Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Giving (and Giving and Giving and Giving) Tree

This morning, I raced the rain storm to bring in some food from the backyard – which still charms me no end. I mean, seriously – open the back door, walk out into the backyard, and go produce shopping. How cool is that?!

So I brought in about three pounds of carrots (finally full-sized and not a few of them looking like what you’d find in a supermarket – long and straight and decent-sized diameter) (as opposed to the stunted little 1-2” things I was pulling out of the bed over the summer), two enormous heads of broccoli, a few celery stalks, about thirty Brussels sprouts (the last of that crop), a handful of golden beets that were still somehow holding on, no peas at all (but lots of empty pods scattered all over the ground, surprise-surprise), and 247 lemons.

I’m pretty sure the tree was saying, “It’s about TIME, where the heck WERE you, what, you were all like oooooh, I’m sure the frosts aren’t THAT bad for the lemons?! I mean, I work and I slave all year long to produce these for you, and it takes you for-ev-ah to get out here and take them ya know what? I don’t know why I even bother…don’t miss those three on the bottom there, they actually kinda hurt, bending that poor little baby-branch way down like that…”

(The roses were a little bitchy too. I finally got around to cutting them back for the winter this morning; a few of them were actually trying to bud up in response to, like, half a day of moderate temperatures. Geesh. We’re still in Frost Time, kids, once this rain storm moves out we’ll probably drop back down to ‘ice on windows’ for another few weeks yet…)

The lemons have taken up most of my day today. I picked out the best 40 and set them aside (well, actually, I bagged them up and set them in the minivan in the garage, because they smell awesome and the minivan smells…considerably less awesome) to take to work to share, but the rest…whew.

I skinned the zest from each of the remaining 207 lemons with my new favorite gadget, a Chef’n PalmZester. It works fast, does a great job (with your human eyeballs guiding it along, of course) of getting only the zest and not the pith. I don’t think it would be my number one choice if I were planning to use the zest for decorative purposes (like, say, to dangle enticingly from the edge of a martini glass) (let’s just say…), but for my purposes, which was to shave over two cups of zest from the lemons, give it a quick dry in the oven on very low temperature and then crumble it into “granules” and store it in a tightly-lidded container in the fridge for future cooking, it was perfect.

It did nice, even cuts and stored between three and five lemons worth at a time in its little compartment. And there is a remarkable lack of lemon zest all over the floor where I was working, which is a huge improvement over the last time I did this. (Oy.)

I’m not sure where I got mine, to be honest – it was one of those things that sort of appeared around here one day. I had to go down and look at it again to figure out what brand it was, even, so…I’m not sure what MegaStore you might be able to get one from if you want one. (Oh wait. Looked it up on their retailer-finder: Bed Bath and Beyond carries them. Which is probably where this one came from, probably when I sent the husband to buy something else, like one of those stupid light bulbs for the stupid lighting fixture that doesn’t take “normal” bulbs ooooooh no, not something you can find at Home Depot or Wal-Fart, no, got to be these weird little funky bulbs you have to get from Specialty Retailers™. Gah.)

ANYWAY. At the end of the day, eight quarts of lemon juice was bagged up and put in the freezer for later. Another two cups is about to become lemon curd for scones tomorrow [pause to be grateful for a three day weekend], and a lemon meringue pie tonight [possibly also for breakfast tomorrow. For me. Nobody else. Just me. Because I am mean that way. And also because I get up before anybody else and to the victor go the spoils, ha ha ha].

Oh. And I think there may be a lemon drop martini with my name on it. Purely because this would be an excellent way to test the quality of the lemon juice, you see.

…the things I won’t do in the name of science…

Also, over two cups of dried, crushed zest is in an air-tight container in the fridge, ready for “instant gratification” later.

My hands are raw. The juice began finding microscopic cracks within an hour, and by the end of the day I think the acid was actually starting drilling expeditions into my finger-bones. Ouch.

But! It was worth doing. I go through a ton of lemon juice now that I’ve started canning – it goes in everything from strawberry jam to tomato sauce, cups and cups of it at a time. And I’ve always used a lot of lemon zest for pies and sweet rolls, scones and soups.

