Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Preserved Lemons

Here at One Block West Restaurant, we use a lot of preserved lemons, mostly in tagines of lamb or chicken. Whenever I've mentioned them in my recipes and in the monthly newsletter, customers have always been curious what preserved lemons are and where they can buy them.

As for what they are, preserved lemons are basically pickled lemons, lemons that have been brined, in the same way that you would make dill pickles, without the dill, naturally. This photo shows from left to right a fresh lemon, a lemon that has been curing for about two weeks, and a lemon from a batch I made about a year ago. Notice that the lemon that is still curing is starting to go soft, but it is not quite soft enough to eat. And that the lemon I've had in the cooler for months has lost its color, which is expected.

As for where to buy them, I don't know of any place. Sure, they're available to the trade in 10 kilo buckets, but even I don't need that many preserved lemons at the restaurant and you surely don't. Fortunately, preserved lemons are trivial to make and you should try it. I don't see how you can screw it up.

You'll need lemons to preserve and extra to squeeze for lemon juice to top off the container, a non-corrosive (plastic or ceramic, for example) container, something to weight the lemons down and keep them under the surface of the brine (such as a couple of plates), and salt (we use kosher salt).

To begin, dip the lemons to be preserved in boiling water for a few seconds, mainly to dissolve any wax coating on them. Wipe them to get all the wax off and cut off the stem. Then, as in this photo, slice in half vertically, leaving the two halves attached at the stem end. (How you slice the lemon is immaterial. The entire point of the exercise is to let you pack the lemon with salt. This is how I slice the lemon. Do what feels right to you.)

Then, I rotate the lemon ninety degrees around its vertical axis and slice it again, this time from bloom end to stem end, leaving the halves attached at the bloom end and slicing through the stem end. I do this simply because having the lemon quarters attached at both ends seems to keep the lemons whole longer, not that this is in any way important.

In the past, when I have quartered lemons, leaving them intact only at the stem end, I have noticed that they tend to fall apart more frequently as they age in the brine. Again, it doesn't matter, mainly because you will most likely dice the rind before cooking with it. A pickled lemon is a pickled lemon no matter what shape it's in or how you slice it.

This final photo shows a lemon ready to be packed with salt. Put a layer, say a centimeter or less, of salt in the bottom of your non-corrosive container. Pack each lemon full of salt and place in the container. Add any herbs or spices you want. (I always throw in a cinnamon stick and some fresh thyme. Why? I dunno.) Then top off the container with lemon juice (I save the brine from one batch to use with the next batch, boiling it between uses) and place a couple of plates on top of the lemons to keep them fully submerged beneath the brine.

At this point, I put the lemons on the counter and check them once a week. They take four to six weeks for the rinds to soften to where I like them. At this point, I transfer the container to the fridge and start to use the lemons.

You can use the whole lemon, but I generally just dice the rind for my tagines, couscous and other dishes. The reason for this is that my lemons are generally full of seeds and it is a nightmare to remove them and still have any flesh left intact to dice. So I peel the rind off the flesh and pitch the flesh.

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