I like sour things. I don’t mean tart or citrusy or with a faint hint of brightness; everyone likes that. I mean sharply, brightly, eye-squintingly mouth-puckeringly sour. I’ve been known to suck on the end of a lemon wedge on occasion. I love lemon-based vinaigrettes. Basically, if something’s a bit on the tart side, squeeze that lemon a couple more times, — op, maybe once more — give it one last little shake, yep just like that, and I’ll take it, thankyouverymuch.
But lemons aren’t the one-note that my sour obsession might suggest. They’re among the more versatile ingredients in your fridge, actually. In fact, when the kind folks at Washingtonian asked me if I had any advice for new cooks, I suggested keeping fresh lemons on hand, because they very often end up being the finishing touch to whatever it is I’m making. You’ve got the juice, fruity and sour and just a bit sweet at times; then there’s the zest, more mellow in tartness but fully present in aroma and flavor; and if that’s not enough dimension, there are endless things you can do to lemons to radically change the flavors they bring to the table, such as grill them, braise them, candy them, or….preserve them.
So what are preserved lemons, you ask? I’ll tell you this: their name is quite deceiving. If you’re thinking preserves, think again. This ain’t no jam. It’s not even sweet. It’s completely and utterly savory, in the most wonderful sense. Instead of preserving lemons with sugar as in marmalade, here you’re preserving them in salt. The lemons are either sliced, quartered, or packed whole into jars layered with plenty of salt and enough lemon juice to fill the jars, then allowed to sit about on the countertop for several days (or weeks) until the salt and lemon and time work together to do their magic. The result is at once vigorously tart and deeply aromatic. It hits sour and sweet and salty, yes salty, and then it opens up and hits you with floral, spicy notes. If fresh lemons are the finishing touch to many recipes, preserved lemons are the cornerstone to some truly spectacular food.
Did I mention that they’re an absolute cinch to make? That’s right folks. Have your cake and eat it, too.
4 Meyer lemons, or regular lemons if Meyers aren’t available
1/4 cup salt, more as needed
extra freshly-squeezed lemon juice if needed
2 cloves or 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 sterilized half-quart jar
Clean lemons very well and blot dry. Slice lengthwise into quarters. Add a sprinkle of salt to the bottom of the jar, and pack 2 quarters tightly into jar, pressing so that quarters emit their juice a bit and most air bubbles rise to the top. Sprinkle salt overtop. Continue layering lemons and salt this way until jar is full. Add cloves. Add extra lemon juice if necessary to fill jar, and top with a final layer of salt. Seal jar, shake a couple of times to distribute salt and lemons, and then set on counter for a few days, up to a week. Shake and turn up and down once a day. After several days, transfer to the fridge for about 3 weeks, turning once a day. At the end of three weeks, peels will be sufficiently tender.
To use, rinse lemon quarter to remove salt. Remove pith if desired (not necessary) and use in Moroccan and Middle Eastern dishes.