Pucker Power!
by Elisa Bosley

Add zest to your cooking with the refreshing flavor of lemons.

Lemons the size of softballs grow in effortless abundance in the area of Southern California where I once lived. Decades earlier, my old neighborhood had been a green and gold carpet of citrus trees stretching from the foothills to the sand, perfuming the air with sweet blossoms thick with happy bees. My yard hosted a lone granddaddy Valencia orange tree, but most homeowners on my block had several lemon trees that bore huge yellow fruit year-round.

Knowing my love of cooking, kind neighbors gave me leave to pick as many lemons as I liked. In short order, bushels of lemons — juice, zest and slices — made their way into marinades, dressings, entrees, desserts, sauces ... actually, any dish that needed an unmistakable zing. Admittedly, these sour gems spoiled me forever — no plastic lemon squeeze bottles in my kitchen, thank you. Now that I live in the decidedly citrus-challenged Rocky Mountains, that California memory asserts itself: I buy lemons in quantity, and gladly, because I know there's no substitute for fresh, pucker-up-and-whistle lemons.

When you put the squeeze on lemons you get more than good taste: These sourpusses are loaded with disease-fighting flavonoids, potassium, folic acid and, of course, a wallop of vitamin C — twice as much as oranges. Miners during the 1849 California Gold Rush prized lemons for helping them ward off scurvy, maintain muscle strength, boost immunity and quicken wound healing; their heritage is evident in the fact that California still produces 80 percent of North America's lemon supply. But history and nutrition aside, the main reason lemons still feature prominently in my cooking is because you can't beat a simple lemon for giving food a flavorful kick. So pucker up with these lemon-lovin' recipes — and kiss bland food goodbye.

Zesty Lemon Chicken

Serves 6

Adapted from Crème de Colorado (Junior League of Denver, Inc.). Excellent hot and terrific cold, this is a treat for al fresco dining on your patio or in the mountains.

Prep time: overnight marinating, plus 25 minutes
Cooking time: 25 minutes

6 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
2 cups fresh lemon juice (about 8-9 lemons)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons freshly grated lemon peel
1/3 cup lightly packed brown sugar
1/4 cup chicken broth
1 lemon, thinly sliced in rounds
Minced fresh parsley

1. In a large, sealed plastic bag, combine chicken breasts and lemon juice. Squeeze air out and seal. Refrigerate overnight, turning once.

2. Remove chicken, reserving 2 tablespoons of marinade, and drip dry. Combine flour, salt, paprika and pepper in a plastic bag. Shake until well mixed. Put chicken breasts in bag, one at a time, and shake to coat evenly.

3. In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat and sauté breasts, a few at a time, until browned on both sides, about 5 minutes.

4. Arrange chicken in a single layer in a large baking dish. Sprinkle evenly with lemon peel and brown sugar. Mix chicken broth with reserved 2 tablespoons marinade and pour around chicken. Place a thin lemon slice on top of each breast and sprinkle with minced parsley.

5. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes or until tender.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 300 Fat: 7g % fat calories: 21 Cholesterol: 63mg Carbohydrate: 31g Protein: 29g

Lemony Hummus

Serves 10 (makes about 1 1/2 cups)

This light and healthy dip is a snap to prepare. Serve on toasted slices of baguette and garnish with fresh dill sprigs.

Prep time: 15 minutes

1 15-ounce can organic garbanzo beans, drained (reserve liquid)
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup tahini
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 organic cucumber, finely chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill

1. Combine garbanzo beans, lemon juice, tahini, garlic, salt and cayenne in food processor; pureé until smooth (if hummus is too thick, add 1-2 tablespoons more lemon juice or reserved bean liquid).

2. Transfer pureé to a bowl and fold in chopped cucumber and dill.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 84 Fat: 4g % fat calories: 41 Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 10g Protein: 3g

Lemon-Splashed Summer Squash With Goat Cheese

Serves 6

Here's an easy way to use summer's vegetable bounty — practically any combination of vegetables will work. Use those listed below, or experiment with your own garden's offerings. If using fresh herbs instead of dried, simply double the amounts listed here.

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes

2 teaspoons olive oil
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
2 medium unpeeled yellow squash, sliced
2 medium unpeeled zucchini, sliced
1 medium red bell pepper, cut into thin strips
1 medium green bell pepper, cut into thin strips
1 small eggplant, peeled and cut into small cubes
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup crumbled goat cheese

2-3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, or to taste

1. In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until tender and slightly browned, about 5 minutes.

2. Add remaining vegetables and cook, stirring occasionally, 5-7 minutes or until tender but still firm.

3. Season with oregano, thyme, salt and pepper. Add crumbled goat cheese and mix. Sprinkle with lemon juice and serve immediately.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 110 Fat: 6g % fat calories: 46 Cholesterol: 11mg Carbohydrate: 11g Protein: 5g

Sparkling Lemonade

Serves 4

Consider yourself lucky indeed if your lot includes bountiful, fresh lemons. Lemonade, the elixir of summer, can be as simple as lemon juice mixed with water and sugar, or gussied up with natural sweeteners and flavored with ginger, anise, mint or almost any sweet herb. Experiment with your own taste; or try this recipe, inspired by my friend Mary, whose Southern California garden boasts several prolific lemon trees.

Prep time: 10 minutes

1 1/2 cups fresh lemon juice (about 5-6 lemons)
1/2 cup fresh lime juice (about 2-3 limes)
1 cup apple juice concentrate, thawed
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger
2-3 tablespoons honey (to taste)
3 1/2 cups soda water

1. Stir first five ingredients together until honey dissolves. Stir in soda water. Serve over ice.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 180 Fat: 0.5g % fat calories: 2 Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 43g Protein: 1g

Creamy Lemon Squares

Serves 16 (serving size: 1 square)

These irresistible, low-fat morsels are a just-right combination of sweet and tart. Savor each bite with a hot cup of mint tea or a cold glass of milk.

Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 40 minutes

1/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons butter, softened
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup quick-cooking oats
2 eggs
14 ounces nonfat sweetened condensed milk
3 teaspoons freshly grated lemon peel
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1 heaping tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Dash salt

1 tablespoon powdered sugar

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Beat sugar and butter with electric mixer on medium speed until creamy. Gradually add flour and oats; beat until mixture resembles fine crumbs. Gently press mixture into bottom of 8"x8" baking pan. Bake crust for 15 minutes; cool.

2. For topping, beat eggs with mixer until foamy. Add condensed milk, lemon juice, lemon peel, 1 heaping tablespoon flour, baking powder and salt; beat until well blended. Pour mixture over cooled crust. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes. Cool; sift powdered sugar over top.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 86 Fat: 3g % fat calories: 31 Cholesterol: 33mg Carbohydrate: 12g Protein: 3g

Delicious! assistant editor Elisa Bosley thinks more research should be devoted to developing citrus trees for snowy climates.

Photography by Rita Maas