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OJAI, CA -- The versatility of lemons was on display during a recent culinary showcase sponsored by Sunkist Growers Inc. and held at the Ojai Resort & Spa, here.

While much of the country was in the grips of a cold snap the second week of January, foodservice editors from the consumer and trade media gathered Jan. 12-14 in this Southern California hamlet 15 miles east of Ventura, where temperatures soared to 90 degrees.

The showcase featured presentations by Chefs Robert Danhi and Jill Davie, who prepared drinks, appetizers, salads, main courses and desserts featuring lemons as a key ingredient.

Sunkist executives also presented information about the cooperative's lemon program.

Dan Owen, director of fresh fruit quality assurance, took the group through the harvesting, sorting, grading and packing processes, stressing Sunkist's attention to detail and quality.

Lemon trees take about five years before they provide a return to a grower and fruit must be hand-harvested, said Mr. Owen, so there is a great deal of time and money invested in a grove. As such, Sunkist's growers are careful to follow the necessary steps in order to produce the best fruit possible. Those steps include maintaining proper irrigation and pruning schedules, and taking precautions to protect fruit against freeze damage, such as using wind machines to circulate warm air throughout the groves.

Once harvested, Mr. Owen said that Sunkist packinghouses use state-of-the- art optical grading and sorting machines. Fruit receives a coating of wax to replenish the natural wax that is lost during handling. In addition to restoring the luster to a lemon, the wax helps to prevent loss of moisture.

Sunkist separates fruit into three grades. Top-quality fruit receives the "Sunkist" grade and trademark, which identifies it as the best of the best. The next level is "Choice" grade fruit, which may have some cosmetic defects but is otherwise high quality. Last is "Standard" grade, which is typically used for juice and processed products.

Fruit is typically sizes 95 to 235, and sizes 140 to 200 are the most commonly used in foodservice applications, said Bruce Simmons, Sunkist's director of foodservice sales.

Attendees of the showcase also toured a lemon grove owned by Sunkist grower Richard Piddick, who with his wife and son maintains an 80-acre ranch comprised of citrus and avocados.

Mr. Piddick, who is a third-generation Sunkist grower, said that the quality standards required by the Sunkist cooperative offer an advantage in the increasingly competitive citrus industry that has become more global in nature in recent years. "Co-ops need to act like private companies in order to survive," he said.

While the seminars and grove tour provided valuable information, the culinary demonstrations were where lemons were allowed to shine. Chef Danhi, a familiar face in the produce industry for his work with the Produce Marketing Association and other produce commodities, was joined by Chef Davie, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and a rising culinary star who is the host of the Fine Living Channel's "Shopping with Chefs" show, the evening of Jan. 12 the duo prepared a lemon-inspired dinner that included freshly made lemon-scented goat cheese, lemon- braised chicken thighs with lemon couscous, roasted vegetable hash with "lemondaise" sauce, grilled striped bass with lemon-almond pesto and sweet potato puree, slow-roasted pork with lemons and candied ginger, lemon shrimpwich with yogurt-mustard dip, and lemon pudding cake.

The following afternoon, Chef Danhi gave a historical presentation on lemons and their role in world cuisines. During that session, he explored how lemons fit in to current culinary trends and prepared several dishes to reflect their importance in today's dishes.

Among the more salient points made by Chef Danhi was that lemons, which were first introduced in southern Italy in A.D. 200, pair naturally with a variety of herbs and spices, and help bring out the underlying flavors of dishes. In addition to their flavor-enhancing abilities, lemons have aromatic qualities, and bring texture and beauty to the plate. Finally, lemons have a number of healthy attributes, such as being a good source of potassium and phytonutrients.