All Perfume, No Pucker

''I love them so much,'' said Seen Lippert, the executive chef at Metrazur, opening in Grand Central Terminal this February. ''I use them for everything. I love to use them raw in salads; I shave the skin into it.''

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A Meyer lemon contains about four times the sugar of a regular lemon, but it can be used almost interchangeably with the Eureka and Lisbon varieties, adding a rounder edge to both sweet and savory dishes. The greatest difference, Ms. Lippert said, is that with Meyer lemons you can use the whole thing -- from pulp to peel. She marinates whole pieces with sardines, and ''ever so slightly candies'' thin slices, she said, and adds them whole to tarts.

Sometimes, she said, her rhapsody gaining force, she will use them with regular lemons in desserts, making ice cream from Eurekas and serving it beside sorbet from Meyers. ''They're so fabulous,'' she said.

The Meyer lemon has left many chefs smitten. But perhaps none more so than Lindsey Shere, the former pastry chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. She is largely responsible for introducing the fruit to American diners.

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Around 1980, the Meyer lemon came to Chez Panisse the way many products did. Someone Ms. Shere or Alice Waters knew (they don't remember who) had a tree in the yard. They were sold on their taste, said Ms. Shere. It also helped that, coming from backyards, they were organic. And organic supermarket lemons were difficult to find then. ''It wasn't ever thought about as a way of introducing them particularly,'' Ms. Shere said. ''It was more a statement of our own philosophy.'' Just like organic chickens and mesclun greens.

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Ms. Shere began using the Meyer lemons in tarts and souffles, and folding its wildly fragrant zest into batters and sauces. When she wrote ''Chez Panisse Desserts'' (Random House, 1985), seven recipes called for them. ''It's particularly appropriate for dessert,'' she said, ''because it does have those sweet overtones and that mellowness.''

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Many of her Meyer lemon recipes, like a souffle, ice cream and cream pie, are fairly simple, allowing you to appreciate the nuances of its scent. It's much as you would treat a great tomato: you wouldn't want to smother its goodness with other flavors.

Back then, unless you lived in California and had a Meyer lemon tree in your yard, you almost certainly couldn't get them.

But she was a convert. And before long, so were many other California chefs. They got them the same way, from neighbors and friends. It is an exchange that still exists. Chez Panisse, in fact, still trades Meyer lemons for dinners. Friends of the restaurant earn a free dinner for about every 100 pounds of lemons they deliver.

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During the season -- which stretches from November to March -- chefs who know the fruit use it incessantly. Alan Tangren, now the pastry chef at Chez Panisse, said the only time the Meyer lemon failed him was when he made a lemon sauce. ''It was just boring,'' he said. ''For that kind of thing, you really need the acidity.''

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And when used as the acid in something like a vinaigrette, he said, it is best to combine it with a mild vinegar like champagne or rice wine.

''It has a fuller, more heavily perfumed flavor in the mouth,'' said Ms. Lippert, who, by the way, is another alumnus of Chez Panisse's kitchen. So, minor adjustments, like adding a little vinegar or regular lemon juice to boost the acidity, simply require tasting as you cook.

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Today, the lemon has a dedicated following. Before Ms. Shere and others became devotees, though, the Meyer lemon had been primarily an ornamental tree. The tree was brought to the United States from China in 1908 by Frank N. Meyer, an influential plant explorer for the Agriculture Department. Mr. Meyer had discovered it as a potted plant in Bejing and introduced it here as an ornamental. ''It's as productive as the devil, so it really caught on in backyards,'' said Lance Walheim, an owner of California Citrus Specialties, a grower of Meyer lemons.

It might have caught on in kitchens earlier, too, had it not been for a virus called tristeza (Portuguese for ''sadness'') that was discovered in the plant in the 1940's. California agriculture officials, concerned that the virus would be transmitted to larger citrus groves, banned the Meyer in many of the citrus growing areas of the state. ''Commercial growers didn't want anything to do with them,'' Mr. Walheim said. Then, the University of California at Riverside interceded. By 1970, it had developed a tree without the disease, which it called the Improved Meyer Lemon.

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There are still fewer than a dozen commercial growers of Meyer lemons in California. And for many of them, ''commercial'' is hardly the word that comes to mind when you see their groves and packing houses. They are small and personal, more like boutiques than malls. And they do not operate like the large citrus producers, for which productive trees and profit margins are the major priorities.

