When Life Hands You Lemons

This isn’t a cooking blog, but it is my blog, which means I can write about cooking if I want.

Our little island on the east Florida coast is covered up with citrus trees that brighten the waning months of the year as their fruits ripen when the winter solstice approaches. Alas, the only citrus trees in my yard are a couple of sour kumquats that might make a decent marmalade, but not much else. Much of the prolific grapefruit, navel orange, and lemon harvest falls unwanted to rot in people’s yards. I eye the fallen fruit jealously as I ride by, but occasionally some kind soul will fill a wheelbarrow with grapefruit to leave by the sidewalk with a handwritten sign that says “FREE” and that makes me very happy indeed.

This year, a co-worker found out that I was buying grapefruit from the grocery store and took pity on me, delivering a few grocery bags to my cubicle the very next day. One of the bags was filled with lemons.

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If you’ve never seen lemons growing on a tree, it would probably be quite a shock to find out that they’re not all the uniform kiwi-sized yellow fruits that you find in the grocery store. The smallest ones are golf-ball sized while the largest are easily bigger than a baseball. If the lemons don’t come from a managed orchard, they’ll no doubt be tarnished with gray sooty mold. Don’t worry about it. And don’t try to wash it off until you’re ready to use them – that’s a rookie mistake. Washing the fruit just breaks open the pores and causes the oils in the skin to dry out, which causes the fruit to rot more quickly. They should stay good for a month if you handle them properly.

When life hands you lemons, I say screw the lemonade. I want a lemon pie. Not a lemon meringue pie, mind you, but a real lemon pie. I’d never had one until last winter, but once I had my first slice I was hooked. I got the recipe several years ago from a woodworking book. What was a pie recipe doing in a woodworking book? Good question. Apparently the pie was first made by the Shaker communities of the Midwest. The book was about the furniture of the Pleasant Hill Shaker Village near Lexington, Kentucky. Kerry Pierce, the author, found the pie too good not to mention in his book. I was intrigued.

Fair warning: this pie is not for the easily puckered. It is as tart as it is sweet, with a hint of bitterness. The rinds don’t get very soft, so the texture is chewy. And it is powerfully lemony. I’m the only one in my family who will eat it, but let’s just say that it doesn’t bother me a bit that I don’t have to share.


  • 2 medium lemons
  • 2 cups sugar
  • Pastry for a 9-inch double-crust pie
  • 4 eggs, beaten well
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

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  • Using your sharpest knife (now is the time to show off that armhair-shaving honing that you perfected in the woodshop), slice each lemon crosswise, as thinly as possible, into paper-thin circles. If you can drape them over the knife blade like the clocks in a Salvador Dali painting, you’re doing it right.
  • Chop the thinly sliced lemons coarsely, so that the largest pieces of lemon rind and pith are less than an inch long.
  • Add the sugar to the bowl of lemons, and stir to mix them together really well. Cover and set aside at room temperature, for at least 4 hours or better yet overnight. Stir occasionally to mix everything together well.
  • Heat the oven to 450 degrees F. Line a 9-inch pie pan with crust, leaving at least an inch of overhang.
  • Beat the eggs well, then add the eggs and salt to the bowl of sugary lemons. Stir to mix everything evenly. Pour the filling into the piecrust.
  • Use a little water to wet the top rim of the piecrust. Roll the remaining dough into a 10-inch circle and place it carefully over the filling. Trim away the extra piecrust, leaving a 1-inch overhang extending beyond the rim of the pie pan. Fold the crust up and over, and crimp. Cut a few steam vents in the top of the pie.
  • Place the pie on a baking sheet and place it on the middle shelf of the oven. Bake for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 375 degrees F and bake until the filling is bubbling and thickened, and the pastry crust is cooked and nicely browned, 25 to 35 minutes more. Let the pie cool to room temperature for the juices to set up (if you can wait that long).
  • Serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream. Then write me a long and gushing thank-you letter. You’re welcome in advance.

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Bonus tip: Everything tastes better on a wooden plate.


Now You’re Grilling with Wood

If you’re a woodworker, then you’ve probably managed to come up with some creative solutions for handling workshop waste. Grilling meat is one of my favorite uses for hardwood scraps. I don’t remember where I first heard that you could grill with wood scraps; I just remember that I thought it was a brilliant idea, and I immediately decided to give it a try. I am a natural-born cheapskate, after all, and charcoal is nearly $1/lb.

