In praise of lemons–with recipes

Last year for Mother’s Day, Richard bought me a dwarf Meyer lemon tree. I generally avoid indoor plants, reserving my gardening energy for our dryland meadow yard and our extensive kitchen garden. We’re away so much between Richard’s brain-cancer-care appointments at the VA Hospital in Denver and helping with my mom’s hospice care, house plants only survive if they can fend for themselves.


But a few days before Mother’s Day when we walked into the neighborhood Safeway store, I smelled a trickle of sweet fragrance that was tantalizing familiar, but out of context. I looked around and saw a dozen scruffy dwarf citrus trees in five-gallon pots, their shiny evergreen leaves frost-nipped and torn, their branches whacked to short stubs. Whoever thought dwarf citrus were appropriate to sell at 7,030 feet elevation in Colorado? Still, one lemon tree was blooming, dotted with starry white flowers that smelled heavenly. So Richard bought it for me. (Yes, I’m a sucker for plants.)

He carried Meyer, as we promptly named the plant, home on his shoulder. (It’s a Meyer’s improved lemon, a lemon sweetened up with some orange genes.) Meyer lived in our sunny, south-facing bedroom until daytime temperatures reliably rose above fifty degrees, and then Meyer migrated outside most days to a sheltered spot next to the south-facing house wall. (Even in the hottest part of summers here, our nights don’t often stay above 50 degrees, so Meyer came back inside every night.)

Meyer thrived in our unlikely climate, blooming all summer long, and attracting a cloud of bees to those starry, sweet-scented flowers. By the time fall and shorter days cut down both flowering and bees, and meant Meyer spent more time indoors, our two-foot tall lemon tree boasted dozens of tiny green lemons. I thinned the fruit clusters to one apiece, and wondered if they’d ripen once Meyer became an indoor citrus tree for the winter.


Silly me! (The photo above is Meyer after the first harvest, toasty-warm in its daytime sunny patch when the outside temperatures are just climbing above ten degrees.)

Two weeks ago we harvested the first three lemons, plump, juicy and sweet. Their skin is smooth and elastic, unlike the thick-skinned lemons we find in the grocery store. And the smell–they’re fragrant on the tree, in the hand, before and after peeling or squeezing. Heaven! As Richard commented, not many of us can claim an intimate relationship with our citrus.

This morning we harvested seven more, 1.5 pounds of lemons in all. Aren’t they gorgeous?

What are we doing with this homegrown lemon bounty? Turns out that lemon peels are a great source of limonene, a plant chemical being studied for its anticancer effects, including the ability to induce cell death in cancer cells, and also its anti-inflammatory effects. So one thing we’re doing is putting the peels in Richard’s morning green tea. He chops up half a squeezed lemon, peel, membrane and all (they are, after all, organic) and steeps it with his favorite green tea and mint combo.

The juice is adding its bright flavor and Vitamin C to our winter meals. Here are two favorite recipes:

Winter Greens with Lemon Butter Sauce over Rice

2 T butter
2 T whole wheat flour (I use spelt, since the glycemic index is lower, which makes it less likely to feed cancer tumors)
3/4 cup milk
2 T cream or half ‘n half
2 T fresh-squeezed lemon juice
a pinch salt
1/2 pound winter greens (spinach, kale, cabbage, collards, or a mix thereof)
2 cups cooked brown rice

Melt the butter in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir in flour and cook, stirring frequently until flour begins to be fragrant, four or five minutes. Add milk slowly, stirring constantly with a whisk to work out any lumps before adding more. When the mixture is smooth, add cream, lemon juice, and salt, whisking until smooth. Turn off heat. Wash greens and chop greens, discarding (or composting) large stems. Steam until tender. Split cooked (and still warm) rice between bowls. Mound greens over rice, and top with lemon sauce. (Serves four)


Lemon Hummus with a Bite

4 cloves garlic
2 cans cooked garbanzo beans, drained
4 T fresh-squeezed lemon juice
4 T tahini
4-5 T water
2 tsp chipotle chile (ground)

Mince the garlic in a food processor, dropping the cloves in one by one as the blades are spinning. Then add garbanzo beans and pulse. Add lemon juice, tahini, water, and chipotle chile powder, processing until smooth. Spoon into a shallow bowl, and drizzle olive oil on top of the hummus. Serve with pita bread, cucumber, carrots, and other dippables.