I love the following column written several years ago by Carolyn Jung, then the food editor for the San Jose Mercury News. She now writes the blog www.foodgal.com. Carolyn attended a class of mine in the Bay Area. As I always do, I began by demonstrating how to make preserved lemons the way my great-grandmother used to. This is Carolyn’s take on my favorite condiment:
Legion of lemon lovers preserves its passion
BY CAROLYN JUNG
Former Mercury News Food Editor
It’s Wednesday morning — do you know how yourlemons are doing? Apparently, many of you do. After writing in January about my playful experiencein making the Moroccan condiment preservedlemons, I was inundated with delightful e-mails andphone calls from a legion of lemon fanatics. Like some citrus-obsessed cult, we all share oneamusing thing: We simply can’t take our eyes off our lemons. Who would have ever thought that a few lemonsstuffed with coarse salt and crammed into a big glass jar could cause such a commotion? But it seems the weeks-long process, in which the lemons exude their juices and turn as soft as marmalade, brings out the kid in all of us.One woman wrote that she knew she was on the road to obsession when she found herself checking her jar every hour on the hour. Another gentleman wrote that if he happened to wake up in the middle of the night, he’d crawl out of bed just to check his lemons. Talk about lemon loyalty. Other folks called to tell me their variations. One woman says her Spanish-Mexican grandmother would wait till the preserved lemons softened, then add fresh crushed garlic and ground black peppercorns. Lavanya Iyengar of San Jose gave her recipe for Indian lemon pickles, which are made in a similar fashion but with the addition of such aromatic spices as turmeric, paprika and fenugreek seeds. And I, ginger lover that I am, came across a recipe by Food Network celeb chef Ming Tsai for preserved ginger, Thai bird chiles,and equal parts salt and sugar. So for those of you who started your preserving inJanuary and now are the proud owners ofwonderfully pungent, salty, heavenly lemony lemons,what do you do with them? I’m guessing you’ve found an endless number of usesalready. And that’s the beauty of preserved lemons,the way they add ooomph to so many dishes. Justremember never to add salt to a dish until after you’ve added the lemons, and tasted the dish. I love to take spears of asparagus, toss them withfruity extra-virgin olive oil and black pepper, then roast them in the oven with a few whole green onions at 400 degrees for about 8 minutes or so, depending on the thickness of the asparagus. Just before pulling the pan out of the oven, I add some chopped preserved lemon for a dish that just sings of spring. For an easy salad, take a can of cannellini beans, rinse and drain. Toss in a bowl with some canned tuna. Add some halved kalamata olives, somechopped red or green onions and some choppedpreserved lemon. Make a simple vinaigrette of olive oil, red wine vinegar, a bit of Dijon mustard, salt and pepper. Mound some of the white bean-tuna salad on salad greens, then drizzle a bit of the vinaigrette over it all. Or saute spinach leaves in olive oil with chopped garlic just until wilted. Stir in some preserved lemon for a simple side dish. Or add some canned chopped baby clams and their juices to the spinach mixture for a quick topping for your favorite pasta. Or stir some preserved lemon into chef Tsai’s out-of-this-world polenta, one of the tastiest andleast-laborious versions around, exuberant withshallots and ginger. James Ormsby, chef at Bruno’s in San Francisco,likes his preserved lemons mixed into vinaigrettes or in traditional tagines (Moroccan-style stews) ofrabbit, duck or lamb that are served at the table with tiny dishes of harissa (Moroccan hot sauce) and preserved lemon. “I love the taste. I’m just a huge citrus nut,” Ormsby says. “I love the saltiness and intensity and slight bitterness. It’s just more complex than plain lemon juice.” Indeed, at the Mission District restaurant, Ormsbygoes through two gallons of preserved lemons amonth. As a result, he opts for a quicker method ofmaking them. He uses fragrant Meyer lemons (though other types of lemons will work), cuts them thinly with a meatslicer, then tosses them in a bowl with the same mixture he uses for curing salmon, one that’s 60 percent salt and 40 percent sugar. He likes how the sugar helps counteract some of the bitterness of the lemon. Then, he pours the lemon mixture into a glass jar. In a week, they’re ready to use. For those of you who are even more impatient, I’ve included another method for preserving lemons where you boil the jar in a water bath for 30 minutes. After letting the jar cool, the lemons are ready to use that very day. Me? Unless it’s a dire lemon emergency, I think I’ll stick with the purist’s method that takes three to six weeks. None of that instant gratification stuff for me. It’s like opening presents on Christmas. The wait is half the fun.After all, it’s one thing to make preserved lemons. But it’s a whole ‘nother thing to be left utterly enchanted by them.