For a once-professional chef, I don’t own a lot of ‘cookery’ books, as my dear British friends call them.
A decade ago, I possessed a significantly larger number than I do now (books, that is, not friends, though as I think on it… hmm). As a cook and self-confessed bibliophile, well, it was a bit of a love affair in the larder.
In the years of roaming the globe in our painted gypsy wagon, however, as my dear mate and I have repeatedly downsized and simplified our life, moving house again and again, I am ever less keen on packing up cookbooks and bringing them along. Truthfully, I want less of everything. Initially, letting go of my books was like pulling teeth — I thought of them as both treasures and inspirations, even if I seldom created anything from their pages — but eventually, thinning the ranks became easier and I seldom missed what I had relinquished.
Two boxes of cookbooks and two boxes of the others (novels, non-fiction, memoirs, etc.), that is what became and remains my somewhat ruthless rule. Even now, if a book comes into the house, one has to go out. It’s my general guideline for life, really, as I am avowed to resisting clutter and accumulating more ‘stuff’.
I confess that there is a part of me that loves reading cookbooks, and yes, I do mean reading them, usually cover to cover. The best ones are enticing, personal journeys, either to a wonderful place or into someone’s kitchen, as with Nigel Slater’s series, The Kitchen Diaries. I like cookery books for new ideas, or insights into a food culture and history, and I have learned a great deal from them over the years. These days, I rarely follow their actual directions, instead regarding recipes as general guidance: “bring these three things and then drive north towards London, but be sure to stay off the A20 or you’ll end up in Dover.” Okay, I can get there, one way or another.
More than once, I have joked that cookbooks are sort of like soft-porn: sexy and alluring. That said, I’m decidedly not fond of ‘celebrity cookbooks’, the ones with superfluous glamour shots of the chef (or their families) on every other page, posed while shopping at the market, chopping vegetables in their kitchen, etcetera. No, thank you. Let’s just stick with the food.
Considering the slim troop of cookery books that remain on the shelf in my house (there isn’t room in my small kitchen), one notes a decidedly European flair. The titles reflect both our life abroad and a palate that, despite classical French training, leans unabashedly towards the warm, arid Mediterranean. Boldly flavored, rustic food that seduces unapologetically with olive oil, garlic, and pungent herbs. Cuisine of the sun and sea, of passionate temperaments and dark-haired beauties … oh yes, please.
There are several books from England, mostly by the aforementioned Nigel Slater, whose works I adore as much for his writing as for the tasteful simplicity of the fare. Naturally, there are a few that focus on dear France, including a couple of collectibles by the inimitable Richard Olney, an American expat who lived in Provence. I have kept two books that helped me navigate the tables and markets of Spain, and two gorgeously written works on the regional foods of Italy by my recently met friend, Marlena de Blasi. I’ve a half dozen others, a couple of references (wine, cheese, tea, etc.), but not much more.
It was while residing in Andalucía, within the whitewashed walls of a stone farmhouse perched on a dry hillside, tucked amid the endless groves of silvery-green olive trees, that I learned to cook ‘local’ from those cherished books brought from London. Specifically, it was from the pages of Casa Moro (Ebury Press, 2004), one of my culinary roadmaps, that I first learned to make Moroccan-style preserved lemons, along with harissa, and real pomegranate molasses. I have been hooked on the unmistakable flavor(s) ever since.
A jar of these savory, yellow fruits is a perennial staple in my cupboard, and when I near the bottom of the vessel, my thoughts turn towards making a new batch. A simple but lengthy process, the lemons ‘cure’ in a brine of salt and lemon juice for two months (if you’re doing it the traditional way, which yields far superior results).
Cooks know that winter is the time for citrus, and the other day I realized it was time to start a new batch lest I run out (again), especially given the waiting time involved. As with most things, purchased versions are poor substitutes, even the ones from Morocco (yes, I speak regrettably from experience).
At my local Whole Foods Market, the organic lemons cost nearly a dollar each; you need twelve for the jar plus another dozen for juice. Organic is really important in this case, because it’s actually the outer skin of the lemon you use, not the pulp, thus they need to be unwaxed and free of pesticides. Still, spending $24 dollars on a condiment seemed a bit steep. Then again, the investment will last me for months, whereas a small jar of commercially prepared ones from Morocco, one that contains just two meager (and inferior) lemons, is nearly $10. In that light, the golden jewels at Whole Foods look like a bargain (well, not quite), but I couldn’t bring myself to buy them.
Last year, my friends in Carmel Valley received a windfall of organic lemons from a friend, and I went to their house to instruct and make a large batch for them. I’ve been wishing for just such a boon myself, or at least an acquaintance with a productive lemon tree, but so far, alas, no.
Just down the street, tucked behind a split rail fence, a lemon tree grows in front of a vacation rental cottage. The owners live elsewhere and the tidy little house is mostly unoccupied except on weekends, when various visitors come down from the city. On my daily walks with our two English Whippets, passing the heavily laden tree, I began entertaining fantasies about a covert, midnight raid. Or simply knocking on the grey-green front door some weekend, explaining to the tenant du jour that I was a neighbor, and asking whether I might harvest some of the lemons which are simply going to waste.
