When Life Gives You Lemons, Preserve 'Em
Sometimes cooking can feel like an exploration and an opportunity to learn about unfamiliar ingredients. I discovered this to be true a few years ago, while making a batch of couscous. The recipe called for preserved lemon, adding a bright citrus flavor as a balance to the almonds and cumin. Puzzled on how to make (or buy) it, I searched in a variety of stores before finding this prized possession. At the time,such an exotic food seemed like a long-lost flavor enhancer, a hidden gem of culinary delight. Lately, however, preserved lemons are making a statement in a variety of preparations, adding a can’t-quite-put your-finger on-it sweet, citrusy flavor to dressings, sauces and many other dishes.
Preserving lemons was originally intended as a way to save the fruit for eating at a later time. In some parts of the world, including China,preserved lemons have been used for medicinal purposes. Chinese dietary therapists suggest that eating a preserved lemon will subdue the signs of nausea and loss of appetite due to morning sickness. It wasn’t until the 14th century that English cooks started suggesting the addition of preserved lemons into recipes strictly for culinary purposes.Today, it is a common condiment in South Asian and North African cuisines, and preserved lemons are a key component of the Moroccan dish tagine.
Closer to home, Vessel Sandwich Company, a small cafe in Flagler Beach, is changing the game on kale salads with the addition of preserved lemons in their house-made vinaigrette. Owners Haley and Ben Kirk serve a variety of sandwiches and salads on their California style menu. One of the most popular dishes at their shop is kale salad tossed with golden raisins and freshly grated Parmesan cheese, then topped with vinaigrette. The salad has such vibrancy, I had to learn more about using preserved lemons. Chef Ben was happy to ruminate over the secrets of saving citrus and how to incorporate the flavor into new American cuisine.
Before opening Vessel, Ben was the executive chef at Avo, a contemporary restaurant and whiskey bar in Birmingham, Alabama.While there, he developed a preserved lemon sauce, which he paired with the menu’s chicken dish. He always thought his preserved lemon sauce would be the perfect accompaniment to a hearty green such as kale, and thus Vessel’s famous kale salad was born.
While you can buy pre-made preserved lemons at the store, the process of making them at home is relatively simple and only requires two ingredients — lemons and salt. To begin, Ben said he makes sure he purchases unwaxed lemons from his supplier. Most grocery stores add wax to fruit such as lemons, limes and apples to prevent spoiling,so if your fruit is waxed, wash the lemons first with hot water.
Next, cut the lemons into quarters, leaving a small amount of the lemon still attached at the bottom, making the lemon look like a flower. This cutting technique makes it easier to keep the lemon together to pack. Using a glass pint- or quart-sized jar, carefully place each lemon into the container, shoveling salt into the lemon and massaging the salt into each crevice. Add another and repeat the process,sprinkling salt over the lemon to coat. Continue to add the cut-up fruit until the container is filled with lemons and salt, almost to the point of bursting (Ben squeezed one more lemon into the container).
“If it looks like you can’t fit anymore in the jar, push one more in,”Chef Ben said, as he squeezes one more lemon into a jar. The pressure of the packed lemons forces more juice to escape from the fruit, thus aiding in the pickling process.
One month later, the lemons are preserved (pickled, really) and ready to be used in vinaigrette. The chef peels the flesh from the rind and tosses it aside, focusing on the rind of the lemon itself. He rinses the salt, minces the rind and adds it to the rest of the vinaigrette’s ingredients.Time for a taste test. The lemon rind is sweet and complex,and I have uncovered the secret — a perfect complement to kale or any hearty green.
Thinking about a road-trip down the coast to Flagler Beach? Be sure to stop into Vessel Sandwich Co. and try the kale salad with preserved lemons by Chef Ben!