It’s no accident that the Meyer lemon tree in Jason Stanhope’s backyard is the same age as his son. “When Leo was born, we planted a bunch of fruit trees, started a garden, and bought some chickens,” says the executive chef at FIG in Charleston, South Carolina. “I really wanted him to know that food comes out of the dirt or off a tree.” And now’s the time for three-year-old Leo to start plucking Meyers from those branches.
In the South, the thin-skinned lemons ripen just in time for the holidays and stick around until the first freeze. Unlike other lemons, these juicy gems are more orangey sweet than they are tart. “I love the soft, approachable acidity of Meyer lemons,” Stanhope says. “The sharp and sometimes abrasive flavor of classic lemons is rounded out with sweet and floral nuances.” Brought to the United States from China in the early 1900s by Department of Agriculture explorer Frank Meyer, the fruit is a go-to for both desserts and savory dishes. You can’t go wrong with the expected lemon curd or a tart, but Stanhope also recommends using the zest in everything from seafood to winter vegetables to vinaigrette (see recipe).
“Finish your rice with Meyer zest, or rub zest, olive oil, and herbs on fish or veggies before roasting or grilling,” he says. “And finish everything with a little squeeze of lemon.” At the market, look for Meyers that are heavy for their size and so golden they’re almost orange (citrus doesn’t ripen off the tree, so skip over light yellow or overly firm lemons). “Produce is my calendar,” Stanhope says. “Meyer lemons always remind me that we are through the heat of the South, and the holidays are upon us.”
THE CHEF RECOMMENDS:
Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette
Yield: About 1 quart
2 cups plus 1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil (preferably from Arbequina olives)
1 small yellow onion, julienned
2 Meyer lemons, juiced
1 Meyer lemon, zested
2 tbsp. vinegar (champagne, white wine, or white)
4 tbsp. honey
1 tsp. garlic, grated on microplane
Heat 1 tbsp. olive oil over medium heat and cook onion until tender. Puree in a food processor until smooth (you should have about ½ cup of puree). Transfer to a bowl and add lemon juice and zest, vinegar, honey, and garlic. Whisk to combine. Add 2 cups olive oil in a slow, steady stream, whisking as you pour.
Tip: To brighten a holiday spread, Stanhope recommends serving this sweet vinaigrette with chilled shellfish, or drizzled over a salad with fennel, pine nuts, and spicy chiles.