The Reason for the Season


Meyer lemons add flavor, color and warmth to Winter Sunshine Chicken. The other ingredients include baby bok choi, baby carrots and jicama cut with fancy cutters.

I had a friend once who said, “February is the saddest month.”

I credit her belief to the fact that she was living in Ohio at the time; February in Ohio, unless it is enlivened by a pretty snowfall, is a cold, grey, dreary month which will turn the most cheerful person into a frowning slug. Those of us who are not normally perky and upbeat find ourselves in danger of crawling under our beds and falling into a coma until spring comes and our friends drag us out and beat us in the head with brooms by way of awakening us to the rapture that is sunlight and fresh air.

It is a good thing that February is also the shortest month of the year as well, for were it not, more people would succumb to the grey ennui of endless winter. It is a time enlivened by nothing except St. Valentine’s Day which is a horrid, commercial holiday which scars schoolgirls who get no silly valentine cards and which builds up expectation of rampant sexual congress to the point that no one can live up to the hype.

In short, there is nothing to look forward to in February but its end and the advent of March, which at least promises a hint, if not a full-blown manifestation of spring.

However, three years ago, Zak and I traveled to San Francisco in February and discovered something.

We discovered that there is a reason for the month of February to exist other than to keep the Hallmark Card company, chocolatiers, and Victoria’s Secret in business.

They are called Meyer Lemons.

We discovered them growing in a friend’s front yard: floral-scented orange-yellow spheres of pure distilled sunlight. Sweet and sour sauce in a convenient palm-sized package. Lemonade in its own biodegradable container.

I am told that they are too sour to eat out of hand. Pish. What a lie. I bit right into one and it was bliss on the tongue, a pleasant frisson of honey balanced with the electric tingle of citric acid. The peel had the scent of lemon balm in it, mixed with a bit of the terpine flavor of rosemary. It spoke to me of golden hills awash in sunlight, the heady scent of wildflowers and the steady hum of bumblebees.

I completely forgot it was February.

I was hooked.

We carried some home with us in our luggage, and I set to making the best lemon curd, lemon bars and lemonade we had ever tasted when we returned to the record snowfall which had trapped our housesitting friends while we were gone. (Let me note how surreal it is to go from a land where tulips, roses and camellias are blooming and trees are laden with fruit to a blizzard-swept landscape which had been simply barren, cold and leafless when we left. It was a shock to our systems. It was tempting to turn around and board another plane and fly back.) The parade of Meyer lemon goodies that danced out of my kitchen kept us going until the sunlight returned and the first robins bounded across our newly greening lawn.

I thought that would be the end of the Meyer lemon for me, but last year, just as winter had begun to have its way with my psyche and I was feeling the desire to creep under the nearest bit of furniture and take up the life of a dustbunny, I discovered a huge pile of Meyer lemons on sale at the local Wild Oats store.

For a not unreasonable price, I might add.

Needless to say, I gleefully filled a giant bag with pounds of them , clutched them to my bosom and trotted off to my kitchen, chortling the entire way.

Well, actually, I paid for them first, but you know what I mean.

And once again, golden delights poured from my saucepan and oven, and friends began bugging me for my recipes as I began flooding every social event with lemon bars, lemon pound cake, lemon icing and lemon-ginger flavored tea breads.

This year I noticed that I am not the only one in the frigid Midwest and East Coast who is Meyer lemon-crazed. Apparently, they are the new “in” thing. One article from Kansas goes so far as to suggest that we pathetic winter-tormented souls grow dwarf versions inside our houses.

All of this excitement must be amusing to all the folks in California who so take them for granted that they all but throw bagsful of them at people in their hurry to give them away and get rid of them.

That’s okay. Let them give the beauties away or sell them for a pittance. We sunlight-deprived shivering wretches know them for the exquisite commodity that they are. We will pay high prices and hoard them and stroke them, and call them “my Precious” and whisper our love to them in the never-ending gloom that is February. And when we can’t get the fruit itself, we will read about it, we will purchase vodka and olive oil flavored with it, and we will drink and cook and dream the dank cold away.

Hell, we may even buy little trees of our own and attempt to grow a bit of paradise in our homes. Desperation for a sign that the sun really is behind that grey curtain of sky does things to people. If the worst they do is force a little tree to live in a pot, it is a small price to pay.

This year, the lemons showed up a bit early at Wild Oats, and on Sunday, I found myself grabbing them up greedily, only there was some more competition, and the price was higher–a sure sign that these are the new “big thing.”

That is okay. I am not too stingy with my Precious. I wouldn’t begrudge fellow winter-oppressed zombies a hit of sunshine.

And in the spirit of fellowship with those who clutch sweet lemons and pray for the return of the sun, I share this recipe to showcase the golden goodness of Meyer lemons. Since Meyer lemons originally came from China, I decided to create a play on that Chinese take out standby, Lemon Chicken. This version, however, has nothing to do with breading, deep frying or that ubiquitous nuclear-yellow gloppy sauce whose provenance is unknown, and everything to do with sunshine and bold but light flavors.

