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Taking advantage of lemons

Preserved lemons in brine

IF oranges are pure of heart, lemons are the slatterns of the kitchen. They have no moral code whatsoever. An orange may choose its company. A lemon is anyone’s. I love lemons.

Lemons are ripening on trees everywhere you look, and every good cook’s thoughts are turning to ways of taking advantage of them. They’re the most versatile of kitchen ingredients. You can use them in almost anything, from a cake, ice-cream or a cream sauce to a meaty tajine, lamb or chicken stews, casseroles or roasts, braaied, fried or grilled fish, breads, scones and any number of sauces, dips and pates.

They even look fabulous if you just pile them in a bowl and put them in the middle of the dining room table to primp and preen for your admiring guests. I put mine in a beautiful cobalt blue Italian bowl to cheer anyone up when they walk past it.

But lemons do go off, even if they last surprisingly well without refrigeration. Which is why I am astonished that it has taken me so long to preserve my own lemons. But I have done, finally, and I am an instant convert. They are just brilliant, and ridiculously versatile. You can use them pulped to enhance a savoury sauce, chop them into a vegetable dish or stirfry, add them to a stuffing for whole-roasted poultry or a roulade, pummel them into a paste with olives and garlic to spread on bruschetta or a pizza, or pop some into a salad dressing. That should be enough to convince you to preserve the next batch of lemons you have that will start to turn bad if you don’t use them soon.

There are two ways to preserve lemons. One is the traditional Moroccan way, in which the preserving agents are only salt and the lemons’ own juices, with or without added spices. The other is to pickle them in a salty brine including their own juices. This is the method I used.

The recipe can be varied according to whatever spices are in your pantry or the ones you like. I used cinnamon (a whole piece of bark), peppercorns and bay leaf. But you could also add star anise, cloves and/or cardamom pods, in any combination. All they will do is add their gentle spicy flavours and scents to the mix. Another excellent addition, only to be added once the brine mixture has entirely cooled, would be lemon leaves, just plucked from the tree and pushed down into the jar.

Start with super-ripe lemons. Wash and dry then, then cut them almost all the way through, and then cut them through again, so that they are almost quartered yet still joined at the tip. Rub a good tablespoon of salt into the flesh, then pack them down into a sterilised glass jar. Push each lemon down as you do so, so that the juices run into the jar. Add more salt if you like. Pop in two or three fresh bay leaves, six or seven peppercorns, a few cloves, a whole stick of cinnamon. Spoon over a couple of tablespoonsful of salt, then pour boiled water in to fill the jar and cover the lemons. Using a sterilised ladle, push the lemons down to release more juices into the brine. Leave to cool, then add two or three lemon leaves if you have your own (or a neighbour’s) tree.

Preserved lemons enhanced with cinnamon bark, peppercorns and bay leaf

Leave this out of the fridge for at least two weeks before use. I keep mine on the dining room table as it looks so good. Then consider them as a possible ingredient whenever you’re making anything savoury. You’ll find all manner of uses for them.

Now I’m thinking of trying something similar with fresh limes and, who knows, maybe even oranges. Salting would surely bring down the sweetness of an orange, which in any case is a useful addition to certain savoury dishes, such as a beef stew, especially if you also grate in some of the zest (but never the pith). The pith could become usable, though, if pickled in a brine.

What I like about the brine method is that the salting is subtle. They’re really hardly salty at all, but you do need to be wary of adding salt to a dish containing them. Rather add preserved lemon and cook it into the dish first, then taste and decide if you want to add salt or how much.

The second method is the traditional Moroccan way of preserving them in salt and their own juices. Pour a tablespoon of salt into the bottom of a sterilised jar, prepare the lemons as described above, including rubbing a tablespoon of salt into each lemon, and push them down into the jar, pressing to release their juices. Add such things as cinnamon bark, peppecorns, bay leaf and lemon leaves if you like, although these are not required traditionally, and more salt. Leave to mature for three weeks, opening the jar and pressing down the lemons once a day for the first three days or so to release juices. After a few days there ought to be enough juice to cover the lemons. Give the jar a good shake as well when you do this.

Use them well, and use them frequently, but don’t expect your lemons to love you back.

First published in Weekend Argus February 2011

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