Everything You Wanted To Know (or not) About: Meyer Lemons

Monday, March 26, 2012

Myer lemons. At first, borderline delicacies in the citrus family, only whispered at fancy restaurants and coveted by us home cooks, only to be disappointed when not only we could not find them at our local markets, but if we were so fortuitous, we could not afford their astromical prices. Good news is now they're as prevelant as their more familiar-looking cousin, the ___ lemon. And thanks to the laws of supply and demand, they're not quite affordable.

Meyer lemons are natives of China actually, brought over to the US by way of agriculturalist Frank Nicholas Myer (after whom the lemon is named) in the early 1900's. In China they were grown primarily as an ornimental tree -- for decoration rather than culinary -- but the American chefs found their flavor irresitable. And I agree.

The meyer lemon tastes like a cross between 75% tart lemon and 25% sweeter orange. It's a really nice flavor to cook with for savory dishes I think, because it doesn't have that formidable acidic punch like a regular lemon has. So if you're working with milder or more delicate items in your dish, like say very mild fish or vegetables, the less aggressive myer lemon won't overpower those ingredients as much as a regular lemon can. Similarly, they are wonderful for cocktails. And conversely, their milder taste tends to get lost in baking so I stay away from them for things like lemon pies or curds where you're looking for that irresistable acidic punch.

How do you tell them apart? First, the texture of the skin. A myer lemon is very smooth and almost glistens while a regular lemon has small tiny bumps or grooves. The myer lemon also tends to be a little rounder in shape, where the true lemon is more like an oval or even football shaped. If you slice into the lemon, the myer's flesh is slightly darker in color than the regular lemon. The zest of the myer lemon I think is slightly sweeter as well.

So how do you use one? The same way you'd use a regular lemon, except keep in mind its milder flavor! I've found them perfect for dips and aoli, zested over blanced or grilled vegetables, juiced for cocktails, and sliced into wedges and served with cold raw shellfish. They're particularly amazing with raw oysters! Here's a very easy and quick "aoli" dipping sauce that's perfect for the early spring vegetables like artichokes, asparagus, and even just scallions. It comes together in literally seconds and stays up to a week in the fridge, covered in an air-tight container. Enjoy your myer lemons!

Myer Lemon Aoli
1/2 cup good quality mayo (or your own homemade)
1 myer lemon -- zest and juice
pinch of kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp fresh dill leaves, roughly chopped

Place the mayo in a small mixing bowl. Add the zest and juice of the myer lemon, the salt, a little bit of pepper to taste, and the dill leaves. Whisk together until smooth and serve.

Seafood Antipasto Salad

Monday, March 12, 2012

I was watching an older episode of Giada on TV the other week and saw her make this. It was one of those dishes that I saw, promptly bought the ingredients for, and made it the next day without hesitation. It's perfection: light and healthy but just packed of amazing flavors and bold colors, it's an irresitable combination of grilled seafood and vegetables tossed with orzo pasta and a lemon-herb vinaigrette. In her version she used calamari (squid) which I would have used (minus the tenticles...I hate the tenticles...) but my local Whole Foods were out. So instead I used bay scallops. Naturally bite-sized and full of sweetness, they worked just perfectly I thought, and frankly won't even bother making this again with the squid; the scallops were so good. Eggplant and zucchini marinated and grilled add color and flavor, and instead of grilling and chopping tomatoes like Giada did, I simply added halved grape tomatoes for freshness and a boost of insane gorgeous red color. I added lemon zest and fresh thyme to my vinaigrette and the result was insane.

This recipe comes together literally in minutes -- less than 20 minutes you'll have a complete meal. It can be made in advance if you'd like to serve this as an appetizer for a dinner or bbq side, or perfect for a party. You can add virtually any vegetable and seafood combo you like; I plan to try this again adding muscles and clams as well. This recipe makes a hearty 4 portion or smaller appetizer portion for 6. Enjoy!

Seafood Antipasto Salad
1 lb large shrimp, peeled and deveined (that includes the tail!)
1/2 lb bay scallops (frozen or fresh is ok; defrosted thoroughly if using previously frozen)
1 japanese eggplant, ends trimmed then cut into thirds
1 large or 2 smaller zucchini, ends trimmed and cut into thirds
2 scallions, chopped small
1/2 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, cut in half
1/2 lb cooked orzo pasta, drained
1/4 cup good extra virgin olive oil + more for drizzling 
1 Tbsp lemon zest
juice of 1/2 lemon
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 tsp fresh thyme leaves
1 Tbsp fresh mint, roughly chopped

Wash and rinse the shrimp -- remove the shells (including the tail) and devein if necessary. Pat dry with a paper towel and set aside. Pat dry the scallops and set aside. Season the shellfish with salt and pepper to taste, then drizzle some olive oil on top. Toss gently to coat and set aside. Lay out the eggplant and zucchini onto a baking sheet or board, and drizzle with some olive oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and toss to coat the vegetables well with the oil and seasonings.

