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The evolution of preserved lemons

"Preserved lemons are not great if you have a short attention span."

T. Susan Chang/NPR Kitchen Window

I have bookmarked this rather wonderful looking dish called Double lemon chicken with cheat's preserved lemon from the latest Ottolenghi cookbook. I'm going to try it next week sometime I think. The thing that caught my eye though was not really the chicken, it was the cheat's preserved lemon, which is the featured 'extra' in the recipe.

The thing is that it's not what we think of as preserved lemons at all - as seen here. These are mine, 'traditionally preserved' maturing nicely in the cupboard. Over the years I have modified a recipe I originally got from Claudia Roden, to the point where I now cut the lemons into quarters lengthways, then pack them into a sterilised jar, with rock salt, a bay leaf or two and a little bit of a cinnamon stick. Sometimes some peppercorns. Top with lemon juice and put in the cupboard to mature. And yes they are not ready instantaneously - they take ages to mature but they are so simple to make. When my jar is nearly finished I start another one. That way I always have some to hand.

There are variations on this. No spices or herbs. Don't cut the lemons all the way through to the bottom, and just put a little bit of salt in the base of each one, top with boiling water ... I must say that sometimes I have topped with boiling water because I haven't had enough lemons to use just juice. Or you can top with salted boiling water too. I have to say, not being a gourmet really, that I have never noticed a difference in the quality, whether I use lemon juice, boiling water or a mix of the two. They keep for absolutely ages, and when you open the jar you get this divine smell which is so different from lemon.

"The process of fermentation transforms the lemon into an evolved version of itself" Casablanca Market

"Whilst fresh lemons boast the aroma and oil of the zest and sharpness of the juice, preserved lemons are a different beast entirely – the sharpness mellows, the lemon flavour intensifies and the salt and fermentation creates a punchy umami quality that lends incredible depth to dishes." Pete Dreyer/Great British Chefs

And just as an aside, everyone tells you to use unwaxed lemons, and mostly I use lemons from friends' trees and so they are, but how do you know whether the lemons you buy are waxed or not? Apparently you can't really tell. You can put the lemons in hot water and scrub them, but they won't keep as long, so probably best to just scrub as you go. I confess I have been grating lemons, waxed and unwaxed all my life without scrubbing them and I'm still here and almost 80, so it can't be that bad for you.

But back to Yotam Ottolenghi. What he ends up with here is a paste, not lemons or lemon rind. How? Well you slice and depip your lemons, put them in a saucepan with some lemon juice and salt, cook until translucent and then whiz the whole lot. That's it. And it can be used straight away. I have no idea how long it would keep but I suspect you should keep it in the fridge, probably covered with some oil. In the recipe it's used to make the sauce but he suggests that it can also be used tossed with roasted vegetables and in dressings. Well I'm sure we can probably all think of something to do with it.

So inventive you think, but actually it's just the final step - so far - in a recent line of innovations from the traditional ways of preserving lemons.

Perhaps Claudia Roden began all this experimentation. Perhaps not. In her book Arabesque she gives three more or less traditional ways of preserving lemons. This one is called Lemons boiled in brine and preserved in oil and the recipe is online on a blog called The World Cup of Food. According to Claudia Roden you don't have to wait months to get a result. You can use these in just four days. What you do is to slit the lemons, boil them in salted water for around half an hour until soft and then cool them. When they are cool you scoop out the flesh put the skins into a jar and cover with sunflower or vegetable oil.

She later refined it even more and claimed in a Guardian series on foodies' favourite ingredients that boiled lemons were the answer and that now she rarely made 'traditional' preserved lemons. This time all you do is boil the lemons for half an hour or so until soft and then use straightaway - which answers the patience dilemma. She also said that she used to add salt to the water, now she doesn't. I guess since you can use them straightaway there is no need to put them in a jar even. I confess I have not tried this, but I'm a bit dubious about them tasting the same as 'traditionally' preserved lemons. I should try it perhaps when my jar runs out.

There are other variations on this theme. Martha Stewart also has a Quick preserved lemons recipe:

"Wash lemons in hot water (to remove any waxy coating); halve them lengthwise and slice very thinly crosswise. Combine with salt, sugar, and lemon juice. Cover with plastic wrap; let stand at room temperature 1 day, then transfer to a jar and store in the fridge for up to 2 weeks."

Even easier. You don't even boil them. Not as quick a result as boiling though.

