The Magical Meyer Lemon
If I only had room for one citrus in my garden, I’m sure I’d choose a Meyer Lemon. When I bought my house just over 20 years ago, my parents gave me one as a housewarming gift. It was my first garden and my first tree. All these years later it’s still producing bundles of the most flavorful lemons and doing it close to year round. In between crops I modestly prune it—and my second one—to keep errant branches from becoming ungainly. But they don’t require that much tending to, beyond water and feeding.
In other words, it was my perfect starter fruit tree and remains my most prolific producer.
A Very Brief History
Believed to be a hybrid of Eureka or Lisbon lemon and mandarin orange trees, they are native to China. In the early 20th century, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent an “agricultural explorer” named Frank Meyer to Asia to collect new plant species. He reportedly found the Meyer Lemon near Peking, China in 1908 and included it with the idea that its sweet, low-acid fruit would be a good addition to the American lemon market. It was named in his honor. Tragically, in the 1940’s the tristeza virus threatened to wipe them out. But in 1975 a resistant “improved” variety was developed and reintroduced to home gardeners and growers. All Meyer Lemon’s sold today are the “improved” variety.
Meyer lemons can grow in either pots or the ground. I started mine in a large pot but eventually transplanted it into the ground and, with plenty of sun the move didn’t stop it from growing. And once they get going, under good conditions, they will be active almost year round, growing lemons in a virtual cocoon of dark green leaves. Yes, it’s also a lovely plant to look at every season. Even on the gloomiest rainy days in January your garden will have beautiful green trees with pops of yellow and orange to brighten your mood. And under good conditions, your tree will stick around cycling through flowering and fruiting for decades.
And that fruit! Unlike conventional grocery-store-type Eureka lemons, Meyer lemons are like a pretty orange-yellow balloon close to bursting with sweet-tart juice. The skin is thin, meaning you can cook the lemons without dealing with thick bitter white pith and you don’t have the annoyance of seeds.
All The Ways to Enjoy Meyer Lemons
In fact, anything you can do with a conventional lemon you can do with a Meyer lemon—and maybe more since it isn’t as acidic, thick skinned and seedy. Starting with the obvious, you can make lemonade or lemon granita. You can zest it for baking or making pasta. Make preserved lemons by slicing halfway down from the top, turning it a quarter and slicing halfway from the opposite end, then stuffing kosher salt between the cuts and putting as many of these salt-stuffed lemons as will fit into a large clean jar and tamp them down. Seal the jar and let it sit on the counter for a few days, turning the jar upside down periodically to distribute the salt and juices. Then refrigerate for three weeks before using them. At that point, you remove one, rinse off the juice and slice or chop what you need to use in a pasta sauce, vinaigrette, add to grains or rice, or sprinkle on salads or seafood.
Need more ideas? Squeeze fresh juice over poultry or seafood before baking or roasting. Slice thinly and place under fish or chicken to bake. Use the juice to make vinaigrettes and sauces or a cocktail. Make lemon curd. Add to chicken soup. Or, speaking of chicken, add it to artichoke hearts, shallots, and herbs to make this fragrant roasted chicken dish.
Meyer Lemon Chicken
with Artichoke Hearts
* 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
* 6 whole chicken legs, cut into drumstick and thighs
* 1, 12-ounce bag of frozen artichoke hearts, defrosted
* 2 Meyer lemons, washed, cut into pieces and seeded
* 3 shallots, peeled and sliced
* About 12 sprigs each of fresh oregano and thyme
* 2/3 cup white wine
* Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350˚F.
Heat heavy enameled pan and add half of the oil. Sprinkled chicken pieces with salt and pepper and place chicken skin side down in a single layer. Brown chicken until it lifts easily from the pan. Turn each piece.
While chicken is browning, combine the artichoke hearts, lemon pieces, shallots, and herbs in a large bowl. Toss with the rest of the olive oil and salt and pepper.
Add to the browned chicken, tucking into the crevices between the pieces. Keep as much of the chicken uncovered as possible. Pour the wine over the chicken mixture.
Cover with lid or foil and bake for an hour. Increase the oven temperature to 425˚F. Uncover and roast uncovered for half an hour or until the skin is brown and crispy.
Serve with rice or another grain.