Endlessly valuable and versatile in the kitchen, the lemon is one of my top five desert island ingredients. Less sweet than an orange, yet not as tart as a lime, with a flavour that has more friends than all of its citrus cousins combined, lemon is a vital seasoning for so many dishes. Like salt and pepper, lemon has the ability to really enhance the flavour of the food it's squeezed on to. Just a few drops of the lemon's magic can give a simple piece of fish or fruit instant inspiration.
More than any other meat, chicken works wonderfully with lemon. The sweet mildness of chicken accommodates lemon's sharpness perfectly. Before roasting a chicken, place a few lemon segments inside, along with a few sprigs of thyme or rosemary - the lemon will give a lovely fresh, zingy note to the meat.
This lemon chicken roasted with fennel and leeks recipe, right, is perfect for a lazy bank holiday weekend. Supremely simple and quick to throw together, it's a deliciously light way to dine at this time of the year, al fresco or not.
That perfect balance of sweet and sour makes lemons ideal for desserts, not forgetting that the zest of the lemon has a gorgeously intense flavouring. Paired with meringues in a pie, or cutting through a thick, creamy cheesecake, lemons invariably make a mouthwatering pudding.
I love these lemon curd cupcakes, far right. They are great fun to bake at home and are delicious with a cup of tea, or glass of milk. This recipe makes a bit more lemon curd than you'll need in the cupcakes, but the excess will keep in the fridge for a week, so you can enjoy it spread on meringues, crumpets or scones, for a sweet zingy treat another day.
And for a completely adult unadulterated lemon flavour, try making your own lemon liqueur, like the Italian limoncello, also far right. I promise it's worth waiting the few months it takes for it to mature.
Tarragon, one of my favourite herbs, is now in season. For a twist, add a few sprigs into the lemon chicken with fennel and leeks recipe.
Makes 1 bottle
You will need:
1 Wash the lemons under warm water, wiping them well afterwards with a warm cloth.
2 Remove any blemishes and stems from the lemons, then use a potato peeler to remove the peel in strips.
3 Place the lemon peel in a large, clean bottle or jar. Add the vodka, then close the lid.
4 Leave the lemon-infused vodka to sit somewhere cool and dark for at least four weeks, but preferably for as long as three months, until the lemon peel has lost most of its colour. Every couple of weeks, give the bottle a swirl to mix it up.
5 When you've let the lemon-infused vodka sit for as long as possible, make the sugar syrup. Put the water in a saucepan over a gentle heat and add the granulated sugar or the caster sugar, whichever you're using. Stir and slowly heat the mixture until it turns clear and all the sugar has dissolved completely. Take the saucepan off the heat and allow the contents to cool completely .
6Add the cooled sugar syrup to the lemon-infused vodka and allow the mixture to sit for two weeks (yes, you have to be really patient!). When the two weeks are up, use a sieve to strain the lemon peels from the limoncello.
7 Pour the limoncello back into the bottle, and store it in the fridge or freezer. Enjoy it chilled, with or without a cube of ice. It's also delicious with some tonic or soda water.
If you are using lemon zest, and your lemons aren't organic, then wash them well in warm water before zesting them.
Serves 4 to 6 approximately
1 Preheat the oven to 200°C, 400°F, Gas 6. Next, drizzle a roasting tray or ovenproof dish with a little of the extra-virgin olive oil.
2 Trim the fennel fronds from the top of the fennel bulbs and reserve them for later, to use as a garnish. Now cut the fennel into slices and put them in the tray, keeping them spaced apart. Slice the prepared leeks at an angle and add them to the tray with the fennel.
3 Squeeze the wedges of lemon gently over the fennel and leeks, just to get out a little juice, catching and discarding any pips. Put the partially squeezed lemon wedges in the tray.
4 Drizzle everything with a little more extra-virgin olive oil and some sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.
5 Finely slice the garlic and scatter it over the top of the vegetables and lemon wedges. Place the pieces of chicken, skin-side-up, on top of the garlic, fennel and leeks. Rearrange the partially squeezed lemon wedges in between the chicken pieces, and drizzle the chicken with the last bit of extra-virgin olive oil and season it with a little more sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.
6 Put the tray in the preheated oven and cook for about 25-30 minutes, until the chicken is cooked and golden on top, and the fennel slices have softened. Decorate with the reserved fennel fronds. Serve the roasted chicken and vegetables on warm plates, or serve at the table, straight from the ovenproof dish.
I always put any leftover lemon slices into the freezer. Once frozen, they will add chill and flavour to a G&T or other cool drink.
Makes 12 cupcakes
For the cupcakes, you will need:
1 First, preheat the oven to 160°C, 325°F, Gas 3. Put paper cases into a 12-hole cupcake tray or bun tray.
2 If you are making the cupcakes in a bowl: cream the butter, then add the caster sugar and half of the finely grated lemon zest (reserve the remaining half to use in the icing later) and beat well until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the whisked eggs very gradually, still beating all the time, then stir in the sifted plain flour and the baking powder until everything is combined.
3 If you are making the cupcakes with a food processor: put the butter, the caster sugar, half the finely grated lemon zest, the whisked eggs, the sifted flour and baking powder into the food processor, and blend briefly until the mixture comes together.
4 Put the cupcake mixture into the paper cases in the prepared bun tray, and bake them in the preheated oven for 8-10 minutes, or until they are a golden colour. When they are cooked, they will have a slight spring when gently pressed in the centre. Remove the cupcakes from the bun tray and leave them to cool on a wire rack.
5 Next, make the lemon curd. Put a saucepan on a very low heat, and add the softened butter, the caster sugar, the finely grated lemon zest and the lemon juice. Allow the butter to melt and combine with the sugar, the lemon zest and juice. Stir in the well-beaten eggs and the egg yolk. Stir carefully over a low heat until the mixture has thickened and will coat the back of a spoon. If the lemon curd boils it might scramble, so be careful about keeping the heat low and cooking it slowly. Once the lemon curd is made, take it off the heat and pour into a bowl or a clean jar and allow it to cool.
6 To make the lemon butter icing, cream the butter well in a bowl until it is very soft. Add the sifted icing sugar gradually, and beat it into the butter, along with the remaining lemon zest and enough lemon juice to soften the icing to a spreadable consistency.
7 When the cupcakes are cool, use a small knife to cut out a cherry-sized piece from the centre of each of the buns. Put them aside to eat later! Now spoon some lemon curd into the holes.
8 Pipe or spread a generous heaped layer of lemon butter icing over the top of each cupcake, and decorate with an extra drizzle of lemon curd.
Photography by Tony Gavin