It’s a lemony time of year, these waning days of January when the air is chilly, the earth is covered with no longer fresh snow, and a dull leaden sky hangs over all. Nothing brightens the spirits of the kitchen quite so much as lemons. Scratch a bit of lemon rind with your thumb nail and the fragrance alone will lift your winter-ravaged heart.
With organically grown lemons available—even if it takes a bit of foraging to find them—this is a great time of year to make North African lemons preserved in salt. They won’t give you an immediate boost—they have to sit in their saltiness for a good three weeks before they’ll be ready to use—but you can anticipate the joys of all those North African dishes that benefit from a piece of chopped rind thrown into the mixture. My favorite is a braised chicken dish from Morocco that incorporates both salted lemons and black olives in the sauce—a gorgeous contrast. You can find the recipe in The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, on page 412, as well as a recipe for Tunisian fish with preserved lemons on page 373.
I’m told that the organic label only goes so far. Most lemons that you buy, even organic ones, are covered with food grade wax to keep them from shriveling during the long journey from an orchard in California or Arizona to my kitchen in Maine. Even though it’s certified safe for consumption, I think it’s a wise idea to scrub lemons before using, at least in part because we don’t actually want to preserve them at this point. The whole purpose of pickling them is to change their basic nature into something even more interesting than a plain old lemon.
So how do you get the wax off? It’s easy: Bring a pot of water to a boil. Dip a lemon in and hold it under boiling water for not more than a minute, then pull it out with a slotted spoon and dry it, rubbing it roughly with paper towels. I won’t gurantee that this gets all of the wax off, but it will get enough so that any remainder won’t be bothersome. (Of course, if you have a lemon tree in your back yard, you don’t need to bother with this—just rinse the dust.)
I’m not giving a formal recipe for these salt-preserved lemons because so much varies depending on the size of the lemons. In any case, it’s an easy technique to describe. You need 6 to 8 organically grown lemons, and another 6 to 8 lemons that don’t have to be organic (but it’s always a good idea to use organic when you can), plus about 2 cups of sea salt or plain uniodized salt for pickling. (Morton’s Pickling Salt is good.) You’ll also need a half-gallon (2 quarts, 4 pints, 8 cups, whatever) Mason or Ball jar, with a wide mouth. First, stand the glass jar on a wooden board or a folded dishtowel (to keep it from cracking) and fill it with boiling water. Do this on a counter next to the sink to make it easier to turn the water out when you’re ready to fill the jar with lemons.
Put the salt in a wide bowl. You probably won’t need to use all of it but that doesn’t matter. Now take a lemon and using a sharp knife, cut a slit beginning at the bud end and going down to the stem end but do not cut all the way through. Stop about a half inch from the stem end. Then turn the lemon and slit again to make a cross. The lemon will be quartered but the quarters will stay attached at the stem end. Open the lemon slightly and pack the insides with salt, then press the lemon down in the bottom of the jar (which you have first emptied of water, natch). Do this with each lemon, pressing very firmly (I use a wide wooden spoon for this) so that they yield a considerable amount of juice. Fill the jar up to the top. If you have 8 g00d-sized lemons, they should fit comfortably in the jar. Add about ¼ to 1/3 cup of salt.
If not enough juice has been released to cover all the lemons completely, squeeze enough fresh lemon juice to top it up. Add another couple of tablespoons of salt to the top of the jar and screw the lid on tight.
Set the jar aside to ferment and pickle for at least three weeks, although salted lemons will last a good deal longer. (I’ve kept them up to a year in the refrigerator and they just keep getting better.) Every couple of days turn the jar upside down and leave it standing on its head for another couple of days, then right it again. This keeps the salt mixing well throughout.
To use them, extract a lemon and use the soft rind, chopping or slicing it, depending on the recipe. If you only need half a lemon, return the other half to the jar to continue its work.
There’s a vogue lately for using thin-skinned, sweet Meyer lemons (actually a cross between lemons and mandarin oranges) for this but I prefer regular lemons. The thicker, sturdier rind adapts much better to all the traditional uses, including pickling, and the sharper, more acidic, more lemony flavor shows up better for pickling. Americans have swooned over the sweetness of Meyers but our regular Eureka or Lisbon lemons, the kind available in almost every produce market in the country, are much closer to the lemons available in the Mediterranean. Use this recipe with Meyers if you wish (or with the very rare but fascinating Bergamots, or even with limes) but regular old-fashioned lemons will give the best results.