Napa Valley Meyer Lemons, owned by Charles and Marge Foskett, is one of these small growers. In October in the Fosketts' backyard grove in Napa, Calif., the Meyer lemons were at least a month behind schedule. Chefs were beginning to fidget, but the Fosketts were unfazed.

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''You can take them in and gas them to ripen them,'' Mr. Foskett said, sitting in an easy chair next to a wood stove in his living room. ''But we don't do that. We're just a mom-and-pop operation here.'' The lemons will ripen when they ripen. And the chefs will have to wait until they do.

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The Fosketts run their flourishing business entirely on their own. Now that Mr. Foskett is retired from the Navy, they do it to keep themselves busy, he said, and to pay a few bills.

''Marge does most of the picking,'' Mr. Foskett said. ''I do the polishing and grading. Then we give out the best ones.'' They have 250 trees, all in a shallow basin behind their ranch house. Their packing house is a small room about the size of a walk-in closet; its walls are lined with old fruit-box labels and posters of submarines. There are no machines. After harvesting, the Fosketts pour the buckets of lemons out onto a carpet-covered table so they don't get bruised and, wearing cotton gloves, they polish the fruits one by one.

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Mrs. Foskett keeps meticulous records, too. During the 1996-97 season, she said proudly, reading her handwritten notes, they sold precisely 32,483 Meyer lemons. That is an awful lot of polishing.

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Each Monday, Mr. Foskett calls up local restaurants, like the French Laundry and Tra Vigne, for their orders. Then, they pick the lemons, polish them and deliver them on Friday. The lemons may cost a little more, but you can bet the Eureka lemons at the supermarket aren't handled this way.

A few hundred miles south and seemingly a world away from the Fosketts and their small grove is the Central Valley, California's largest citrus growing area. From Stockton south to Bakersfield stretches what looks like a plush green carpet of orange, lemon, avocado and persimmon trees. The only thing that breaks up the fabric is a grid of country roads.

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Here, the Fosketts' son Mike owns California Citrus Specialties, with Mr. Walheim. With about 1,200 trees, it is one of the largest growers of Meyer lemons, and it ships around the country. It may not polish its lemons one by one, but it has a single family harvest the lemons, and it takes them to a small organic-packing house, where the fruit is treated more delicately.

Its harvest last year of 65,000 pounds of Meyer lemons, though huge compared with the Fosketts' in the Napa Valley, is still peanuts next to the citrus growers surrounding them, with their powerful machinery and factory-like packing houses.

California Citrus Specialties grows varieties that the large growers won't risk, so their groves feel as much like laboratories as they do a working farm. On Mr. Walheim's property, for instance, blood orange trees alternate with oroblancos (a cross between a grapefruit and a pummelo), kumquats and Meyer lemons. He and Mr. Foskett were two of the first California growers to plant blood oranges commercially.

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''It's a crap shoot with the specialty stuff,'' Mr. Walheim said. ''You never know what's going to happen.'' Lately, their bets have been paying off. Their Meyer lemon crops have responded prodigiously to the Central Valley's warm climate. And specialty stores around the country are becoming more aware of these gems, increasing their Meyer lemon sales by almost 20 percent every year over the last five years.

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Still, the Meyer lemon is far from becoming mainstream. It is still largely a California product. ''If the acreage increased 10 more acres, it would flood the market with fruit,'' said Ben Faber, a farm adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension in Ventura.

But the market for the fruit simply may never grow all that big, and the network of small growers will likely remain. Several times, Mr. Walheim said, the big citrus growers have made large plantings of Meyer lemons, then failed to sell them.

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It is a fussy fruit. Its season is short. It must be clipped from the tree, not pulled, and because it has a lot of juice and a thin skin, it doesn't ship very well. To make matters worse, as the season wears on and the fruit continues to ripen on the trees, the Meyer lemons soften, making them as delicate to transport as eggs. Few supermarkets are prepared to handle it in this ultra-ripe state.

That, of course, is the tradeoff for something with such a seductive fragrance and flavor. It must be hunted down at specialty stores, and it can be expensive -- between $1.99 and $2.99 a pound in New York City stores, more than twice the price of a regular lemon.

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But think for an instant; you can taste the alternative in your mind.

