For the better part of the 20th century, the word lemon evoked bitterness, just a sour citrus that needed copious amounts of sugar to make something palatable to sell at sidewalk lemonade stands.
These days, not only have almost-sweet Meyer lemons (and Arnold Palmers) entered our world, but also a raft of lemon-tinted herbs with culinary and medicinal uses. On top of that, more Minnesotans have discovered that with a little TLC, they can even grow their own lemons, too (see story below).
And what a splendid time — after what for many has been the longest winter ever — for lemon thyme, lemon basil, lemon mint, lemon verbena, lemon balm, lemongrass and lemon bergamot to brighten, and even sweeten, our world.
"Anything with herbs in it invokes spring for me," said Bonnie Dehn, owner of Dehn's Garden Herbs in Andover, a longtime farmers market mainstay. "But lemon happens to be my favorite of all the flavors. The lemon-flavored herbs, it's amazing the different things you can do with them as far as use, and as far as smell."
Besides aromatics that invigorate any space they inhabit, lemon herbs, which actually are no relation to the fruit, have bounteous culinary and curative attributes. Lemon balm, for example, lives up to its name because of chemicals that seem to have a sedative effect. "If you make a tea with it before you go to bed, it really calms you down," said Theresa Mieseler, owner of Shady Acres Herb Farm in Chaska.
Both it and lemon verbena have been employed to treat anxiety and digestive problems, among others, but scientific evidence doesn't support most of those uses, according to medical websites.
The gastronomic benefits, on the other hand, are well proven. Besides standing in for their non-lemon counterparts in concoctions such as lemon pesto and lemon thyme-olive oil (both elevate grilled chicken or veggies), they have almost boundless applications, all simple and dynamic.
Dehn touts lemon basil in Tex-Mex dishes as a substitute "for people who really don't like cilantro." She also said lemon thyme and fish are a great marriage, and she tosses more than a few sprigs into the pot when steaming green beans.
Mieseler loves making a paste with lemon verbena, garlic, olive oil and a little butter to work under the skin of chicken or turkey before roasting. "That flavor really permeates it," she said. She's equally enamored of lemon-herb vinegars. "Take a base of a good white-wine or champagne vinegar, loosely fill a pint or quart jar with leaves — you can leave the stems on — hot pepper and garlic and just let it infuse for a few days."
Laura Frerichs, co-owner of Loon Organics in Hutchinson, Minn., said she urges customers to stop thinking of these citrusy herbs only in savory terms, especially with sorbets and simple syrups. In her household, perhaps the favorite dessert is a lemon olive oil cake, drizzled with a lemon-thyme or lemon-basil syrup (see recipe below).
Dehn also makes a simple syrup (equal parts water and sugar) with lemon-herb leaves for her lemon drop martini, and she crushes verbena leaves as a mint substitute to punch up a mojito-like cocktail with sundry spirits.
Grazing with lemongrass
Along with the variations of traditional European herbs, lemongrass is a relative newcomer with Asian and Caribbean roots that has become a favorite of many cooks. Frerichs fields "a lot" of requests for it, and masterful Asian chefs such as Hai Hai's Christina Nguyen find many ways to tap into its character.
Among Nguyen's favorites: putting a large section into different soups and stews and simmering, mincing it and using it raw in different salads like larbs (a popular Southeast Asian dish), blending it into a curry paste as a base of dishes. And, perhaps inevitably, simmering it and making a lemongrass simple syrup.
A little expertise goes a long way in maximizing lemongrass preparation. "I like to cut off part of the bottom, the really woody part," Nguyen said, "And then I'll beat the living daylights out of it, and you don't want to use it too far up into the green part. If you want to eat it, you have to chop it fine. Otherwise [the fibers] can get stuck in your teeth."
Lemongrass is also becoming more popular to grow. "In 15-inch pots, it gets big and is just gorgeous," Mieseler said. "Bring it inside in early October, and it does excellently in good light. You cut it about halfway back to encourage new growth, and in spring divide it up."
As with its fellow lemon herbs, the aromatics rejuvenate indoor spaces and outdoor gardens before ultimately shining in the kitchen.
Still not convinced? Consider this: "All these lemon herbs keep away mosquitoes," Dehn said. "I've even seen lemongrass sold as a mosquito repellent."
Minnesota can tolerate lemon trees – indoors
Growing lemon herbs in Minnesota is easy. Surprisingly, the same is true for lemon trees, which are usually associated with (much) more tropical climates.
