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Anna Jones on lemons

From the zest to the flesh, this citrus fruit should be an essential in every cook’s kitchen

Anna Jones on lemons
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A crackled old French bowl sits on my kitchen table, always piled high with lemons. I use them as often as salt and pepper in almost everything I cook — to me, they’re a third seasoning.

You can harness so many different flavour profiles from this fruit: the sharp, refreshing acidity of the juice; the brightening zing of fresh zest; the rounded lift of a roasted lemon, with its sharp but caramelised juice. And then there’s the incredible preserved lemon, prevalent in Middle Eastern cooking, which brings something altogether different to the table.

Be it a quick grating over blanched greens, or a squeeze of the juice on brown rice, I don’t know if I’d recognise my cooking without this fruit. And of course, it doesn’t just work with food — one of my favourite ways to use this fruit is in homemade lemon gin. It’s so simple: you just infuse a good gin with strips of rind for up to three weeks, and then sweeten with a simple sugar syrup.

When I can I’ll search out my favourites: Amalfi lemons from the Italian coast, which are pitted and knobbly. If I could, I’d bottle their scent and wear it as perfume. They taste that bit sweeter than your average variety, and on a hot day, a lemon granita on the Amalfi Coast can’t be bettered.

Meyer lemons, which I look for the moment I land on the West Coast of the US, remind me of my early childhood in northern California. They’re sweeter, with subtle tastes of mandarin and a more sherberty peel. I’m also a fan of the prettily named pink lemons, with their vibrant flesh.

All of these are a treat when I find them, but most of the time, a good, firm, unwaxed lemon does the trick. The perfect fruit should give a little when gently squeezed, and if you can get away with it, a tiny scratch on the surface will release a heady scent, letting you know it’s ready to go.

Cook it  
Lemon baked feta:
 Place a 200g block of feta into a small baking tray, top with lemon zest, a little dried or fresh chilli and some chopped herbs (basil, thyme, rosemary and dill work well). Bake at 200C, 180C fan, gas six for 30-40 minutes until golden at the edges. Eat while still warm — it’s great with roast veg or salads

Lemon roast potatoes: Parboil peeled and roughly chopped floury potatoes in salted water. Drain and steam dry before tipping into a tray with a couple of quartered lemons and a head of garlic, broken into cloves but unpeeled. Roast at 200C, 180C fan, gas 6 for 30-40 minutes. Squeeze the roasted garlic and lemons over the potatoes then discard, watching out for any pips

Indian lemon pickle: Place a small pan on a medium to high heat, add a drizzle of coconut or rapeseed oil, then add 2 tsp mustard seeds, 1 tsp dried turmeric, ½ a finely chopped red chilli, a good pinch of dried chilli and a handful of curry leaves. When the mustard seeds begin to pop, add a pinch of salt and two finely chopped lemons, peel on but seeds removed. Cook for about 10 minutes until thickened a little.

Eat them… almost anywhere. Personally I think the lemon tart at the River Café in London takes some beating, as does the lemon shaker pie at Gjelina in LA.  

Buy them… unwaxed if you intend to use the zest or cook them whole. Search out Amalfi lemons in late winter and early spring from specialist greengrocers and farmers markets. In the UK, Natoora is a good nationwide supplier. 

Store them… in the fridge if you’ll take longer than a week to use them. I keep lemons I’ll use within a few days unrefrigerated, close at hand. Lemons past their best can be squeezed and the juice frozen in ice cube trays.

Anna Jones is a cook and food writer. Her latest book, The Modern Cook’s Year, is published by Fourth Estate.