There’s a dwarf in my front window. It’s a tree, not much more than a foot tall, but with full-sized, shiny, emerald-green leaves. Its branches throw off many long, cactus-sharp spines. In the three years or so I’ve had it, it has given me one piece of fruit — a Meyer lemon (and not a very good one).
While area chefs caught onto them a few years ago, they remain largely unknown to the public. Pity. It’s a wonderful piece of citrus, which most of us can’t get enough of in whatever form, and which nobody has much against except possibly herpes sufferers.
The Meyer lemon tastes slightly sweeter than the lemons we know, some say with a bit of orange. It’s very shiny yellow, maybe with the slightest tinges of orange, and surprisingly spongy when fully ripe. Sliced, it shows an unusually thick layer of pith around the juicy membranes.
It originated in China a few centuries ago, is thought to be a cross between a lemon and either an orange or a mandarin, and was brought here by a U.S.D.A. plant researcher in 1908. Now they’re grown mostly in California, and some in Florida and Texas.
I share one of my newest favorite recipes here only because Meyer lemons can now be found in our area with a little looking. The hunt is well worth the trouble.
It’s the flavor base for a Meyer lemon and vanilla bean marmalade featured in a recent issue of Bon Appetit (still one of the two best cooking magazines for good, creative but sensible recipes — the other, Saveur).
It couldn’t be much easier, as long as you have a reliable thermometer that reads at least 230 degrees. I promise you it produces more than 4 cups of one of the most pleasurable marmalades you’ll ever meet.
I’m the guy who goes straight to the little tubs of orange marmalade when eating an all-American diner breakfast (usually at lunchtime), while others more often choose concord grape jelly and strawberry preserves to go with their toast, fried eggs, hash browns, two meats and coffee. The shreds of peel in it shoot little bitter jolts through the syrupy orange jelly.
Although the word “marmalade” (thought to be from the Portuguese marmelo for quince) has come to describe a sweet spread that includes any citrus peel, it’s classically made from the somewhat bitter Seville orange, and is decidedly British, or Scottish depending on which you ask. (OK, so maybe not an all-American breakfast.)
In this version, it’s spiked with vanilla bean, which is pretty easy to find in good groceries. Look for those from Madagascar or Mexico if you have a choice.
Make sure the bean’s good and pliable, take a very sharp knife, and slit it lengthwise to release its minuscule deep-brown seeds, the pinpoint specks you see in the finest, most expensive vanilla ice creams. Be sure to leave pieces of the bean in the marmalade so it continues to seep flavor — and to show those you give it to that they’re getting the real deal.
By the way, it’s even better on a buttery light scone. There is such a thing, and I’ll show you how to make them in another column.
Meyer Lemon and Vanilla Bean Marmalade
(Adapted from Bon Appetit.)
1-1/4 pounds Meyer lemons
5 cups water
5-1/2 cups white sugar, more or less
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
Pinch of kosher or fine sea salt
1. Using a very sharp knife and working on a large surface that will catch the juices, slice each lemon lengthwise, then very thinly crosswise. Pick out the seeds.
2. Pack enough lemons and juice to measure 2-1/2 cups. Put into a large stainless, non-stick or enameled iron pot.
3. Add 5 cups of water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand uncovered for 8 hours or overnight.
4. Measure the lemon mixture; there should be about 5-1/2 cups. Return to the same pot and add an equal amount of sugar, about 5-1/2 cups. Scrape in the gooey seeds from the vanilla bean, then add the bean. Add pinch of salt.
5. Bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Attach the thermometer. Maintain an active boil, adjusting the heat to keep it from boiling over. Cook to a temperature of 230 degrees, stirring occasionally for about 30 minutes.
6. Cool to room temperature and put into jars or plastic containers. Refrigerated, it’ll keep for at least two weeks. For full flavor, bring to room temperature before serving.Ric Bohy is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]