Regardless of the ongoing temptation, and despite my rationalization that no one was gathering and using the fruit, I have refrained from loading up a bag or basket in the dark of a weeknight when the house sits empty. Mostly the rebel in me hasn’t done it because, on close inspection, I realized that they are Meyer lemons; a wonderful, mild variety I adore but whose thin skin isn’t well-suited for preserving as this particular condiment.
So much for clandestine foraging. (I later made up for being lawful and overly domesticated by harvesting some tide pools; stay tuned for a post on sea vegetables and eating the wild.) In the end, I placed my cash into the hand of the only vendor at the Monterey farmers’ market selling lemons, and came home with two dozen, local Eureka beauties. Voilà!
In the kitchen, with a clean 2-litre French jar with locking lid and rubber gasket, along with two containers of coarse Mediterranean sea salt, I went to work: cutting a cross more than halfway into each lemon, stuffing it with coarse salt, and then placing it into the jar. Piling them in, smashing them down, and layering with coarse salt. Repeat. The fresh zing of citrus invigorated my senses, and when the vessel was full (exactly a dozen lemons), I poured in salt to the rim, followed by the juice of the other dozen fruits.
My cousin Andrea, upon seeing the photo I posted on Instagram, enquired, “how do you utilize them, and for what?”
“You use the peel,” I replied. “Thinly sliced/diced, add it to all sorts of things for an intriguing lemony/salty note.”
There’s Moroccan food, of course (a tagine is a bi-weekly event in our house during winter months; there’s one for dinner tonight, actually), but I add the lemons to risotto (think asparagus, and you have a winning run), sauces and salsas, salads, fish dishes, and grilled vegetables. Roast chicken is another good match (and throw in some plump olives while you’re at it). In my fridge there is nearly always a small, lidded jar of homemade Moroccan green charmoula, alongside one of red charmoula and also harissa; I use them to give a bit of zest and complexity, and the lemons add an unmistakeable element to each of these condiments. On their own, the distinctive flavor contributes a bit of welcome character to all sorts of dishes, I think. Indeed, Robert often says, “Oh, I can taste the Moroccan lemon … I love that!”
Gentle reader, we’re definitely walking the domestic side this week rather than the wild, but like so much of what appeals to me in the kitchen — as with the heart of good cooking — making preserved lemons is a tactile ritual that nourishes the senses, body and soul. It is yet another simple celebration of the goodness of earth and nature, along with the sensual gift of being alive. Breathing in, breathing out. The ordinary sacred, right here in our hands.
Perhaps if you’re feeling adventurous and are willing to wait for the final reward, strike out and try something new. Ancient, rather. Investing time in this culinary gold is an old-fashioned pursuit that yields an utterly intriguing and delicious result, and you’re likely to have a bit of fun in the process. Very little is better than that, I say (barefoot foraging on a wild hillside, notwithstanding).
Bring on the lemons and coarse salt.
Moroccan-style preserved lemons
12 organic lemons (not the Meyer variety)
10-12 additional lemons for juicing (roughly 1 to 2 cups juice)
1 kg coarse salt (or kosher, which yields a slightly less salty result)
2 liter/quart glass jar, sterilized
Begin by cutting a deep cross into each lemon (as if you were going to cut it in half, but stopping short of cutting all the way through). Spread the quarters open and pack/pour in as much salt as possible, and press together again. (It helps to do this work over a large bowl to catch the salt, which can be used later to fill the jar.) Place each cut and filled lemon into the clean jar, alternating salt and lemons, until the jar is full.
Cut and then juice the remaining dozen fruits. Press down to help extrude the juice of the ones in the jar, and then pour in the extra lemon juice so that the contents are covered completely. Add more salt if needed to raise the liquid level to the top of the jar. Close and seal, then set aside for a day.
The next day, check to see if any of the lemons have risen up to break the surface; if they have, push them back down into the liquid, and adding more lemon juice/salt if needed to cover. Turning the jar upside down will redistribute the salt more evenly. (There is generally no need to check the jar after the first day.) With all the fruit submerged, place your cache in a cool, dark place for 2 months. Once they have finished curing, the skins should be soft all the way through.
You can add things like spices and chiles to the jar, and it certainly looks attractive, but such elements won’t affect the taste of the lemons much (though chiles can contribute a bite), only the brine.
To use the preserved fruit, take a lemon from the jar, discard the inner pulp, and then rinse the skin under cold water to remove excess brine and salt. Chop finely and add to your recipe, or scatter atop of a dish as a garnish.
(Note: because the lemons are salty, be mindful of the amount of salt you add to a dish before adding the peel.)
Opened, there is no need to refrigerate the jar as long as the remaining lemons are covered in liquid. Having a jar of Moroccan-style lemons sitting on your countertop adds an intriguing note to your kitchen, and also prompts you to use them and experiment.
Lemons are at their peak at 3 to 4 months but will keep for up to a year; removed from the brine, they can be kept covered with oil indefinitely. They may eventually discolor, but this is not a sign of spoilage.
Serving ideas: if a food generally goes well with lemon and salt, then preserved lemon is probably a good match and will add a unique depth of flavor. Try the minced peel with olives, green salsas, with vegetables, fish, in salads, in risotto or pasta, with couscous … the possibilities abound.