Heat a grill pan (or you can use an outdoor grill as well) to medium-high. Grill the eggplant and zucchini until tender, about 5 minutes, flipping once. Remove to a cutting board. After the veggies are grilled, add the shrimp and scallops* and grill until the shrimp is firm and turn pink, and the scallops are firm and turn opaque. The shrimp should take about 1 minute and the scallops around 40 seconds. Remove and set aside.

Chop the eggplant and zucchini into bite-sized pieces. In a large mixing bowl, add the orzo. Add the eggplant and zucchini, the shrimp and scallops, the tomatoes and scallions. In a smaller bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lemon zest, lemon juice, some salt and pepper to taste, and thyme. Pour vinaigrette over the pasta salad and toss to combine well. Top with the mint, give another quick toss and serve.

*Scallops these small (if you're using bay scallops) will fall through on a regular grate for an outdoor grill. Either you use a vegetable griller or saute with some olive oil in a pan (stovetop or even on the grill outside). If you're using an indoor grill or grillpan, then the scallops are fine. You can also use larger scallops, but allow more time for cooking then.

Giada boils the orzo in chicken broth which would add some amazing flavor. Use vegetable broth for a vegetarian friendly version, or just salted water is great as well.

Italians generally don't add cheese to fish or pasta dishes involving fish. I'd stay away from adding some grated parmesan on top of this, especially since in my humble opinion I don't think the flavor goes particularly well with scallops or squid for that matter. If making this dish with just shrimp then some parmesan certainly won't hurt it; or try creamy feta cheese for a lovely salty bite!

Kid Tested, Toddler Approved: Turky Meatballs with Spaghetti

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Me: "All right guys, what do you want for dinner?"


I don't know why I even ask anymore....
It's a staple. It's a must. I make some sort of version of the ol' noodles n' balls every 10 days or so. One version I do a lot that's super tasty and a bit healthier than their beef conterparts is the turkey meatball. It took me a while to covnice The Hubsters that turkey meatballs are not a basdardization of the traditional meaty sphere, but rather a healthier and just-as-tasty alternative that we can incorporate into our reperatoire. He agrees.

Here's the deal with the turkey though....

The reason why a lot of people prefer beef meatballs as opposed to turkey or chicken even is because they think they taste better. Often they are right. Why? Because beef is naturally fattier. Ground beef, especially. Turkey and chicken are not -- this is why we like them -- but using less fatty meats can sometimes yield a drier, harder result which translates to unappetizing. However, with a couple of tricks you can transform even white meat into delicious, outstanding and juicy balls. Because everyone love juicy balls, not dry ones. Ok, before my mind runs away into the gutter with this, let's get to the recipe!

First off, I use ground dark meat turkey. Ground turkey breast is fine, but the ground leg and thigh meat is a little fattier (but way lighter than beef) and has way more flavor than the breast. And when you're doing something like this where the ingredients going into the ball are not as many, you'd like to have as much flavor as possible. So first step is getting some ground dark meat turkey to work with.

The next thing you must do is the soaked bread technique. Many a nonna figured out long ago that to add moisture to a dry dish, one could simply place day-old white bread into milk, then let it soak it all up, and then add that spongey milk-bread into the mixture. This creates super soft, delicious meatballs. Using sparingly, however, or else you'll end up with a soggy mess. And I hate soggy balls more than dry ones!

Ok, so as along as you don't skimp on the above two critical points, you'll have perfect balls. Meat ones at least, I can't be held responsible for what you got going on down below...there I go again! Get me outa here! Ok, the recipe. Enjoy!

Turkey Meatballs with Spaghetti
1 lb ground turkey -- dark meat perferably
1 slice american bread
1/4 cup milk
1/2 white onion, chopped small
3 cloves garlic, minced
olive oil
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp fresh thyme leaves
1/4 cup ketchup
splash Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 eggs lightly beaten
about 2-3 Tbsp Italian style dried breadcrumbs

2 jars of your favorite spaghetti sauce
1 lb spaghetti

Take the ground turkey and place into a large mixing bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

In a small bowl, tear the bread slice into pieces. Pour the milk over the bread and massage into the milk with fingers. Let stand 10 minutes for bread to soak up most of the milk.

Meanwhilre, heat some olive oil in a skillet. Saute the onion on medium-low heat until translucent, about 7-8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute, until fragrant. Remove from heat and add the onion-garlic mixture to the turkey. Add the thyme leaves, ketcup, Worcestershire sauce, parmesan cheese, and eggs to the mixture. Add the soaked bread with any remaining milk as well. And add 2 tablespoons of the breadcrumbs. With your hands, gently mix all the ingredients together until it just comes together. You don't want to over mix because that will make the balls tough; mix it enough so all the ingredients are incorporated and thoroughly distributed. Take some of the meat mixture and form a ball in your hand. The ball will feel quite soft but it should still hold its shape and not fall apart. If it doesn't hold its shape then add the remaining tablespoon of breadcrumbs and quickly mix in then try again. Form desired size and amount of balls by rolling the mixture in your hands, and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. I make my meatballs about baseball sized, which usually gives me 6-8 balls, but you can make these as small or large as you'd like.

Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven until they just begin to get brown on top. I put my meatballs in the marinara sauce to finish cooking, but if you'd like to serve them on their own then continue to cook them until they are cooked through. Cooking time depends on how large or small you make them, but a general guideline to help you:

mini balls the size of a brussel sprout -- 7-8 min
balls the size of a lemon -- 10 min
baseball size -- 15 min
softball size -- 25 min

These cooking times are for fully cooked-through balls; if you plan to put them in the sauce, then take them out about 5 minutes before they are due to be ready! If you're making them brussels sprouts sized, don't bother with the oven at all and just go ahead and place them gently in the sauce directly.

While the meatballs cook, prepare your spaghetti according to package directions. Heat the sauce in a large pot or deep sauce pan. Once the sauce is simmering, reduce heat to low and add your meatballs from the oven to finish cooking.

To serve, place the spaghetti in a large serving bowl. Top with the meatballs and then spoon over the rest of the sauce all over the balls and pasta. Serve with freshly grated parmesan cheese.

Serving suggestions: a side of steamed broccolini or broccoli and a salad of romaine lettuce tossed in a light vinaigrette!

Winter's Bounty: Watercress, Avocado, and Blood Orange Salad with Cyprus Sea Salt

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

As the drudgery of winter's cold embrace begins to leave us, and spring ushers in her colorful bounty in forms of food and floral, we can take advantage of these wintery delights once more before their peek leaves us. I  made this salad for The Hubsters and I back in February for our at-home Valentine's Day dinner. It was so amazingly good, I made it two more times that week.

This salad is a perfect example of how food doesn't have to be complicated or overly garnished or even cooked! A lot of home cooking (and restaurants have thankfully boarded the Fresh Train) can be as simple as selection of raw ingredients at their prime, a restrained hand in seasoning, and service in a timely manner. This is how our ancestors ate, and as you know I often draw inspiration from history in composing new dishes or reinterpreting old ones. For our dinner, I wanted to serve a salad course and instantly the recipes for salad the Romans used to serve jumped into my head. Tender leaf lettuces, freshs herbs, even flowers were layed out nicely onto platters and topped with sliced fruits in season, anywhere from citrus to apples and even dried fruits. These were very simply seasoned with a sprinling of anchovy seasoning (their salt at the time) and a drizzle of excellent olive oil. These salads were the most popular lunch items of the ancient time, and the integrity with which they treated the ingredients is hard to resist. So, applying the ancient logic to what I had available in season now, this salad was composed. Wonderfully peppery and spicy watercress leaves are laid out onto individual plates, then topped with segments of tart and fragrant blood orange, paired perfectly with creamy avocado slices. The garnish: lots of coursely ground black pepper, a restrained drizzle of good quality imported extra virgin olive oil (mine's from Sicily!) and as a nod to my ancestors for inspiring this dish -- some gorgeous and delicious black, flaky sea salt from Cyprus.

This recipe is beautiful -- the colors vibrant and truly a feast for all the senses. Added health factor makes this a perfect salad I know you'll make again and again. Enjoy the rest of these wintery weeks!

Watercress, Avocado, and Blood Orange Salad with Cyprus Sea Salt
1 large bunch watercress
1 perfectly ripe avocado
1 blood orange, segmented*
freshly ground black pepper (preferably set to course ground)
good quality extra virgin olive oil
cyprus sea salt (or any good quality course sea salt)

Take the watercress and cut off the stems and roots (watercress if often sold with the roots still attached to preserve the freshness). Rinse very gently and pat dry with paper towels. Lay out onto one larger platter or distribute onto individual plates. Carefully peel the avocado, remove the pit and slice into 1/4" thick slices. Lay out decoratively onto plates/platter. Distribute the orange segments as well. Season with a generous amount of black pepper, then drizzle lightly with olive oil and top with a sprinkling of the sea salt to taste. Serve immediately.

Using avocados and delicate watercress makes this a dish you need to put together right before serving. You can segment your orange ahead of time and keep the segments in an air-tight container, refrigerated. But put together the salad before serving so the avocado doesn't oxidize (turn brown) and the watercress doesn't get limp and wilted.

*To segment an organge, carefully cut the rind (the outer orange skin) and pith (the white part between the orange part and the flesh -- the actual orange you eat). You'll have a sort of "naked orange ball." Take the ball into your hand and hold it like a baseball facing you. Then using a sharp knife, cut into the orange, in between the membranes (they'll look like thin white lines drawn), and separate the orange slices.