I typically put preserving food in the same category as changing my own motor oil, or cutting my own hair. That is to say, not worth the effort, since I’m likely to botch the job at high personal cost. Preserving food scares me. I’m afraid of poisoning people with botulism or mysterious molds. But once I heard how easy it was to make preserved lemons, I was emboldened. If I can do this, people, anyone can.
I should probably warn you that I’m not objective about citrus. The truth is, I have a big crush on citrus. If I met citrus at a party, I’d angle to sit next to it. Citrus would crack surprising jokes. It would be soft-spoken and witty. It would be complicated on the outside, sweet and sublime within. Plus it would smell like flowers. Fascinating.
I swoon a little when I taste citrus in just about anything. Cocktails? Oh, yeah. Pie crusts and cakes? Yes, please. Chicken or fish? Uh-huh. Citrus can throw a little pop rocket into just about any dish. So you see, forces larger than myself drove me to preserve lemons. Not only do I find citrus charismatic and beautiful, I also love pretty little jars, and the color yellow, and salt. Salt is right up there with citrus as the unwitting object of my affection. How could I resist chopping a lemon, and salting it heavily, and leaving it to marinate in its own briny juices?
Preserved lemon is an alchemist. It’s one of those magical secret ingredients with the power to add depth and dimension to an ordinary dish. It’s impact is subtle but profound. Together, the salt and the lemon add up to much more than the sum of their parts. Come to think of it, I should maybe set my hopeless crushes aside and graciously applaud the union of salt and lemon. They’re such a cute couple.
How to use them? I’ll post a recipe featuring preserved lemons soon. In the meantime, just pull a lemon wedge out of the jar. Rinse it off and add it to a braise or stew. Or discard the pulp and chop the peel into fine bits. Mix the bits with butter and toss with vegetables. Add it to grain salads and pasta dishes. You can sprinkle some on fish, or mix it into dressing or marinade. A little goes a long way. (Preserved lemons are salty. Bear that in mind when you’re seasoning.)
Preserved lemons improve with age. I’ve read they’re best after six months or more. I believe it. But I used some one-week-old preserved lemon rind in gremolata last night, and it was not half bad. The preserved lemon already had a notably different and more complex flavor than fresh zest. So here’s what you do:
(adapted from this recipe from Gourmet magazine)
makes four 8 ½ ounce jars
4 pounds small lemons (about 14 lemons – I used organic, for their thinner skins)
3/4 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup olive oil
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Blanch seven lemons in boiling water for five minutes.
When cool enough to handle, cut lemons into eight wedges each and discard seeds.
Toss lemons with salt in a large bowl. Distribute salted lemon wedges into jars.
Squeeze juice from remaining lemons. Add enough juice to jars to cover lemon wedges.
Close jar lids and let stand at room temperature for one week, flipping the jar each day.
(Did you get that? The jar sits on its lid every other day.)
Add one tablespoon olive oil to each jar. Refrigerate. Keeps for a year or more.