Lemons are a kitchen mainstay and a cook’s favorite parlor trick, pulled out for surprise and delight like the rainbow of scarves up a magician’s sleeve. “Cook without lemons?” Alice Waters wrote in “Chez Panisse Fruit” (2002). “Unthinkable!”
For those of us in the Northeast, acquiring lemons requires a trip to the grocer. But fresh lemons last up to a week at room temperature, and two in the crisper – depending on your kitchen’s temperature and humidity. But lemon’s floral fragrance and tart flavor are easy to preserve in pickles, sauces and pantry shelf-stable seasonings.
North African-style preserved lemons are a popular option, requiring only lemons, salt and time for a pickle-like condiment that adds nudges of pucker to savory dishes of all sorts. The process is simple: Cut lemons into quarters, and coat cut surfaces with salt at a ratio of 1 teaspoon of salt to 1 lemon. Pack into jars, and let the salt pull the juice out of the lemons until they pickle in their own brine. Spike preserved lemons with bay, peppercorns or saffron, which will add another layer of verve. (A quicker preserving method is a lemon confit, made with thinly sliced fruit.)
Similarly simple are roasted lemons, wherein the fruit's bitter edge softens while the sugars in the fruit caramelize and intensify as it cooks slowly in the oven. Try roasted lemons next to roasted poultry or diced and added to salads or soups.
Embrace the astringent tang of lemons in a relish. The whole fruit, save its seeds, is chopped into bits and mixed with shallots, coriander, mustard seeds and red chile flakes. It's a spicy, spoonable condiment that's great with grilled or smoked fish, chicken, sausages or all manner of lightly charred vegetables.
On the sweet side, there’s lemon marmalade. Many marmalades can be cloying, but this one, with a touch of salt and freshly chopped rosemary, is great on biscuits with butter or – quickly blended into a puree – as a glaze for roasted chicken, turkey or pork. Roast the meat 90% of the way, then spread on the pureed marmalade, letting it set into a glaze for the last few minutes in the oven.
Lean into the sweet side of lemons by making lemon sugar: Blitz 1 cup of sugar and 1 teaspoon of freshly grated lemon zest (from 1 lemon) in a food processor for 30 seconds. Spread it on a sheet tray lined with parchment paper and allow it to dry in your (turned off) oven overnight. The next morning, store it in an airtight container, where it will keep for six months (it won't spoil, but the lemon flavor will fade). Pull it out to sweeten tea, sprinkle on French toast or make butter or sugar cookies with a lemon accent.
While you're at it, make lemon salt with coarse or kosher salt using the same process, but 1 cup of salt to 1 tablespoon of zest. Use it anywhere you would use plain salt: roasted chicken, sauteed shellfish, a pot of beans or a bowl of popcorn.
All these dishes work well with the standard Eureka or Lisbon varieties of lemons that are found across the United States. But if you see piles of Meyer lemons – a variety imported from China in 1908 that’s thought to be a cross between a lemon and a mandarin orange – snatch them up. Their floral scent is more pronounced, their skin thinner and less bitter, and their bellies full of juice.
Speaking of juice, Meyer lemons make a fine lemonade. And though lemonade can be made simply by whisking lemon juice, sugar and water together in a pitcher, consider a slightly more elegant version: Start by making a lemon syrup from lemon zest, sugar and water. Mix this with freshly squeezed lemon juice and store it in a bottle in the fridge.
Whenever you want lemonade, quickly mix it in a glass with chilled still or sparkling water. The tart flavor of the juice is tempered by the sugar and enhanced by lemon oils infused in the syrup. It lasts a month in the refrigerator, so a glass of sunshine can be only a moment away.