Cooking with lemon leaves
We moved house a few months ago – our first time living in a house, rather than a shoebox sized apartment, as was always the case in Florence. It’s a lovely old double brick house with stained glass on all the doors, wrought iron fireplaces and hardwood floors. The nice thing with a house, too, is having a back yard where we’ve just planted our first winter vegetable patch with radicchio, leeks and kale and things for the spring like fava beans, strawberries, radish, snow peas. But the best thing about the back yard, if you ask me, is sitting at the very back, in front of the corrugated iron shed – a tall and wide lemon tree, with branches that are starting to droop under the weight of all its fruit.
Having our own lemon tree means having a bountiful supply of fresh, unsprayed, organic lemons – something that will translate nicely into marmalade, curd and be useful for hot teas this winter. But before having my own lemon tree I had never thought of using also its leaves. Much like kaffir lime leaves, while you may not want to eat them, lemon leaves can be used to impart a wonderful lemon essence to your cooking, particularly when wrapped around your chosen food and grilled. This is a technique especially enjoyed by Sicilians, whose island region is well-known for its citrus (more on that later this week). There you’ll find a popular dish of polpette, meatballs, wrapped in lemon leaves, secured with a toothpick and oven baked, a dish every Sicilian nonna worth her salt would know how to make.
On the mainland, along the Amalfi coast, where beautiful, sweet Amalfi lemons grow, they grill thick slices of scamorza affumicata (smoked mozzarella) in lemon leaves. Imagine those beauties added to your next summer barbeque – crisp, chargrilled lemony leaves hiding soft and oozing cheese.
This recipe is a variation on ones that traditionally use other fresh seafood such as mussels or fresh anchovy fillets. It’s simple, fresh food, quick to make and perfect as part of an antipasto. A breadcrumb coating is made with fresh breadcrumbs (always better to make your own with a recipe like this – just blitz some stale crusty bread in a food processor), fresh herbs such as mint or parsley, lemon zest, a little garlic and a lick of olive oil. Grill or bake. If using mussels, cook them first in a big pot just to open them and if you’re trying this with anchovy or other fish fillets, try adding a bit of finely grated Parmesan in the breadcrumb coating instead of the garlic.
Oysters wrapped in lemon leaves
It’s very important that you know the provenance of your lemon leaves as they must be absolutely free of any sprays or pesticides, which can be poisonous – they are best if straight out of your garden for this reason. The same goes for anything requiring lemon zest – organic is the way to go.
To serve 4 as part of an antipasto
- 12 fresh oysters
- Drizzle of olive oil
- Handful of homemade breadcrumbs
- Handful of chopped mint or parsley
- Some freshly grated organic lemon zest
- A clove of garlic, chopped finely
- salt and pepper to taste
- 12 large organic lemon leaves, wiped clean
- Some fresh lemon wedges or cheeks for serving
Remove the fresh oysters from their shells and drizzle them with some olive oil. Combine the breadcrumbs, herbs, zest, garlic, salt and pepper in a small bowl, and roll each of the oysters in this mixture then place each on a lemon leaf, fold over the leaf and secure with a toothpick. Bake or grill until the oysters are sizzling and just cooked, about 5 minutes. Serve immediately with some lemon wedges or cheeks. To eat, simply remove the toothpicks, open up the fragrant lemon leaves, squeeze over some lemon juice and use the toothpick to pop that oyster into your mouth – perfect with some crusty ciabatta bread and a little glass of something dry and sparkly.