Homemade Preserved Lemons
Growing up, my family had a two-tier system for holiday gifts. Acquaintances, far-flung family members, and co-workers got a family Christmas card in the mail. A small circle of close friends and neighbors — deemed the lucky ones — got my mother’s edible gifts. They are personal in a way most purchased presents aren’t, no matter how thoughtfully chosen. A good edible gift should be easy to ship or carry, it should taste fantastic, and it should be unusual. Our favorite for this year? Preserved lemons.
Preserved lemons are the Scotch whiskey of the pantry — better with age and always welcome at a party. Salt mellows out the sweet, intense citrus flavor and dulls the bitterness of the lemon, and preserving softens the peel so it’s easy to dice and add to everything from mashed potatoes to braised lamb. You’ll traditionally find them in Middle Eastern recipes, but don’t stereotype them as such: Take your cues from their flavor — salty, slightly-sweet, tangy, citrusy — and mix them into pasta, toss them with salad, or blend them into guacamole.
Preserving sounds complicated, right? It’s not: The recipe takes about 10 minutes and the only skill required is slicing citrus. This is an everyman’s recipe that yields impressively fancy-looking results (a win-win!).
The method is simple:
- Cut your lemons into quarters lengthwise, without slicing through the base.
- Fill glass quart jars with a layer of salt and pack the cut lemons into the jars, pressing slightly to release their juices, and salting each layer.
- Leave about an inch of space at the top, add some more salt, and seal the jar.
- Tie a pretty ribbon around the top.
- If you want to get fancy, include a handwritten recipe (like Israeli couscous with preserved lemons and herbed tuna).
Any jar will do, but we like to using green quart-sized heritage Ball jars. They brighten up the kitchen — and when the lemons run out, use them as a vase, a water glass, or cocktail shake — they’re endlessly useful.
Photos by James Ransom