I went with a very simple, Cantonese-style approach, inspired by two recipes: one from Deh ta-Hsiung in an out of print cookbook, and another from Grace Young’s The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen. The choice of vegetables and the addition of lemon oil to the marinade, however are my own touches.

In honor of the soul-saving properties of the Meyer lemons and the Chinese tradition of giving poetic names, I gave it a somewhat lyrical name, though you may be prosaic and call it simply, “Meyer Lemon Chicken.” However, I am of the opinion that a pretty name makes a dish taste better.

On the other hand, what you call it after you make it in your kitchen is up to you.

Now, get out from under that bed and start cooking.

Winter Sunlight Chicken
Serves 4 for a traditional Chinese meal with several dishes, or 2 if this is the main dish.

Ingredients:
1 whole boneless skinless chicken breast, trimmed and sliced into thin rectangular slices

1 tsp. thin soy sauce
1 tsp. Shao Hsing wine
3 drops Boyajian lemon oil

1 ½ tbsp. cornstarch
peanut oil for stir-frying
2” square chunk of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced thinly

1 Meyer lemon, cut longitudinally in half, then into four wedges from each half

2 tbsp. Shao Hsing wine

1 tbsp. thin soy sauce

½ cup carrots, peeled and cut into very thin diagonal slices

6 fresh water chestnuts, peeled and sliced into thin round slices *

juice and zest of two Meyer lemons

1 ½ tbsp. honey

1 tsp. cornstarch dissolved into 2 tsp. water

2 scallions, green parts only, cut into 1” long diagonal slices

½ cup whole cilantro leaves

Method:

Put chicken in a bowl, and toss with soy sauce, wine and lemon oil. Allow to marinate at least twenty minutes, while you cut up vegetables. Just before cooking, toss with cornstarch.

Heat wok until smoking. Heat peanut oil until smoking, and add ginger and lemon wedges. Be careful—–damp lemon slices can cause splattering. Stir fry until ginger is golden brown and lemon is beginning to brown on edges and on skin. Remove to serving platter and set aside.

Add oil if needed, heat wok back up, add chicken, and stir to a single layer. Allow to brown on bottom side for about 1 minute, then stir and fry until nearly done—–most pink spots should be gone. Add wine and allow alcohol to cook off while stirring and frying the chicken. Add soy sauce and stir and fry 30 seconds.

Add carrots and water chestnuts and stir fry until carrots are done. Pour in lemon juice and honey, then scrape into wok the ginger and lemon wedges. Stir until liquid comes to a boil.

Add cornstarch mixture and stir until liquid is slightly thickened.

Add scallion tops, and stir fry another 20 seconds. Take off heat, garnish with lemon zest and cilantro leaves and scoop onto serving platter.

Serve with steamed rice.

*If you cannot get fresh water chestnuts, use peeled, thinly sliced jicama. You can do as I did for the picture above and use fancy cutters to give them a pretty shape.

4 Comments

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  1. This sounds like a great lemon, I shall have to see if my nursery sells them. I’m all about container planting this year (half by backyard is concreted over – blah) and am starting off with 2 apples and a cherry. I was thinking of doing citrus next year after I’ve started the container orchard and the herb garden.

    Comment by Christina — February 3, 2005 #

  2. Buoyed by the survival of most of the begonias I had planted in pots for our deck this winter (I am great at plants outdoors, not so good with them indoors–I either drown them or underwater them), I may take up citrus plants in pots. My first one, however, would likely be a kaffir lime, for its leaves.

    The best Meyer lemon for pot culture appears to be Meyer Lemon Improved.

    Good luck with your apples and cherry–and the herbs. I have a lot of herbs mixed in my perennial flower beds and borders, as well as several whiskey barrel halves planted with the more invasive ones like catnip and various mints.

    Hopefully, I will have enough sun in the new place to have lots of herbs, chile peppers and tomatoes.

    If not, I may be forced to start a community garden somewhere so I can grow my lovelies….

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — February 3, 2005 #

  3. Or, you could just rely on your blog readers to send you surplus Meyers. I live in an area surrounded by Meyer lemons, Eureka lemons, Key limes, and varous types of grapefruit– so many that the streets are covered with smashed limes, desert rats eat the lemons right off the trees, and grapefruits are disposed of with yard clippings. I have made lemon cookies, curds, cakes, gelato, sorbet, and pies. I made preserved lemons, but I never use them because I always have fresh. I have two big bottles of vodka and Meyer peels infusing to make limoncello. I can’t keep up with all our Meyers, but I hate to throw them away! If you want to arrange UPS pickup, you can have all the Meyer lemons you want (and Eurekas the size of your head, and Key limes, and more).
    Just email me back….

    Comment by Michele — February 15, 2006 #

  4. Michelle–I sent you email.

    I would be glad to arrange UPS pickup at your home, and would take whatever delicious citrus you could send–especially Meyer lemons and key limes. Though, really–I would take any or all that you wanted to send. I have been craving fruits and vegetables–as always happens this time of year. I get tired of eating greens–even though I love them–and long for spring and summer….it is the end of the winter blues is what it is.

    Anyway, I send you email–and await your answer!

    Comment by Barbara — February 17, 2006 #

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