to use up and the oranges needed using, too.

A meringue-topped pie with a slice removed from the front, the missing slice rests on a small dessert plate just in front of the pie.
Orange Pie

Now if you’ll excuse me, I haven’t even gotten to the Oreo Peppermint desserts I had on my radar for the holidays. Looks like the next Whole30 is going to wait.

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