Then there is Cheat's preserved lemons (or limes, or oranges ...) from Anna Hansen on the SBS website:

"Pare the zest from the lemons in large slices, preferably with a swivel peeler, then trim off any excess white pith. Put in a small saucepan, squeeze the pared lemons and add the juice to the pan along with the sea salt. Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for around 10 minutes or until the zest is tender.

Allow to cool and keep in a sterilized jar in the refrigerator until needed. It will keep for months, but can be used immediately."

Which is a bit more fiddly I suppose. And apparently you can do it with any other kind of citrus too although mandarins are trickier because of their thin skin.

There are several other 'quick' and 'cheats' methods out there on the net. It's all very interesting to wonder why, after centuries of cherished methods of preserving lemons, suddenly you have an avalanche of people trying out different ways of achieving the same results in less time. Surely in the past there have been equally inventive cooks. People invented new cooking equipment which in turn brought about new dishes. People have always travelled and migrated taking their different cuisines with them and merging them with what they found. So why now?

I suppose the late twentieth and now the twenty-first centuries have been the era of speed. You can't say really that it's the era of no time. Before the nineteenth century people worked for much longer hours than they do now, and they also had shorter days because they had no effective illumination at night. They also had much more primitive equipment and so 'quick and easy' would have been very gratefully received back then. We are, somewhat ironically becoming lazier the more time we have. But more inventive too. Well maybe. A different kind of innovation perhaps. Innovation as play or innovation with an eye to making a fortune, or being a star on Instagram.

Why did we preserve lemons anyway? Well that's easy.

"as soon as our ancestors picked, dug up or caught something for food, there existed an immediate need to preserve it." Pete Dreyer/Great British chefs

Lemons are seasonal, although the only way you would know that now is that the price goes up or down or the lemons come from California not Mildura, or your neighbour's tree. Lemons are essential in cooking. Not just for their taste - they are acidic and so therefore preserve as well. But like salt they add that extra special something to almost anything you eat.

You can even use the leftover juice from your jar of preserved lemons.

"once you’ve used all your lemons, don’t throw away that preserving liquid! It’s just as fantastic as the lemons themselves – a little bit splashed over a chicken as it roasts or stirred into a marinade or dressing makes a world of difference." Pete Dreyer/Great British Chefs

I have to say I have never done this. I suppose I have thought it would be too salty or too lemony, but of course, it wouldn't. After all the lemons are transformed and that comes from the juice so that must have transformed too. So I should give it a go. Maybe with the fish I'm frying for dinner tonight. A dash in the deglazing sauce perhaps.

Now we all think of preserved lemons as a North African, Middle-Eastern thing but elsewhere in the world they do similar things. As always nobody says much about South America or Africa but I will give just two examples - India and Cambodia. Though, of course, being the far east, just as often as not it's limes that are pickled. But any of those methods described above could be applied to any kind of citrus - just like marmalade.

In India there exists a sweet and sour lemon pickle. As I mentioned yesterday the Indians are more into pickles than what we think of as chutney and a lemon pickle is a common one. On the left is Madhur Jaffrey's Quick meyer lemon pickle (Sweet and sour lemon pickle) as described on a blog called Spades, Spatulas and Spoons. And even here we are into 'quick'. You slice and dice your lemons and put them in a pot with salt, lemon juice, turmeric, cayenne, and sugar. Cook for 5-6 minutes. Cool, put in a jar and leave for a week or so before using. Pretty simple. Mind you when I found the original recipe in her World Vegetarian book I found that she actually calls this Sweet and sour lemon chutney. Which sort of goes against what I was saying yesterday.

She has two other pickle recipes. The first 'simple' one involves tossing your quartered and seeded lemons in a spice mixture of cardamom, cloves, sugar, salt, cayenne and black pepper, putting it in a jar and leaving it in the sun for a few days. She has a similar Gujarati version with different spices and which cooks the spices in oil a little before adding to the lemons.

And in Cambodia they do it differently because first they dry the limes in the sun. A website called Global Table Adventure takes you through the process. The limes are that brown colour because of the drying. You dry them until they become brown and shrivelled a bit. And then when the pickle is finished you make a Cambodian chicken soup - well I'm sure you can do all sorts of things with them but it seems to be the thing to do. It's called ngam nguv.

I will try that Ottolenghi dish and will let you know how it goes. And perhaps next time I need to make some preserved lemons I'll try one of Claudia Roden's

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