It must have been around that time, about 11 years ago , when I lived in Vancouver for a few months with my sister and her family that I became hopelessly enamored with Middle Eastern food. I spent countless hours in awe watching her and her Lebanese husband make some of the most exotic food I had ever tasted, using ingredients I had never even heard of until then. Then I devoured everything with gusto.
Six years later, I moved to London where I lived for two years and found myself amidst a thriving Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian community with access to all sorts of delicacies from their respective regions. Around the corner from my first flat was a Persian store I visited almost everyday and enjoyed a first-name basis relationship with every one in the family who owned it. When I first entered, I felt what Ali Baba must have felt chancing upon the treasure trove of those forty thieves. The shelves that lined the walls from corner to corner were filled with trays of baklava in every shape and form and jewels of Turkish delight and other Arab sweets. There were jars of golden honey and tubs of fresh yogurt on one side and covering the floor were tall mounds of precious spices, nuts, and other dried fruit bursting out of sacks and baskets. Next to that was a Persian restaurant owned by their relatives where they served kebabs and panir and made fresh lavash and nan-e (flatbreads) by the window in full view of the passing public.
My second neighborhood where I lived and put up shop was even more ethnic and included a Tunisian cafe which I frequented for lunch and whose coffee I adored, a Turkish wine and deli shop whose owner I had a huge crush on, an Ethiopian restaurant that served colorful and aromatic mounds of food atop a large injera (pancake-like flatbread) and more ethnic shops replete with fresh leben (yogurt without butterfat), kofta and shawarma. A fragrant bouquet of cinnamon, cardamom and mint and the smell of fried dough permeated the air hypnotizing passersby. It was a nothing short of a culinary paradise for someone like me and I fell deeper in love with the magical cuisine of these exotic lands.
Longing to recreate the food I enjoyed then and let its flavors transport me to far-away lands, I began to collect recipes and cookbooks such as Crazy Water Pickled Lemons by Diana Henry. This is no ordinary cookbook, it is a sensual journey into the Mediterranean, Middle East and North Africa told in enchanting prose and through intriguing recipes. Each page conjures visions of cheerful lemon groves, colorful spice markets, perfumed gardens, and sunny coasts. It's amazing how Diana Henry uses common and exotic ingredients in unusual ways or combines them to create captivating and evocative dishes. The chapters are divided according to main ingredients such as Curds and Whey (recipes with yogurt, feta and ricotta), Heaven Scent (flowers and flower water), and Fruits of Longing (figs, quinces, pomegranates and dates).
It is in the Pith and Skin chapter where I found recipes for both pickled and preserved lemons. Lemons have a unique way of enhancing everything it is added to, bringing forth and underscoring its natural flavor. Sometimes though the tartness of lemons can be a tad overpowering. Pickling and preserving lemons are great ways to mellow its sharpness and astringency without compromising its role as a flavor-enhancer. Just like other preserves and pickles, the longer you let it sit the better. I can't wait to use my lemons, but in the meantime, I can admire how they look absolutely brilliant in my kitchen.
4 organic, unwaxed lemons (for preserving)
4 more lemons for the juice
coarse sea salt
2 cinnamon sticks
2 tsp coriander seeds
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
3 bay leaves
extra virgin olive oil
Here's what you do:
Sterilize the jars then wash the lemons, scrub them really clean. Divide the lemon into quarters with four deep cuts lengthways, but don't cut all the way through the other end. Take each one, and holding it open like a flower, stuff with salt, probably about 2 tsps. for each lemon. Squeeze closed and put into the jar. Do this with all the lemons you want to preserve. Push lemons down tightly and pack well. Sprinkle generously with salt.
Cover the jar and leave in a warm place for about three days while the juices run out. On the third or fourth day, add the cinnamon sticks, coriander seeds, peppercorns and bay leaves. Squeeze fresh lemon juice into the jar, making sure to cover the lemons completely. Then pour a layer of olive oil on top. Let it sit on your kitchen counter for about a month, shaking the jar at least once a day.
Preserved lemons are fantastic with vegetables, tossed in a green salad, in couscous or rice, with pasta and fresh tomato sauce or used to enhance tajines and braises. Recipes in the book that I imagine would go beautifully with these are Bulgur and Spinach Pilaf with Labneh and Chilli Roast Tomatoes, Fruit Couscous, Lamb Pizza, and Catalan Black Rice with Allioli among others.
4 organic, unwaxed lemons
coarse sea salt
extra virgin olive oil
Here's what you do:
Sterilize the jar you'll be using. Wash and scrub the lemons very well. Slice them about a quarter inch around. Put the slices in a colander set over a bowl, sprinkling with salt as you go. Leave overnight to drain off the moisture. Layer the lemon slices in the jar, sprinkling paprika between each layer, until the jar is full. Cover with extra virgin olive oil. Make sure all lemons are covered (I hadn't finished filling the jar when I took the picture above). Let it sit for about three weeks to a month, shaking the jar once a day or so.
Pickled lemons may be served with grilled fish, chicken or lamb chops. I have already bookmarked recipes to try from the book that would make great pickled lemon partners such as Arab-Andalusian Monkfish with Saffron, Honey and Vinegar, Harissa -marinated Lamb with Spiced Mash and Cinnamon Onions, Ottoman Lamb with Sultan's Pleasure and Socca with Sardines, Roast Tomatoes and Olive & Parsley Salad.
So when life hands you lemons, stick them in your San Pellegrino, as Joey says, or pickle and preserve them!