Sunday, January 12, 2014

Moroccan preserved lemons

At First Glass will mark its fifth anniversary this coming New Year's Eve, so it plans to celebrate by launching a new theme for the new year. What better than to do a sort of practice run now, and feature a simple recipe on the theme?

At First Glass, you must know, likes -- I like -- lemons. Consider: they are pretty to look at, they go with practically every other basic eatable and drinkable (butter! garlic! sugar! olive oil! cream! gin! and so on!). Stuck with cloves they smell heavenly in a linen closet. Once upon a time they lent their antiseptic and freshening properties to our great-grandmothers' skin and hair care routines. Once upon a time, Mrs. Beeton made them into Lemon Wine (recipe no.1823 of The Book of Household Management -- if you want to make it you will have to lay in fifty lemons and sixteen pounds of sugar, plus have four gallons of water and a "cask" ready). On wallpaper they make a cheerful motif in kitchen decor. They will serve as a battery in sixth-grade science fair projects, though I must admit I am not quite sure why that works.

In any case, let us take our practice run, and stock our virtual pantry today with an abundance of Citrus limon.  Because, you know, the things can also be pickled. (Mrs. Beeton did that, too.) Let's make Moroccan Preserved Lemons.

This recipe hails from what is fast becoming my new kitchen Bible, The Gourmet Cookbook edited by Ruth Reichl of Gourmet magazine (Condé Nast, 2004). She in turn credits "Mediterranean food authority Paula Wolfert" for what she has adapted.

Moroccan preserved lemons    

You will need:
10 to 12 lemons, 6 to preserve, and the rest for their juice
2/3 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup olive oil
You will also need a 6 cup glass jar with a lid (although I got by with a 32 ounce ex-pickle jar).

First, bring a large pot of water to a boil and blanch the 6 lemons to be preserved, whole, for five minutes. Drain. When they are cool enough to handle, cut each into 8 wedges, discarding the seeds. Toss with the salt in a large bowl, and pack them into the jar along with the salt.

Squeeze the juice from the remaining lemons to measure one cup. Pour enough juice into the jar to cover the wedges, and screw on the lid. Shake gently to mix everything. Let stand at room temperature for five days, shaking gently once a day.

Finally, add the olive oil to the jar and refrigerate. The lemons will keep up to a year.

What Gourmet didn't very forthrightly explain was how we use this pickle in cooking. All you want is the rind. When ready to try your new creation you will fork out a wedge or two from your jar, hold the wedge steady on a cutting board with the fork, and with a spoon scrape away the pulp clinging to the wedge. Then you will thinly slice the rind and add that to whatever stew or soup you are making. (I put the slivered rind of two wedges into a quickly made pork meatballs-and-sauce dish, and found that they lent a certain depth of flavor that was hard to identify, but seemed somehow -- professional.) This should help clarify Ruth Reichl's confusing assurance, at the very beginning of her recipe, that we may "save the pulp for bloody Marys or anything else enlivened by a little juice and salt."

The recipe seems to be a sort of training-wheel version of preserved lemons. From David Lebowitz and Nourished Kitchen, to name just two, we learn a different, slow-food way, in which we skip the blanching, only partly quarter the lemons, pack their interiors with salt and reshape them into wholes again, and then press them tightly down into a jar. Over days and weeks of repeated pressing and weighting, they soften, give off their own juice, and so preserve themselves. They are ready for use in a month, and should be refrigerated then.  

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