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Homemade Preserved Lemons

Renee-Lucie BenoitWhile the rest of the country is smothered under a blanket of snow, we here in California are just getting started with citrus season. Meyer lemons are loading down the trees and mandarin orange stands are advertising their sweet goodness. I guess folks in Florida and Texas are enjoying similar bounty and aren't we lucky? When I went to Santa Cruz recently I spied a Meyer lemon tree in my daughter's backyard. The poor tree's limbs were being weighted to the ground with hundreds of the characteristic yellow-orange globes. They're that orange-y color because a Meyer lemon tree is a hybrid of a lemon and a mandarin orange. May I have some? I said. My daughter says, of course, have as many as you like. My mind went immediately to preserved lemons, which are so lovely in Middle Eastern dishes and anything else your little heart desires. So I set about loading up a shopping bag with a bushel of the beauties. I lugged them home and today I made 8 pints of lemons, 4 plain and 4 with Middle Eastern spices. It takes a month for them to get to the place where they are ready to use so today I will tell you how to do it and then in a month I will make something with them and share the recipe with you.

lemons

Preserved Lemons

makes 4 pint jars

Ingredients

4 lemons per pint (Meyer lemons are in season in January and February, have yellow-orange flesh, a smooth rind, and a sweeter flavor than other lemons.)

1/4 cup sea or kosher salt (more as necessary)

Freshly squeezed lemon juice (as needed)

Optional Moroccan seasoning

1 small cinnamon stick

3 cloves

5 to 6 coriander seeds

3 to 4 black peppercorns

1 bay leaf

Equipment

4 sterilized 1-pint mason jars. (To sterilize a mason jar, place it upside down in a steamer and steam for 10 minutes. Using tongs (wrap the grabber end of the tongs in rubber bands for a better grip), remove the hot jar and dry it on a paper towel-lined baking sheet. To sterilize the jar's top, dip it in boiling water for a couple minutes, then remove with tongs. You don't want to melt the rubber liner.)

sterilize 

How to:

Quarter the lemons from the top to within 1/4 inch of the bottom. Don't cut all the way through.

quarter 

Sprinkle salt on the exposed flesh, then close the fruit into normal shape.

salt 

Put 1 tablespoon of salt on the bottom of the mason jar. Pack in lemons one by one and push them down, (I used a wooden pestle) adding a bit more salt between layers. If you want to now's the time to put in the optional spices. Whatever you decide, press the lemons down to squish their juices out and to make room for more lemons. If the juice released from the squashed fruit does not cover them add freshly squeezed lemon juice. Do NOT use reconstituted lemon juice or water. Leave about 1/2 inch air space before putting on the lid.

pack 

Set the lemons to ripen in a warm place. Leave for 3 to 4 days. The lemons will let loose more of their juices and the skins will have softened some. Open the jar and press the lemons down as much as you can. If you need to, add fresh lemon juice to cover them entirely. I'm glad I gleaned a lot of lemons because I had to use a lot of extra lemon juice to cover them.

finished jars 

Each day while they are ripening shake the jar to distribute the salt and juice.

Just so you know if a piece of lemon is not covered, it will develop a white mold that is harmless. Just wash it off when you get ready to use it.

After 30 days use the lemons as needed by rinsing them under running water until the salt is gone. Then remove and discard the pulp. By the way, take the lemons out with clean utensils to avoid contaminating the inside of the jar. This way, the remaining contents of the jar will not need to be refrigerated. Preserved lemons will keep up to a year, and the pickling juice can be used again two or three times in a year.

Here's a vision of things to come: preserved lemons go good with chicken and olives, with butter in potatoes, risotto or couscous. You can use them in dishes calling for garlic and cilantro, dried apricots and honey. At the end of the month I will show you how to make chicken with preserved lemons and green olives and one other dish.

Thanks to NPR of Southern California for their support and inspiration in creating this blog. — Reneé