Ian’s Table: It’s yellow

Meyer lemons are now locally grown, providing chefs with a huge new range for culinary exploration

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Contributing reporter

Sat, Nov 11, 2017 - Page 13

Back in October last year, I wrote about lemons (see Taipei Times, Oct. 1, 2016). It is time to revisit the topic in the wake of a burgeoning interest and increased availability of locally grown sweet yellow-skinned lemons on the market. This is a great boon to culinary diversity in Taiwan, as previously such lemons were almost invariably imported. They are the famous Meyer lemons (or something quite like them), which bring a sweet tartness to the flavor palate and their own very specific qualities to the kitchen and dining room.

Sweet yellow lemons have long been available at upscale grocers in Taiwan, but availability has always been uncertain and prices high. For many applications, local green lemons prove a perfectly adequate substitute, and have the advantage of sometimes coming in organic, unwaxed form. But color can be a problem, as green lemons do not heat well and often release sharp, acidic flavors under the grill or turn an unpalatable brown on the oven. These green lemons are usually of the Eureka variety, which work well enough after fully ripening and turning yellow in temperate climates, but in the hot humidity of Taiwan they remain green until a very late stage of growth when they are virtually unfit to eat.

With the buzz surrounding locally grown sweet yellow-skinned lemons, online foodie magazine NOM (nommagazine.com) published an article about Meyer lemons in September explaining the uses of this new and exciting addition to the Taiwanese pantry.

Drawing heavily on a related article on the US food Web site thekitchn.com (suggesting that the confusion over lemons, their variety and flavors, is not confined to Taiwan), the article lists only one local organic grower, but sweet yellow-skinned lemons are being grown by a number of small farms around the island. I have found many to be of good quality, ideal for dishes such as the French classic tarte citron. Yet they have a robustness, seen in the thicker skin and less rounded body that is suggestive of some cross with Eureka or other type of lemon.

With reservations, let us call these sweet yellow-skinned lemons Meyer lemons. They are certainly distinct from the usual local product and from the cook’s point of view, that is all that matters. Named after Frank Meyer, an agricultural explorer for the US Department of Agriculture, these sweet lemons were brought back from China in the early 1900s. A cross between the lemon and the mandarin orange, the Meyer was used in China as a decorative houseplant, and was introduced as such into the US.

Although Meyer died in Shanghai in 1918, it was not until the 1960s that the plant was widely cultivated, and then only in the citrus growing regions of California and Florida. Before the 1990s, they were not widely available or even known outside these areas, but according to a 2009 US National Public Radio report, it was celebrity entrepreneur Martha Stewart who brought them into the culinary mainstream. Whatever one might feel about the once disgraced figure, if Stewart really did establish the Meyer lemon as part of our pantry, that is a service to all of us who cook.

One of the distinctive characteristics of the Meyer lemon is that the peel is edible. However, this is something I would test out first on any particular batch before serving some lemon peel and tomato salsa to guests. Textures vary, which is why I am happier with the term sweet yellow-skinned lemon, despite the fact that it doesn’t sound particularly attractive.

In a mood for compromises, the local yellow lemons make a fine tarte citron, something that would not really work with the green variety (not that local patisseries have not tried). Khaki specks of zest in a custard just looks ugly and will be unattractive however organic the lemons might be. The sweet yellow-skinned lemon is also ideal with simple grilled fish, as its skin releases a fresh aroma quite different from the acrid bitterness of the green variety under direct heat.

Grilled fish with lemon

Recipe

(Serves 2)

Most fish can be served with lemon, so this is not much of a recipe, and its only merit may be to draw attention to the use of sharpfin barracuda (尖鰭金梭魚), a locally caught fish with excellent flavor.

Green-skinned lemons release an unappealing bitter taste when burnt, but sweet yellow-skinned lemons have a splendid bergamot flavor that really enriches the dish.

With any fish cooking, it is crucial to cultivate a good fishmonger who will tell you the truth about what he, or she, is selling, and pay the premium that a fresh product will inevitably demand. As with most fish, freezing will kill off half the flavor and I will always opt for a trusted fishmonger at a traditional market than any supermarket. Barracuda is currently at its best and caught fresh and put under the grill for just a few minutes, makes for a remarkable dish. Grilling fish is the easiest thing in the world, but over-cooking fish is easier still.

Ingredients

2 medium sized sharpfin barracuda (or any mackerel-like fish), cut open in two fillets or butterflied (you can ask your fishmonger to do this for you)

garlic, minced

olive oil

salt and pepper

1 Meyer lemon, thinly sliced

steamed baby potatoes

zucchini or summer squash, fried briefly in olive oil

Method

1. Preheat the grill to 230c.

2. Season the fish with salt and pepper, rub lightly with minced garlic and olive oil. Set aside for 15 minutes.

3. Place thin slices of Meyer lemon over the fish. Place on a top shelf closest to the grill and cook for 5 minutes. Check for doneness.

4. Serve with steamed baby potatoes smothered in butter and zucchini or summer squash.

Ian Bartholomew runs Ian’s Table, a small guesthouse in Hualien. He has lived in Taiwan for many years writing about the food scene and has decided that until you look at farming, you know nothing about the food you eat. He can be contacted at Hualien202@gmail.com.