Little did I realize that there was a bit of a learning curve involved. My first attempts consumed abundant quantities of lighter fluid to get the wood started and resulted in some heavily smoked burgers. I was determined to make it work, so I persisted through trial and error until I perfected the technique. That was 5 years ago, and I’m happy to share my methods with you so that you may find the learning curve not-quite-so-steep.

First, you need some wood of appropriate species. All of the wood scraps that exit my shop are carefully sorted into grillable and non-grillable. Don’t even think about using conifers. Pine, spruce, cedar, fir, cypress – all of it goes straight to the kindling pile for starting camp fires. Hardwoods are what you want, and luckily, the vast majority of hardwoods that you’re likely to find in a woodshop are also fine for grilling. I avoid the softer hardwoods, like poplar, basswood, cottonwood, and willow. Walnut and elm have bitter-tasting smoke, so I skip those as well (the sapwood is fine, but avoid the heartwood).

Basically, anything that is good for smoking meat will be great for grilling also. Dense hardwoods, like oak, hickory, and mesquite make the longest-lasting coals. Softer hardwoods, like sassafras, cherry, and alder have coals that don’t last quite as long, but they work fine and the smoke is flavorful.

Here, I made a helpful Venn diagram:

Venn Diagram
Everyone loves Venn diagrams.

Each time I clean up the shop, I grab all of the good grilling scraps and a hatchet and I split them into usable sections. A good size is anywhere from 3/4″ x 3/4″ to 1 1/4″ x 1 1/4″. The length can be up to a foot or so, but typically they will be shorter (these are scraps, after all). Doesn’t really matter, but it helps to have some longer pieces. I keep the scraps in a milk crate. Keep a bucketful of plane shavings around for starting the grill. It doesn’t matter what species; they’ll be long burnt off by the time the coals are ready.

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On the menu: cherry, sassafras, live oak, beech, maple. The shavings are yellow-poplar.

Start by stacking up some of the longer scraps, log-cabin style, into a pyramid shape. Fill the center of the pyramid with shavings as you go.

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Finish up by filling in around the pyramid with lots and lots of shavings. It takes a surprising amount to get the wood started. Then pile some of your shorter scraps on top of the shavings. It takes more wood than you might think to get a good bed of coals, so don’t be stingy. It does grow on trees, after all. Now, light it on fire.

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After a few minutes, you should have a flaming mass of scraps and shavings.

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When the fire has burnt down a bit, you’ll start to see the telltale orange glow in the center of the pile that indicates wood is turning to charcoal. The outer edges will turn white. There should be absolutely no un-charred wood left in the grill. Wood creates loads of smoke, which sounds nice, but the flavor of your meat will be way too strong. We want the heat with just a bit of smoke, which is what charcoal gives us. A long pair of tongs are helpful for moving around the scraps to ensure that it’s completely charred.

This is about what the pile should look like when it’s nearly ready.

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At this point, put the lid on the grill and choke it down completely. This will smother the fire and cause a profuse amount of smoke. After about 30 seconds, open the vent and move the lid to the side a bit to expose about a 3/4″ crack (other grills may be different, but I find that my Weber doesn’t get enough ventilation from the vents alone).

When the grill stops smoking so much and settles into a steady, low-volume smoke, the coals are ready.

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Here’s what they look like before the meat goes on.

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The coals will last a good hour or more if you used a dense hardwood like oak, hickory, mesquite, sugar maple, or beech. I mostly used cherry and sassafras this time, which don’t last as long. Maybe 40 minutes. But that’s plenty of time for a few pork chops.

By the way, keep the lid on while grilling, with plenty of ventilation. If it starts smoking again, that’s your cue to give it some more air.

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Lunch is served.

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Mmm. Porky deliciousness.

There are a few downsides to cooking with wood. For one, the ashes are more corrosive than charcoal ashes. They contain lye and other alkaline salts, so your grates will have a tendency to rust faster. Also, wood will produce more ash than charcoal, so open the lid gently unless you want to give your meat a light coating of ash. Neither of these problems are annoying enough to make me stop. I’m happy to have crossed charcoal and lighter fluid off my shopping list permanently. Never much cared for petroleum-based pork shops anyway.