MEYER LEMON TART

Adapted from Alan Tangren, Chez Panisse

Time: 1 hour, plus 1 hour for chilling the dough

13 1/2 ounces (3 sticks plus 3 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened, plus extra for greasing pan

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1 1/2 cups sugar

8 large egg yolks

1/2 tablespoon milk

12 ounces (about 2 1/3 cups) all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon plus 1/8 teaspoon salt

1 1/4 pound (5 or 6) Meyer lemons

5 large eggs.

1. In the bowl of a mixer, cream together 8 ounces softened butter (2 sticks) and 1/2 cup sugar. Add 1 egg yolk and the milk, and beat to combine. In a medium bowl, combine the flour with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Slowly add the flour to the butter mixture, stirring until completely blended. Gather dough into two balls. Freeze one for future use, chill the other for at least 1 hour.

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2. Heavily butter a 10-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to a circle 1/8-inch thick. Transfer to the tart pan, press into the pan and trim the edges. Prick the bottom with a fork, and place the shell in the freezer for 30 minutes.

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3. While shell is in freezer, prepare lemon curd: grate zest of lemons. Squeeze lemons to extract 1 cup of juice. In a medium nonreactive saucepan, combine juice and zest. Add remaining 1 cup sugar, remaining 5 1/2 ounces butter and 1/8 teaspoon salt. Place over medium heat, stirring once or twice, until sugar is dissolved and the butter is melted.

4. In bowl of a mixer, combine eggs and remaining 7 egg yolks until blended. Slowly add hot lemon mixture to eggs until blended. Return mixture to saucepan, and place over low heat. Whisk constantly until mixture thickens to a puddinglike consistency; do not allow it to boil. Remove from heat, and continue to stir to stop the cooking. Strain lemon curd into a bowl. Adjust sugar to taste; the curd should be tart, but may need additional sugar if the lemons were unripe. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing it right against the surface of the curd. Allow to cool.

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5. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Remove tart shell from freezer, and bake until lightly golden, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. Spoon lemon curd into tart shell, and smooth the top. Bake until filling has puffed around the edges, about 30 minutes. Cover edges with foil, if necessary, to prevent over-browning. Cool to room temperature before serving.

Yield: One 10-inch tart; 8 servings.

FREEZER PRESERVED LEMONS

Adapted from Thomas Keller, French Laundry

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Time: 25 minutes, plus 1 month freezing time

9 Meyer lemons

9 tablespoons kosher salt

9 teaspoons sugar.

1. Fill a sink or large bowl with a mixture of cold water and ice. Fill an 8-quart pot two-thirds full of water. Place pot over high heat, and bring to a boil. Remove from heat, and add lemons. Allow lemons to sit for 1 minute, then immediately remove them and place in the ice water bath. This will remove any wax or pesticides.

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2. In a medium bowl, combine salt and sugar. Cut lemons in quarters from the end down to about 3/4 inch from the other end; leave quarters attached at one end. Divide salt and sugar mixture evenly among lemons, heaping it in the spaces between the quarters of each lemon. Place lemons in freezer bags, and freeze for one month.

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3. To use, remove from freezer and cut into quarters. Separate pulp from skin, and discard pulp. With the point of a small knife, remove and discard any pith. Cut skin into julienne or dice.

Yield: about 1 1/4 cups preserved peel.

CELERY ROOT, ENDIVE, AVOCADO AND BLUE CRAB SALAD WITH MEYER LEMON DRESSING

Adapted from Suzanne Goin, chef at Lucques in Los Angeles

Time: 30 minutes

3 tablespoons minced shallots

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Juice of 2 Meyer lemons, plus extra if desired

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3/4 cup vegetable oil

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for sprinkling

1/2 cup heavy cream

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Pinch of cayenne pepper

1 large Granny Smith apple

1 large celery root, peeled and sliced into 1/8-inch matchsticks

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1 large Belgian endive, cut in half lengthwise, then sliced thinly diagonally

12 ounces blue crab meat

2 tablespoons chives, in 1-inch lengths

2 tablespoons roughly chopped celery leaves

1/4 cup roughly chopped parsley

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1 large ripe avocado.

1. Prepare dressing: In a medium bowl, combine shallots, lemon juice, salt and black pepper. Allow to sit for 5 minutes, then gradually whisk in the vegetable oil and olive oil. Add the heavy cream and cayenne pepper, stirring to blend. Adjust seasonings to taste.