But it turns out that our harsh winters are no match for a child's inquisitiveness.
"Quite a lot of lemon trees here are grown from seed," said Ricky Garza, greenhouse manager at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. "Perhaps a child gets curious [and puts a seed from an actual lemon in some dirt]."
Of course, once that seed sprouts, the tree needs some common-sense TLC. "They like heat; they like humidity," Garza said. "They need a lot of light, so they do best in a south-facing window."
The trees will spend most if not all of their time indoors, as frost is not their friend. They can come outside around Mother's Day, and usually by the beginning of September you need to start watching for frost potential.
Garza advises applying acid-based fertilizer "pretty regularly" during the trees' outdoor time, while winter brings more of a holding pattern, he said. Once the trees are ready to fulfill their purpose, it takes anywhere from four to 12 months from first flowering to full ripening.
Many of the lemon trees growing at the arboretum were donated — some 20 years after the seeds were planted.
"They always come with a story," Garza said.
Grilled Lemon Basil Chicken
Note: If you can't find lemon basil, regular basil will work just fine. Adapted by Bill Ward.
• 6 (4 oz.) boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed of excess fat
• 1 tsp. grated lemon peel
• 1/4 c. fresh lemon juice
• 1/4 c. white wine
• 2 tsp. minced fresh garlic
• 1/4 tsp. salt
•2 tbsp. olive oil
• 1/2 c. loosely packed fresh lemon basil leaves, plus more for garnish (see Note)
• Lemon wedges, for garnish
Lightly pound chicken to an even 3/4-inch thickness. Pat chicken dry using paper towels and place in a large resealable plastic bag.
Combine lemon peel, lemon juice, wine, garlic, salt, oil and lemon basil in a blender or food processor. Pulse for 30 seconds or until well blended.
Pour the marinade over the chicken, seal the bag and turn to coat chicken thoroughly. Marinate in the refrigerator for at least 15 minutes to overnight.
Preheat grill to medium-high heat, or about 400 degrees.
Remove chicken from marinade and discard marinade. Grill for 4 to 6 minutes per side or until cooked through.
Garnish with additional basil and squeeze lemon wedges over chicken for extra lemon flavor.
Lemon-Olive Oil Cake With Honey-Roasted Rhubarb
Note: If rhubarb is out of season, use fresh or frozen raspberries instead (but don't roast them). From Loon Organics co-owner Laura Frerichs, who adapted it from the now-defunct website Culinate.
• 1 c. sugar
• 1 c. water
• 1/4 c. lemon verbena (or other lemon herbs)
• 3 eggs
• 2 c. sugar
• 1 1/2 c. extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 1/2 cups milk
• Grated zest of 3 lemons
• 2 c. flour
• 1 tsp. baking powder
• Large pinch of salt
• 6 stalks rhubarb (see Note)
• 2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
• 1/3 c. honey
To prepare the syrup: Combine sugar, water and lemon verbena in a saucepan and heat, stirring, until sugar dissolves. Let sit for a couple of minutes, then strain out leaves.
To prepare the cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 12-inch cake pan.
In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs and sugar. Add olive oil, milk and lemon zest. In another bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder and salt. Make a well in the dry ingredients and slowly add the egg mixture, stirring just until blended. Do not overmix.
Pour the batter in the prepared pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 50 to 55 minutes. Let the cake cool completely before loosening sides with a knife, and inverting onto a serving plate. Poke a few holes in the top of the cake with a fork and drizzle the cake with the syrup.
To prepare the topping: While the cake is baking, slice the rhubarb stalks into half-inch pieces. Toss with a few tablespoons of olive oil, arrange onto a sheet pan and drizzle with the honey. Roast at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or so. It should be tender but hold its shape. Let cool and spoon over slices of olive-oil cake.
Lemon-Thyme Butter Sauce
Makes about 2 cups.
Note: Use to baste scallops, shrimp, fish, chicken, potatoes or any grilled vegetables. Adapted by Bill Ward.
• 2 sprigs of lemon thyme, plus 1 tsp. chopped
• 1 1/2 c. white wine
• 1 shallot, sliced
• 12 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
• Fleur de sel and fresh ground pepper
In a sauté pan reduce the white wine, shallots and lemon thyme sprigs on medium heat. Remove the shallots and thyme toward the end. Slowly whisk in the butter. Stir in the chopped lemon thyme. Season with salt and pepper.
Bill Ward is a Twin Cities freelance journalist who writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.