Preserved Lemons / by Anne

 

lemonspreservedingredientsPreserved lemons tumbled into my life and palate a couple of years ago when my friend Laura and I went to Tilth Restaurant for the first time.  During that meal, my head exploded.  Yes, it was a mess, but having your mind blown like that is worth it.  My dinner was so good that I just wanted to climb inside of it.

Many factors made this meal amazing.  So I’ll tell you about my favorite: my gnocchi dish contained, yes, preserved lemons.  This was a plate of perfect, seared gnocchi with fried capers, parmigiano, lacinato kale, and the lemons.   The little gnocchi themselves were a revelation, somehow light in their richness.  All the elements joined to create zesty-savory pleasure.  But the tiny minced bits of preserved lemons lit the gnocchi up like holiday twinkle lights.  Without the lemons, I think the dish would have been great.  But with them?  It was transformed into change-your-life good.  For months, my mind kept returning to those lemons.   And I kept meaning to make them , though my plans were derailed by my birthing a child and related subsequent new-mother duties.

I learned in the meantime that preserved lemons originated from Middle Eastern cuisine, notably found in Moroccan tagines and stews.  The word is out, though, and many restaurants around here zing their dishes with preserved lemons. They are as versatile as lemons themselves, but they can deliver small bursts of intense lemon flavor, kind of like lemon zest does, but the flavor is fuller, more complex, and less tart.  Also, since the bitterness of the rind and pith have been pickled out by the brine, preserved lemons allow more freedom with the size and shape of the magic you’re going to weave, from a teeny mince to long slices.  Not to mention that a jar of preserved lemons—which are technically pickled, by the way—will keep in the fridge for a year, always on hand and available.  Something that a sleep deprived new mom like me could clearly use.

So after much wishing and longing and birthing, I wrote a New Years’ resolution to finally get down to business with some lemons and some salt.  Oh, why did I wait so long? It was so simple and satisfying to prepare.    Sure, the idea of waiting a minimum of three weeks—preferably longer—for the lemons to cure is daunting, but if you cut out the hemming and hawing, the hands-on portion of this recipe totals 10-15 minutes.

I learned what to do with these lemons thanks to the waiter at Tilth, my friend Kim, Chez Panisse Fruit by Alice Waters, and simplyrecipes.com.  I consulted with all four, let the info cure in my brain for a minimum of three weeks (but more like 2 years), then approached the task as if I knew what I was doing.  Here’s what I did:

Preserved Lemons 

  • 1 large jar - such as 1 or 2 quart size
  • 8 – 12 organic lemons – (I hear that milder, sweeter Meyer lemons are good for this recipe, but not necessary.  I did not use Meyers).
  • Good kosher salt, preferably preservative-free.  You’ll need at least 2 or 3 cups.
  • Freshly squeezed lemon juice—have about 4 or 5 (or more) lemons’ worth on hand, just in case.

Directions 

  1. Pour salt into the bottom of the jar, about an inch high.
  2. Wash lemons well, scrubbing the skin.  Cut off the top tip of the lemon to remove the stem.  Cut each lemon lengthwise twice, about ¾ of the way through, creating quartered lemons that are attached at the bottom end, sort of like a lemon tulip.
  3. Holding each lemon in your hand over the jar, stuff it with kosher salt, squishing it into the pulp so that extra salt and any juice cascades into the jar.
  4. Squish the lemons into the jar as tightly and impolitely as possible. Some juice should come out of the lemons to create a brine the lemons will soak in. Don’t worry if it doesn’t cover the lemons; this is why you have extra lemon juice, and this is why you are squishing so hard. The less space between lemons, the less extra juice you will need.  Between layers of lemons, add layers of salt.  No need to skimp on that salt.
  5. Once you have as many lemons as humanly possible in the jar, toss in a last layer of salt (why not?), then fill the jar the rest of the way with lemon juice.  Close the lid tightly, and let lemons sit at room temperature for a few days.
  6. After these days pass, continue to cure the lemons in the refrigerator for a minimum of 3 weeks.    As they continue to sit in the brine, they will improve in flavor.  Turn the jar upside down every once in awhile, when you think of it.  Make sure that lid’s on tight so it can sit upside down in the fridge without “pickling” your leftover pizza one shelf below.
  7. To use a lemon: remove one from the jar and rinse thoroughly.  Remove seeds.  Pulp may be used but it is the rind that you’re really going for. In that gnocchi dish at Tilth Restaurant, the rind was cut in a small dice without much of the pulp.