2. Peel and core the apple, and cut into 1/8-inch matchsticks. Place in a large mixing bowl with the celery root, endive and 10 ounces of the crab. Add about half of the dressing, and toss to coat; add more dressing, if desired. Add the chives, 1 tablespoon of the celery leaves and all but 1 tablespoon of the parsley. Add additional lemon juice and salt and pepper as desired, to taste.

3. To serve, peel avocado and slice into thin wedges. Place in a medium bowl, and toss with just enough olive oil to coat the wedges. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Divide the avocado among six plates. Divide the celery root mixture among plates, placing it on top of the avocado but allowing some of the avocado to show at one side. In a small bowl, combine the remaining crab meat, parsley and celery leaves. Add 1/2 tablespoon of the dressing, and toss to combine; reserve the remaining dressing for another use. Place a spoonful of crab mixture on top of each salad as garnish. Serve immediately.

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Yield: 6 servings.

MEYER LEMON SOUFFLE

Adapted from ''Chez Panisse Desserts'' by Lindsey Shere (Random House, 1985)

Time: 1 hour 15 minutes

5 large eggs

3 Meyer lemons

5 1/2 tablespoons sugar, plus extra for coating the dish and sprinkling

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1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons flour

1/2 cup milk

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus extra for coating the dish

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar.

1. Separate eggs, placing 5 yolks in a small bowl, and 4 whites in the bowl of an electric mixer; discard the fifth white, or reserve for another purpose. Whisk yolks just until blended, then set aside. Set whites aside at room temperature, or refrigerate if the souffle is to be served later in the day. Rinse lemons with warm water, and grate and reserve the zest.

2. In a small, heavy saucepan, combine 1 1/2 tablespoons of the sugar and the flour. Gradually stir in the milk, mixing until smooth. Place pan over medium heat, and stir constantly until mixture has boiled for 1 minute. Remove pan from heat. While whisking vigorously, slowly add several tablespoons of the hot milk mixture to the egg yolks. Add yolk mixture to saucepan over medium heat, and whisk just until the mixture is smooth and thick, and light yellow in color, 1 to 2 minutes.

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3. Remove saucepan from heat. Add butter, and stir until it has melted. Stir in the reserved lemon zest, and set aside to cool. The mixture may be refrigerated at this point for up to 4 hours; bring to room temperature before baking.

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4. Half an hour before serving, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter a 1 1/2-quart souffle dish and coat it with sugar. Place the bowl of egg whites over a bowl of hot water, and stir gently until they are barely warmed. Using an electric mixer at medium speed, whisk egg whites until foamy. Add the cream of tartar, and increase speed to medium-high. Gradually add remaining 4 tablespoons of sugar, whisking until whites are moderately stiff but not dry; they should have smooth soft peaks with very fine bubbles.

5. Add about 1/4 cup of the beaten egg whites to the yolk mixture, to loosen and smooth the yolks. Gently fold the yolk mixture into the remaining egg whites, until barely mixed. Pour into the souffle dish, and smooth the top. With the tip of a table knife, draw a circle about an inch in from the side of the dish, and an inch deep into the souffle mixture. Squeeze 1 to 2 teaspoons of lemon juice from one lemon. Trail juice over top of souffle, and sprinkle juice lightly with sugar.

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6. Bake souffle until it has puffed and is golden brown on top, about 20 minutes. If souffle is browning too quickly, reduce heat to 375 degrees. Serve immediately.

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Yield: 4 servings.

Harvesting California Gold in New York

MEYER lemons are available at specialty stores in New York City, and by mail order. Here are some sources:

AGATA & VALENTINA, 1505 First Avenue (79th Street), (212) 452-0690; $1.99 a pound.

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BALDUCCI'S, 424 Sixth Avenue (Ninth Street), (212) 673-2600; organic Meyer lemons, $2.98 a pound.

DEAN & DELUCA, 560 Broadway (Prince Street), (212) 431-1691; $2 a pound.

THE VINEGAR FACTORY, 431 East 91st Street (York Avenue), (212) 987-0885; organic Meyer lemons, $2.99 a pound.

MELISSA'S SPECIALTY FOODS, (800) 588-0151; fax (323) 588-9774; E-mail [email protected] Ten pounds (30 to 35 lemons), $41, shipping included.

Source : http://www.nytimes.com/1998/12/02/dining/all-perfume-no-pucker.html

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