Lemons right now are going for between three and four for a dollar; to just buy the lemons our little tree threw at us would have run around seventy dollars.

A quart of generic lemon juice usually goes for around $4 – just the juice would have been around $32.

And of course, the zest is pricy stuff, if you buy it off the shelf. It’s oh-so-convenient for those of us who bake to just crack open a bottle and get the party started, but boy do you ever pay a price for it: $6.59 for a 1.5 ounce bottle at the supermarket when I was there yesterday – and that 1.5 ounce bottle contains about two and a half tablespoons of the zest.

My zesting efforts today got a little tiresome, sure, but I now have about 2-1/2 cups of dried, gently-powdered zest ready for recipes. That’s almost forty tablespoons, which is almost 16 of those little jars, which would have run me over a hundred bucks to buy at the supermarket. (Which I personally wouldn’t, because ouch. Last year I did buy a pound from Bulk Foods, but you know…this zest I just made has a lovely dark yellow-orange color. Usually lemon peel granules are almost white, with just a hint of yellow…I think this homemade stuff is going to add a nice color to things. Guess I’ll just have to experiment and find out. Oh, the horror! The long-suffering trials and tribulations! Now, where did I put that lemon bread recipe…?)

I give this tree a little bit of citrus food twice a year, and it tends to get first shot at the used coffee grounds because it’s so conveniently close to the sliding glass door (and I’m so often in a hurry when it’s time to dump the grounds)…but other than that, well, it gets about nothing. We water it when it seems to need it (frequently with gray water), and last year I did wash one of its branches with some soapy water because the ants were starting an aphid farm there (and everywhere else they thought they could get away with it, including a row of carrots, for Pete’s sake), but by and large…this is just a sweet little Giving Tree that asks for almost nothing in return. It generally repels pests on its own, hasn’t had any leaf diseases to speak of and pretty much just…spreads its beautiful leaves, blossoms up, and showers us each winter with a shameful plenty of sweet, juicy lemons.

And it’s already got a few tiny green lemons on it, and is putting out some new growth as if to let me know it’s OK to take what’s there – she’s already making more.

It’s amazing, what the earth can provide for us. It’s not always a simple kind of gift – certainly spending an entire precious Sunday hunkered over sliding a palm-zester over what seemed like an endless supply of lemons wasn’t exactly a lazy way to spend the day. But unlike some other things (spreading compost comes to mind), it was a sweet-smelling exercise; and the bright lemon color was lovely on a gray and raining kind of day.

Also…lemon drop martinis, with fresh squeezed lemon juice.

Oh yeah. Life is good, people…life is very, very good…


PipneyJane said...

Don't know if you've mentioned it before, but what variety is your lemon tree? I've wanted one for years but, around here, it's a special order and they're paranoid about them not being hardy enough to grow outdoors. (Enough for what? The average London winter is only a couple of degrees colder than the average Melbourne winter and my parents' lemon tree thrived on benign neglect. My sister tells me "Lisbon" is a hardy variety.)

How long did you dry the zest for?

Also, I think you'd love my word verification. It's "swigenty" which I first read as "swig gently". :o)

- Pam

Mother of Chaos said...

Our tree is a Meyer lemon (allegedly). It's about six years old now, and really hitting its stride.

I put the zest in a 200-degree oven for about eight minutes, stirring compulsively until it was just barely dry. I didn't want to risk cooking off the oil, but also didn't want any mold kicking up due to juice or water that might have been on the skin.

21stCenturyMom said...

I think I need to work the whole gardening thing a little harder.

Chef'n said...

Glad to hear you're such a fan of the PalmZester. We've never zested 207 of anything in one sitting, and think you most definitely deserve a fresh lemon drop martini (or two) for doing so. Cheers!

Ms. Packrat said...

If your kiddos like beets, you ought to try the Chioggia beets - self-striping!

Caitlan said...

That sounds like a way better savings than when you described growing your own tomatoes and making sauce.