August 22, 2007

When life hands you lemons...

pickled lemons

Pickled lemons

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).

preserved lemons

Preserved lemons

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.

Preserved Lemons

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.

Pickled Lemons

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!


Socky said...

I can smell the spices just reading this post. The photos are great too. Pang-cookbook na talaga!

Anonymous said...

I recently had a very interesting conversation about food, on how significant it is and how it triggers a lot in our memories and relationships since food uses all our senses when we eat.

Amazing food shots by the way. Did you tae them as well? I love them.

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

I love making preserved lemons; there's always a jar going in my fridge.

Anonymous said...

I remember having preserved lemons with guinea fowl a few years ago at an Italian restaurant. The flavor of the lemons was very rich, without being tart, if that makes sense. It was so good.

How long do the lemons last?

Oggi said...

We regularly go to several excellent restaurants serving Lebanese and Persian food in my area. I absolutely love them!

I happen to have a large bag of organic lemons and will pickle them today, thanks for the recipe.

Beautiful shots, btw.

wysgal said...

Great photos! Looking forward to seeing how you use the lemons!

christine said...

Thank you, Socky! :)

Ferdz, that's so true. Cooking is the one art form that appeals to practically all the senses which is why I admire all the great chefs. I took the photos myself, thanks for the compliment. :)

Lydia, why am I not surprised? You have the most amazing pantry ever! :)

Marvin, makes perfect sense to me. Pickling and preserving the lemons mellows them out but retains it's richness. The lemons should last up to about 6 months in the fridge.

Thanks Oggi! I'm excited to see what you'll do with them. You always come up with such amazing dishes. :)

Thanks wysgal! I should have some posts up about incorporating them in dishes in about a month's time. :)

Erin said...

Your photos are beautiful! You have a real eye. I've never preserved lemons though, but you make me curious.

Christina said...

Ms Christine Temptress,

Are you a Nigella Lawson fan by any chance? I've been cooking from her "Forever Summer" cookbook and noted how much she likes to use lemons in her cooking. They add such a fragrant kick it adds to a dish.

I heart lemons.

Thanks to Nigella I've also discovered the pleasures of using sumac. It's a citrus-y spice. Fantastic. Middle Eastern I believe, so it fits well with tangy lemon and olive oil on things.

Wish you were here. Hugs!

Christina said...

ps. Your photos -- galing!

Sidney said...

Sounds very exotic! I am quite amazed by your knowledge of cooking.
Great pictures. When do we see a cookbook written and illustrated by you?

christine said...

Thank you skinny gourmet. :)That's really sweet of you. This is the first time I'm trying my hand at preserving lemons, join me! Then we can compare notes.

Hey Christina! I am a fan of Nigella and do have that book. You're right, the last thing I made from that book involved roasting chicken with lemons. And though I've heard of it, I've never tried sumac but would love to. Miss you, girl! :)

Sidney, I suppose it comes with the love of food. I like to read cookbooks and food lit, as well as other food blogs.

About the cookbook - maybe never. I'm so far from being knowledgaable enough to come up with one and the idea makes me laugh. When will we see a coffee table book on the Philippines by you? ;) Now that one isn't a far-fetched idea at all! You should do it!

Anonymous said...

Gorgeous photos Nens! Thanks for posting these recipes...I will try them! Can't wait to see what you whip up with these :)

Didi said...

Ooooooh!! Lemons!! I soo live Middle Eastern food! Became a huge huge fan when I got to visit Hatam's Restaurant in Anaheim. Loved it to bits and now - I can't seem to find any that even remotely compares the the quality of dishes they served there.

Picture looks really good ah!! :) I can't help but wonder what surprise you have in store for us with the Lemons! :)

There's something with Lemons these days - there's this Lemon Cleansing Diet that people I know are trying! Hmmm.. Magical Lemons eye?!

Barbara said...

Hi Christine thanks for visiting my site. I love your site and look forward to trying out some of your ideas.

christine said...

Thanks, Jojo! Every time I give the jars a shake I get so excited with all the possibilities! :)

Hi Didi, it can be quite frustrating when you don't find the food you enjoyed elsewhere at home. That's how I feel about Peruvian and Brazilian food, among others. :) I met someone a long time ago who was on that exact detox plan. I don't think I could do it. A good friend of mine did something similar with apple juice. As much as I love lemons and apple juice, subsisting on only those items for days or weeks would be torture!

Hi Barbara, so nice to see you here! Thanks for dropping by too. :)

Christina said...

"About the cookbook - maybe never. I'm so far from being knowledgaable enough to come up with one and the idea makes me laugh."

My dear Christine, your blog reveals otherwise.

If you had the interest, you could certainly write and self-publish a beautiful small cookbook. It wouldn't have to be THE definitive cookbook on anything. We're not all Mario Batali.

The question would be the focus I guess. Maybe you can make it a travel-meets-foodie book, mixing up travel anecdotes from your blog with a couple recipes from each place.

Or perhaps it's more fun to not go through all that and just blog and cook for yourself.

But you know if you ever did go that direction, you *cough* already know a *cough* graphic designer who would LOVE to design your book. [whistling nonchalantly]

Belinda said...

Christine! You have outdone yourself with this lemon themed post! Lemons...they are just the best little things, aren't they?! What fabulous recipes for preserved and pickled grandmother used to make something along these lines, and it really brought back memories of her. :-) And your, absolutely gorgeously done!

Patricia Scarpin said...

Those photos are absolutely beautiful, Christine!
And I've always thought that making preserved lemons was very difficult. You just proved me wrong!

christine said...

Haha you're too cute, Christina! You can bet your hiney I'll hire you for my "future cookbook". ;) Gosh you just reminded me, I need to crack that can of chipotles open ASAP!

Belinda you are much too sweet, thank you! :) I love that my post brought back lovely memories of your grandmother.

Thank you, Patricia! Preserving lemons couldn't be easier. The hardest part is the wait. :)

Unknown said...

I am looking forward to trying the preserved lemons. Can't wait to see what you do with them.

Anonymous said...

Hi Christine, t'was nice to see you dropping by my site.

Now, you've made me feel a tad guilty about neglecting my food blog.

And yes, about the restaurant in Boracay? It's going to be amazing. That's a promise. I look forward to seeing you there...;-)

christine said...

Knittymommmy, I can't wait to use them! :)

Nunu's mom! I didn't mean to make you feel guilty, sorry! I enjoy your other blog just as much anyway. :) You can't imagine how excited I am for you about the restaurant! What a dream. I can see it becoming a fast favorite!

Ilva said...

oh, this will be one of my next projects! thanks!

christine said...

Ilva, yay! More preserved lemon dishes to look forward to from my favorite bloggers. :)

Anne Lossing said...

Great timing! I have a couple of lemon trees in the yard that are bearing bountiful quantities of ripening fruit. I wonder if the same process would work with sour oranges?

christine said...

Oh Anne, you make me envious of your bountiful lemon trees! :) I do believe this would work with sour oranges too, I don't see why not? Please let me know if you try it and how it comes out. :)