Preserved Lemons July 2010

Winter brings with it the onset of colds, flus, running noses and general winter blues and while they say an apple a day will keep the doctor away, lemons do just as good a job over the winter months.
With a massive 53 mg of vitamin C in a standard lemon it is no wonder the lemon is referred to as nature’s pharmacy.
I do enjoy the citrus fruits that winter brings and feel that much better with a hot lemon and manuka honey drink in hand to help ease the blues and the sore throat.

Reading about the lemon and its long history made me understand that it seems to be a little bit of a mystery where lemons actually originated first but some thoughts are India, who are today still the largest producers. Chinese cuisine does have an old tradition of using lemon both for cooking and medicinally so perhaps the lemon came from these regions before it took the long journey over to Europe near Southern Italy. The Arab world adopted the lemon whole heartedly and it plays a major role in their cuisine today.
Cultivation of the lemon in Europe didn’t start until late in the piece-somewhere around the 15th century and then it was introduced to the Americas by Columbus and by the late 1800’s mass plantings of citrus around Florida and California could be found.

I always have lemons on hand in the kitchen for cooking. You cant beat that bright, fresh zing they add and often when I feel that I cant get a dish right, I add a little zest or juice of a lemon and find that it hits the spot.

Preserved lemons are another favoured ingredient that I keep on hand to add brightness and complexity to dishes.
Common to North African cuisine, the preserved lemon has become a common sight in recipes and are available quite readily packed into jars. Not just something unique to Northern Africa, those who grew and enjoyed lemons wanted to be able to enjoy them all year round so the preserving or lemons and citrus in some form is found all over the world. An American cookbook and good house management book I found dating from 1808 notes the preserving of lemons in salt and spices such as ginger and nutmeg or vinegar and salt and allowing them to sit for at least 1 year before they are used.
In Sri Lanka they boil them till they split then stuff them with salt and submerge them in vinegar for six months. They are then minced with shallots and chillies as a type of lemon pickle to be enjoyed on rice.
In North Africa they are pickled in a brine of water, lemon juice and salt, they are allowed to ferment for a period of usually months before they are used. The convenience factor of being able to buy them off the shelf these days saves for a lot of work and space saving as believe me, a huge tub of fermenting lemons in your laundry can get a little annoying and make the husband rather grumpy every time he whacks his toe against it.

The process itself is not difficult . Slice the lemon almost into quarters bit not all the way through. Stuff the lemon with approximately 1 tablespoon of good sea salt. Squeeze the lemons into large wide mouthed jars and toss more salt in on top.
Add whatever spices you feel you want to-cinnamon quills, paprika, chillies, peppercorns…up to you and here there are no rules so go crazy if you like.
At this stage some people cover with lemon juice or vinegar and some just allow the natural mushing of the lemons against one another to create juice. I like to cover with more lemon juice to be safe as I don’t want that hard work to be wasted.
Seal but the jar and if you feel inclined, allow it to simmer in a hot water bath to kill any extra bugs. This is totally your call and as the lemon juice is acidic, it tends to kill off anything anyway.
Store for at least 3 weeks before you can’t wait any longer but you can keep them up to a year by which time they would have darkened considerably but are still safe to use.

They are wonderful to use as you would expect for North African dishes. Classic tagines and slow cooked meats are wonderfully enhanced with the addition of a lemon quarter or two.
It is usual just to cut away the fleshy pulp in the middle and just add the skin either whole or finely chopped but I have found that unless it has a huge amount of seeds I don’t bother. Slow cooking with the preserved lemons makes them even softer again and can easily just be mushed up into the liquid.
If I am adding them to a salad or cous cous then I do remove the pulp and very finely slice the skin so you are not getting a massive sour burst in a mouthful.

Other applications for preserved lemons:
-Add a quarter to a chicken stuffing rather than a fresh lemon. The taste is a little mellower.
-Make a gremolata from preserved lemon skin, very finely chopped, fresh Italian parsley, finely chopped and garlic, also finely chopped. Top grilled meats, seafood or soups.
-Preserved lemons work very well with fish so bake a whole or fillets of fish with slices of preserved lemon, pepper, sliced fennel bulbs and olive oil
-Heavy meats such as lamb shanks can be lightened up with the addition of preserved lemons. Add at the start of the cooking process and mush them up into the cooking liquids.
-Sliced finely and added to fresh summer salads
-Add to herb and nut mixers to create zesty pestos to have toasted onto breads

If you have a lemon tree this is a great way to enjoy lemons all year round. Get harvesting and bottling!

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