You can't make everything from scratch

...but you can sure try!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Lemons all year round

"Buy local (unless you're buying exotic)." This sentiment seems so ubiquitous these days that it's almost not worth mentioning. Still, the growing season in many parts of Canada is so short that a lot of fruits and vegetables can reasonably be considered "exotic," since it's not possible to grow them here.

Take the lemon.

In Canada, the lemon is always imported, never grown. So, although its price may fluctuate from month to month, the concept of lemon seasonality is quite foreign here. In places where they do grow, though, a bumper crop of lemons means finding a way to keep them from spoiling until they can be used. Drying is one option, but I like Moroccan-style preserved lemons, which also go by the French name "citron confit" or the hybrid "lemon confit" and could accurately be called pickled lemons.

Preserved lemons are used throughout North Africa and the Middle East, but they're absolutely indispensable in Moroccan cuisine, where they're frequently paired with olives and chicken in a whole family of tagines.

I've only ever lived in one place where preserved lemons were easily available commercially (Montreal), so I've long had to make my own. Fortunately, they couldn't be easier - as long as you're used to planning your meals a month or more in advance. But you'll only have to plan that far ahead the first time, since they keep so well. (I mean, they're preserved!) And they're definitely a good thing to have on hand at all times, since they're so versatile and have such a unique taste.

Indeed, it's hard to describe the taste of a preserved lemon. It's lemony, sure, and salty. A little bit tart. But there's an extra complexity at work that puts preserved lemons in a class by themselves, as well as making them totally addictive.

And what do you use them for? Well, once you're tired of chicken tagine, you can use them as a garnish for other chicken dishes, as well as fish, pork or veal. They make a great addition to spicy soups, especially lentil soup. Chop them up with some of those wrinkly, dried olives you sometimes see at the olive bar of your local supermarket, mix in some garlic and parsely and bake them in little phyllo purses for a cute party canapé, served with some harissa dipping sauce. Put them in a vinaigrette. Heck, you could even use them to garnish a cocktail.

Preserved Lemons
Adapted from Paula Wolfert's Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco
Lemons, preferably organic, and unwaxed if you can find them. If not, simply scrub them well under hot running water before proceeding. The usable part of a preserved lemon is the rind, not the pulp, so clean them well!
Kosher or pickling salt
Spices, such as cinnamon sticks, cloves, coriander seeds or peppercorns

Take a mason jar large enough to fit the number of lemons you have. (Depending on their size, I usually get about 2 or 3 in a 500 ml jar, or 5 in a litre jar.) Put a tablespoon of salt on the bottom of the jar. Take each washed lemon and cut it lengthwise into quarters, but don't cut all the way through the end. Keep the quarters attached to each other. Pack each lemon with a tablespoon of salt and place it in the jar. (You can squish them to make them fit.) Throw on a little more salt if you like. Add the spices, if you're using them. Top off the jar with fresh-squeezed lemon juice (not bottled), making sure the lemons are completely submerged. Keep the lemons at cool room temperature for 30 days, shaking every day or two. After 30 days, they're ready to use and you can (and probably should) move them to the fridge.

To use them, remove them from the brine and rinse well. Scrape off the pulp and use the rind as desired. (Apparently some people it, but I'm not clear on how.)