Thursday, June 26, 2014

Preserved Lemons

A little tart

Sour has always been one of my favorite flavors.  When I was young, my mom would make pickles out of those rough skinned, seedy cucumbers and stuff the jar with home grown dill and whole cloves of garlic.  They were so crunchy and delicious, I could polish off most of a jar in one sitting, wrapping each sour bite in a slice of cheddar cheese to tame the bite.

I think I was the only child outside of Germany who loved sauerkraut with bratwurst; I even went through a period in grade school where I would just eat lemons and limes straight.  I like my vinaigrettes heavy on the vinegar and citrus is a must have whenever I cook or bake anything.

I chose to do this post about preserved lemons because they are a special kind of sour that can cross over into other flavor profile territories.  They're basically a lemon pickle, traditionally just packed in salt, but I also added some sugar and some toasted spices. 

I wanted to keep these pretty straightforward spice wise as I'd like to customize the recipes I use this with.  I decided to stick with cinnamon, coriander, black pepper and bay leaf for their warm and versatile flavors.

The witching hour

I didn't get started on this project until the wee hours of the morning.  I went to Podnah's Pit and decided that a giant fatty meat pile and a margarita(I'm kind of on a kick) were exactly what I needed to soothe the rage I felt for being stuck in traffic for an hour earlier.  It did the trick and also put me in a borderline coma for the next four hours.

I love late night cooking.  It reminds me of when I was a baker and would step outside at four in the morning to roll a cigarette and drink a cup of coffee.  The streets would be completely empty and the world was perfectly balanced between sleep and awake.  It's the witching hour and it's perfect for late night cookery.

Spicing it up

First, I toasted my spices, making sure the pan was only hot to the touch.  When toasting spices, make sure you throw in each spice one at a time, the hardiest and largest first, ending with the finer and smaller ones so as not to scorch them.  Toast until the aroma is released from each one.  This process shouldn't take longer than a couple minutes.

A regular old lemon party

Most old school recipes for preserved lemons slice the lemon into four segments with the bottom, but I wanted the process to move a little quicker.  Thin slice those mothas and throw them in a bowl.  Make sure to remove the seeds.

Toss them in a bowl with your salt, crushing them against the sides of the bowl to release more juice and create a brine, pack them in a container with the spices and wait for the deliciousness to happen.
Pack down the fruit each day to make sure it's below the brine level.  You can start using these a couple days after you make them, but they change and get better with time.  I put these directly in the refrigerator, but you could technically leave them out and they will develop more complex flavors every day.  Just make sure you use a sparkling clean container and keep that shit covered.  This process makes the whole lemon edible, use the rind in Moroccan tagine and the brine in a salty cocktail.  You can also blend the whole thing and use a spoonful to add flavor to soups and sauces(just be sure to taste as you go, it can get salty fast).

Preserved Lemons

4 lemons, scrubbed
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup salt(I use kosher)
1 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tsp black peppercorns
1/2 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf

Note:  You can use any number of different spices with this.  Get creative! Cumin, dill, fennel, star anise, dried chiles and cloves would all be great additions.  You can also change what kind of fruit you use, limes, grapefruit, oranges and even kumquats, just adjust the salt level for the sweeter fruits and add a squeeze of lemon as well.


1. Heat up a stainless steel saute pan on medium heat until you can only graze the top with your fingertip.

2. Toast the cinnamon until fragrant, add black peppercorns, then coriander and finish with your bay leaf.  Take off heat and set aside.

3. Slice your lemons along the axis the across the short side in 1/4 inch segments and place in a non reactive bowl.

4. Throw all of the sugar and salt in with the lemons and mash the lemons against the sides of the bowl until all the salt and sugar is dissolved.  Pack the lemons in a clean container, alternating with spices and brine.  Make sure the fruit is pressed down below the brine level.

5. Let them preserve for a couple days or a couple months, making sure you continuously push them below the liquid.  If made correctly, these can last quite a while.

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