It wasn’t that long ago that I learned that citrus fruits peak in winter — it seems bizarre, doesn’t it? Not just because we’re used to drinking orange juice whenever we please, thankyouverymuch, but citrus just conveys an image of warmer, sunnier climes. Well, believe it, we’re right at the tail end of prime citrus season. Which means now’s a great time to stock up on fresh Meyer lemons, blood oranges, red grapefruits, etc. — you’ll probably even find good deals on organic varieties from places other than Central and South America.
As luck would have it, I was visiting my family a few weeks ago, when a dear friend, Dr. Jim Price, reminded me of one of the simple pleasures of citrus — preserving them in salt. Preserved lemons are usually associated with Mediterranean cooking, with tagines and lambs and Moroccan spices, but they’re fairly versatile. Anything that you might add a normal lemon to, from roasted chicken to poached fish, is suitable for preserved lemons, with a distinctive flavor. Hank, over at Hunter/Angler/Gardener/Cook (a wonderful food blog if you haven’t yet discovered it) has an interesting perspective on the history and uses of preserved lemon.
So, what are we talking about here? Why even bother preserving lemons, aren’t they a buck a pop in the grocery store year round? True enough but the preservation — really, a kind of pickling (continuing our theme from Neven’s eggs) — adds a different kind of flavor. It’s a great way to take advantage of citrus fruits when they’re at their peak. Also, you need to understand that the thing you’re preserving here is the peel of the fruit, not the pulp, which will be too salty to eat by the time you’re done. This is a great opportunity to seek out, say, organic Meyer lemons, which should be readily available and fairly reasonable this time of year.
Your ingredients are:
- Meyer lemons (8 or 10 should fill a quart jar nicely), washed well. It makes sense to go organic here since the peel is the end product.
- A quarter cup or so of kosher salt
- Optional spices as you see fit (peppercorns, bay leaves, ginger, cinnamon, and/or coriander)
- Mason jar(s)
The technique is really pretty simple. First, sterilize your jars by running them through the dishwasher or boiling them for 10 minutes or so. Fill the bottom of each jar with about 1-2 tablespsoons of kosher salt - enough to obscure the bottom of the jar. Mostly quarter each lemon by slicing it enough to open it up without slicing all the way through the base — each lemon should be loosely held together at the bottom. Next, liberally sprinkle each exposed side of the lemon with salt then stuff it into the jar. You want to try to extract as much of the acidic lemon juice as possible to help create the brine for pickling the lemons. Fill the jar and make sure there’s enough lemon juice to cover the lemons, you may need to add a little extra from leftover lemons. Optionally, add any spices you’d like to test out — I made one batch plain, one with peppercorns and a few bay leaves. On a whim, I also made a batch using clementine mandarine oranges, those turned out pretty good, too.
Seal and let sit at room temperature for a few days, flipping the jar every other day to evenly distribute the brine. Refrigerate for at least 3 weeks before they’re ready to be used.
When it comes time, fish out a lemon from the jar, rinse the salt and throw out the pulp, which will be too salty to eat anyway. Slice the peels as thick you please, add to a salad, grate over a roasted chicken, use to flavor a baked fish or even add a distinctive twist to a favorite cocktail. These should last a few months in the fridge no problem.