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Lemons have an image problem in America. "When life hands you lemons," goes the saying, "make lemonade" - that is, turn an unpleasant situation into something good.
Around the Mediterranean and in south Asia, lemons are viewed in a more positive light. People have enjoyed these sour, juicy, fragrant citrus fruits there for millennia.
Lemons are so closely identified with the Mediterranean diet that some people think they are native to the area. Yet food historian Alan Davidson, the author of Fruit (Simon & Schuster, 1991), who considers lemons the most important fruit for European cookery, wrote that lemons "only reached the Mediterranean from northern India towards the end of the first century AD."
Others write that lemons are thought to have originated in China or India and began as a cross between the lime and the citron (etrog).
According to Davidson, "the Arabs spread lemon cultivation in the Mediterranean region, especially Sicily and Spain and parts of North Africa, and it was in the Near East that the lemon's wide range of culinary uses was explored."
Today, the major lemon producers are the US and the Mediterranean countries of Italy, Spain, Greece, Israel and Turkey, according to The World's Healthiest Foods Web site, where lemons gain a place due to their high vitamin C content.
Most of us season Israeli salad with lemon juice, serve fried or grilled fish with lemon wedges and flavor cakes with lemon rind. But lemons contribute to many more dishes.
A squeeze of lemon juice does wonders to brighten soups and stews of all kinds, from lamb to lentils. That's why lemons are often on the table in Indian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean homes.
A Moroccan presented with a load of lemons would enthusiastically pack them in a jar with salt to pickle them. So would someone from India, who would also add sugar, chili and other spices.
The first time I visited Rome, I was impressed by a savory dish of cooked chard at a small trattoria. Served simply with salt, pepper, lemon wedges and a cruet of olive oil, the chard was delicious. The fresh lemon and the good quality oil made it memorable. In Italy and Greece this is a basic way of serving greens, and I find it a wonderful way to enjoy all sorts of vegetables.
Diane Kochilas, the author of The Glorious Foods of Greece (Morrow, 2001), prepares a similar dish of wild greens and fava beans from Crete. After combining the cooked beans and the greens with sauteed onions, she enhances the medley with lemon juice and olive oil.
Lemon juice is good not only with fish, but also serves as a foil for the richness of poultry and meat. Paula Wolfert, the author of The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean (HarperCollins, 1994), prepares a lemony lamb stew from Gaziantep, Turkey, which contains squash, chickpeas, pepper paste, tomato and dried mint and is seasoned with fresh lemon juice. The same finishing touch flavors chicken stew with preserved lemons, a Moroccan classic.
When I studied cooking in Paris, my French chef-instructors taught me a useful tip: Lemon juice is best added to dishes at the last minute, as cooking alters its taste. When using it to flavor stews, save all or at least part of the lemon juice to add just before serving so it will impart a lively flavor.
Some feel that lemon juice is a good substitute for salt, though this is a matter of personal taste. When I sprinkle lemon juice over certain cooked vegetables, I often find I don't need to add any salt.
Choose lemons that are heavy for their size and with a fairly thin skin so they will be juicier. They should be completely yellow; those that are slightly green are less ripe and will be more acidic.
Lemons keep at room temperature for about a week, and in the refrigerator for about 3 weeks. Once you've cut a lemon, it's not easy to keep the other half. I put it cut side down in a small ramekin and refrigerate it uncovered, and it usually keeps for 2 or 3 days.
Warmer lemons produce more juice; remove them from the refrigerator 15 minutes before squeezing them; or microwave them for 15 to 30 seconds before cutting them. An easy way to juice a lemon half is to pierce the cut side with a fork and squeeze it against the forks tines.
LEMON CHICKEN WITH SWEET POTATOES
This recipe is inspired by a chicken dish in Marcella Hazan's More Classic Italian Cooking (Knopf). The chicken is stuffed with lemons, which flavor its juices. I add sweet potatoes, which make a delicious partner for the roast bird.
a 1.5-1.8 kg. chicken
freshly ground pepper
2 lemons, rinsed, dried and quartered
1.4 kg. sweet potatoes or yams, rinsed
fresh lemon wedges for garnish
Preheat oven to 200C. Sprinkle chicken inside and outside with pepper. Put lemon quarters inside chicken.
Put sweet potatoes in a foil-lined baking dish in oven. Set chicken, breast side down, in a small roasting pan. Roast chicken for 15 minutes. Turn breast side up. Roast another 40 to 45 minutes or until juices run clear when thickest part of thigh is pierced with thin knife; if juices are pink, roast 5 more minutes and test again. If sweet potato juices darken, add 2 tablespoons water and cover pan.
Transfer chicken to a board, cover and keep warm for 10 minutes. Test sweet potatoes with fork; it should pierce them easily.
Carve chicken, discarding lemon quarters. Serve chicken with sweet potatoes, roasting juices and lemon wedges.
Makes 4 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast (HarperCollins).