If I’ve learned anything about living as we do — off the land, and overwritten by the principle of enoughness — it’s patience. For as long as I’ve been seduced by North African and Middle Eastern flavors I’ve wanted to make preserved lemons. That’s been for nearly a year now. This week I satisfied that longing and started the process. I say started because they need a month in which to preserve before I can test the results.
Preserved lemons and limes can be used for flavoring salads, dressings, pestos, salsas, tagines, casseroles, and so much more. Chef Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipes and my neighbor’s Moroccan-born mother led me to them, and over time I hope to share with you some of my own creations in which they are used, especially now as we head into our cooler months.
Where would Chris and I be without lemons? We use them in so many of our favorite dishes, be they North African, Thai, French, or Italian. I drink the juice with hot water first thing every morning, and mix it with Campari and soda as an aperitif in the evening.
We only have five lemon trees, and yet between them they produce enough juice to last us a whole year. Right now, crate after crate of Eurekas, rough-skinned, and a huge alien-hybrid-we-cannot-name, are piling up waiting to be juiced and frozen.
Likewise the kumquats, the grapefruit, and the pomelos. Adelina and I will make marmalade out of some of these, while the rest will be juiced for consumption later in the year, when they are out of season.
The only disappointment among our small citrus grove is an orange tree. Since it starting fruiting, it’s produced lovely looking oranges but when opened they turn out to be dry and flavorless. We’re unsure why and unsure what to do about it. If it disappoints again, this season, I’m afraid, is its last. The orange tree will probably be replaced with a lime, another firm favorite of ours that we like to use in both food and beverages. For now we buy limes from a neighboring farmer, and this week I preserved some of them along with our lemons so I could compare the two (the recipe is at the end of this post).
They say that lemons and limes, most likely both hybrids from the same plant, originated from the rootstock of wild lemon trees that can still be found in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains today. I read that the domestication and grafting of lemon trees was documented around the third century B.C., but that “citron seeds were present in an archaeological site in Cyprus dating from 1,200 B.C.”
Chris also told me that in neighboring Zimbabwe, the country in which we both grew up, lemon trees line the slave trading routes, the seeds having been dropped by Portuguese or Arab traders traveling down in their caravans from the north.
To me, lemons somehow taste like they’ve been around a long time. It’s the shapeshifting guru that can transform a dish from ordinary to sublime–think the spicy and sour Tom Yum soup — that can double up as a disinfectant and cleaning agent, and can even ward off vampires, according to legend.
Preserved Lemons & Limes – inspired by the recipe in Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s Jerusalem
Yield: One-liter Consol/mason jar
- 6 lemons/12 limes
- 4 tablespoons salt
- 1 chilli
- 1 sprig rosemary
- 1 bay leaf
- Juice 6 lemons/12 limes
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- Sterilize the Consol/mason jar. Wash the lemons/limes in cold water, removing all blemishes and dirt. Depending on their size, either cut the lemons/limes in half and score, or otherwise leave them whole and cut into a cross, making sure they don’t separate completely. Pack each lemon/lime with salt, and squash them down into the jar like sardines. Seal the jar and leave in a cool place for about a week.
- After the initial brining, press the lemons as hard as you can to squeeze out as much of the juice as possible. Add the extra lemon juice, rosemary, bay leaf, and chile and carefully spoon over the olive oil to create a seal. Return the jar to a cool place for another four weeks. The longer you leave them, the more intense the flavor.