From lemon drop cocktails to lemon curd desserts, offer me anything edible that promises a tart, lemony twang, and I’ll take it. While I love lemons, I know very little about how they grow, other than, well, on trees. But I recently read that a single lemon tree can be decked out in flowers, unripe and ripe fruit all at the same time. These multitasking mother trees provide us cooks with an easy hit of acid whenever the food we are preparing requires it, no matter the season.

Year-round availability aside, for many of the varieties grown in lemon-producing states in the United States – namely California and Arizona – January and February are the peak lemon-picking months. So I try to make the most of them right about now by preserving them. A sweet marmalade is one way to go, of course. But a jar of savory, fermented lemons (also called lemon pickle) in the refrigerator is a secret ingredient every cook needs to have at the ready. Fermented lemons are a citrus umami bomb.

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Traditionally used in North African and Middle Eastern cuisines, preserved lemons give any dish they are added to – usually at the last minute – an intensely lemony zing, a floral note derived from the fruits oils, and an earthy, funky depth that you don’t expect from something so bright by nature.

The downside to preserved lemons is that you can’t rush the process of fermenting them. It takes weeks, four to six of them. Yes, you can buy them in higher end grocery and specialty food stores, and there is an Internet-rumor that you can make a quick version by boiling lemons in highly salted water, but I find the former overpriced and the latter bitter and slimy. It’s better to plan ahead by buying lemons, spending 20 minutes packing them in jars with salt, and setting yourself a reminder to give them a little shake daily until they are ready to eat.

You can add spices, but at base, preserved lemons require just three things: salt, lemons and time. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

I take my directions on preserving lemons from food writer Paula Wolfert, who in her classic 1973 “Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco,” offers both a basic recipe and guidance on how to add a spice mixture commonly used in the western Moroccan city of Safi.

You need six lemons, salt (1/4 cup of iodized or 1/2 cup kosher) and a clean pint jar with a lid. If you like, add a cinnamon stick, a few cloves, a half dozen coriander seeds, four black peppercorns and a bay leaf. I throw in a dried chili pepper for good measure.

Wash the lemons in warm water. Zest and juice one of them. Freeze the zest for another use and set the juice aside.

Quarter the remaining lemons, lengthwise, to within a half inch of their bottoms, sprinkle salt on the exposed flesh, and press them back into their natural lemon shape. Pour a tablespoon of salt into the bottom of the jar and pack in the lemons, one at a time, pushing them down as you add them to help them release their juice, and adding more salt, and the optional spices between layers. Pour in the reserved lemon juice, making sure the fruit is covered, but leave about an inch of headroom before sealing the jar.

The last step simply involves patience. Let the lemons ripen in a warm place for a week, shaking the jar daily to distribute the brine. Then, move the jar to the fridge and let it hang out there for another three weeks. When you reach in to grab the milk for your morning coffee, turn the jar over, again to redistribute the brine.

To use the lemons after they’ve been preserved, remove and rinse a whole lemon in cold, running water while using your fingers to scoop out and discard the spent pulp; it’s edible but unpleasantly slimy. Unlike fresh lemons, you really only use the peel – pith and all – of preserved ones. Cut the peel in half, then into strips, and then into a small dice. A little umami bomb added judiciously at the end of the recipe goes a long way. Too much gilds the lily.

Preserved lemons will keep up to a year, and the pickling juice can be used two or three times over the course of a year as new lemons make their way into your kitchen.

CHRISTINE BURNS RUDALEVIGE is a food writer, recipe developer and tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at [email protected]

Columnist Christine Burns Rudalevige adds lemon juice to top off her preserved lemons. Preserved lemons are a common ingredient in Middle Eastern and North African cooking. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Winter Refrigerator Salad with Preserved Lemons and Sweet Saffron Vinaigrette
This is more ratio than recipe, as it’s been developed to suit whatever leftovers (roasted vegetables, cooked grains, miscellaneous greens and crunchy colorful raw things) I have in the refrigerator come Friday lunchtime.

Serves 1 (but expands easily)

1 teaspoon honey

1 tablespoon preserved lemon brine

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

2 tablespoons olive oil

Pinch of saffron

1/2 cup cooked grains (such as barley, farro, rye berries and/or wheat berries)

1 cup torn hearty greens (such as kale, spinach, chard and/or radicchio)

1 cup roasted vegetables (such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, onions and/or winter squash)

1/2 cup thinly sliced raw vegetables (such as carrots, celery, fennel and/or radishes)

A handful of soft herbs (such as cilantro, parsley and/or mint)

1 teaspoon chopped preserved lemon peel

Combine the honey, brine, vinegar, oil and saffron in a small jar. Cover the jar, give it a good shake and let sit 15 minutes.

In a bowl, combine half of the vinaigrette with the grains.

Arrange the remaining salad ingredients on the plate and drizzle the remaining ingredients over them. Scatter the dressed grains over the salad. Top with preserved lemons. Eat at once.


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