Recipes for winter's brightest fruit.

Recipes for winter's brightest fruit.

I know what to do with bushels of zucchini and a cellar full of turnips, but when life gave me loads of lemons I was almost overcome by the riches. I've always coveted the lemon trees that grow in my sister's backyard in California, the state that produces about 90 percent of the U.S. crop. When I visit her, I am baffled by how she seems to take those sunny fruits for granted.

Then a couple years ago my family moved for seven months from Vermont to the subtropical North Island of New Zealand. Early during our time down under, a friend and I ventured down the driveway of a vacant neighboring house and found a neglected lemon tree heavy with fat, golden orbs. Some had already fallen to the ground, soft and cracked, perfuming the air with citrus oil. The fruit had to be rescued, we agreed; it would be irresponsible to waste it. We picked armfuls of plump, fragrant lemons and carried them home-the first of a steady stream gathered over the next several months from that tree and others.

At home in Vermont, I was accustomed to buying lemons judiciously to accent seafood, brighten soups, stews and sauces, and flavor favorite desserts, but in New Zealand I used them with wild abandon. I made gallons of lemonade, grilled native, grass-fed lamb rubbed with lemon zest, roasted fish with herbs and lemon slices, whisked up citrusy vinaigrettes, baked soft-centered little lemon cakes and dolloped velvety lemon curd atop meringue to make pavlova, a favorite dessert in New Zealand. Our immune systems must have been dancing, and there was no chance that my family would suffer from scurvy like those vitamin-C-deprived sailors of yore. I also learned that C may improve heart health and even help reduce risk of cancer and stroke.

Like the lemons in my sister's Californian backyard, the New Zealand lemons were unwaxed and softer and heavier than store-bought, having ripened on the tree instead of being picked green and coated for protection during storage and shipping. That also meant they had to be used more quickly. I was more or less keeping up with the flow until a friend delivered a huge basket of lemons. Daunted but determined, I remembered another use for them: preserved lemons. These are a tradition from the Middle East and Mediterranean, where lemons were first actively cultivated in the fourth century after arriving from northwest India and Pakistan. Preserved lemons, which are essentially pickled lemons, are a simple, winning combination of salt and pucker. Some recipes for preserving lemons include chile peppers or spices, but I like mine straight up for versatility: just lemons, extra juice and coarse salt. Four large jars were soon sitting on my counter ready to punch up an earthy braise of saffron-scented lamb and prunes with their tangy salinity or add a briny, tart kick to a simple dressing for a salad of winter greens.

Back where January means deep winter again, I dream of backyard lemons and gentler climates where it's now the heart of lemon season-and I buy lemons for the sunlight they shine onto cold, gray days.

January/February 2011