Monday, July 11, 2005

Deferred Gratification II

I have been meaning to make some preserved lemons for a very long time now. I'm sure that you've read plenty about preserved lemons already. I first heard about them from the splendid Redfox, who is only slightly less splendid in that she has gone all the way to Italy just to avoid writing an entry on stuffed grape leaves that I have been expecting lo these many years months weeks. Not that I'm bitter you understand. But my parents' grape arbor in Pennsylvania is not going to bear fruit this year, so I may as well at least get some use out of the leaves. I actually have a recipe for preserving the grape leaves themselves, and there are a great many recipes that will tell you what to fill them with once you have them, but I know that she has developed her own recipe, and she has told me that it's not like other recipes for dolmas, so naturally I must have it. (I promise that I absolutely don't mind any of my readers thinking that I'm entirely insane, so long as they remember that I'm also entirely harmless.)

Anyway, on at least two previous occasions, I purchased a bag of lemons intending to preserve them, but I never got around to it until the lemons seemed to have lost much of anything that seemed worth preserving. But when I was at Costco buying gallons of pretzels so that I might use the container for my Vin de Noix, I saw five-pound bags of nice big lemons, so I got a bag.

As I have already thoughtfully linked to the Hungry Tiger recipe for preserved lemons, I won't bother giving one here, though I will say that If you choose lemons that are big, you're going to want to choose bigger jars than I chose. In fact, I had started out with a bunch of empty jars that V. had put in the pantry, mostly so that there would be less available space so that he could complain about all the space that the stuff I bought was taking up (never mind that there are six boxes of taco shells that he has had longer than I've known him sitting on one of the lower shelves: the lack of space is ALL MY FAULT; never mind that his son works at McCormick and there is a case of dried marjoram in the main spice cupboard: the lack of space is ALL MY FAULT; not that I'm bitter, you understand) because you don't really need proper canning jars for preserved lemons, but once I'd quartered eight or so lemons and mixed them with half a cup of coarse salt (I think I used way more salt throughout the process than Redfox uses, a feat I would not have thought possible), it was clear that the jars I had washed and boiled were not going to be adequate to the task, so I drove over to Giant and got a dozen pint-sized wide-mouth canning jars, which I also boiled. My lemons were still too big for those jars, but not by as much. All the same, the next time I preserve lemons, I will likely just use one big jar so that I can pack them in more densely. I was only able to get about six to eight lemon quarters in each jar because the length of the lemons was slightly greater than the diameter of the jars. I probably could and should have cut the lemons into eighths rather than quarters, but I wanted to follow the defined process as closely as possible.

My lemons were not organic, so I washed and then scrubbed them well, and afterwards they certainly smelled very nice. As I said, I ended up using a lot of salt. I also ended up using a lot of lemon juice because of the way the lemons were packed in, but I really didn't mind. I could not bring myself to use bottled lemon juice, and because I had only cut up less than half of the lemons in the bag (and because I had some less attractive but still juicy lemons in the refrigerator), I had plenty of lemons to squeeze for the juice I needed.

I hope, gentle reader, that you're the sort of cook who plans ahead better than I do. Seeing all those lemons, it should have been entirely obvious to me that I would end up with bunches of squeezed lemon halves and that I would blanch at the notion of just throwing them away and that having already blanched, it would be a small further step to doing the three boilings in water followed by the slow cooking in syrup that one needs to candy lemon peel. Had I realized this, I would have taken the lemon peel off the lemons before I juiced them, when it is relatively easy to get them off with a sharp knife and a bit of knowledge. Alas, I was without foresight, and as a result, I had the rather less pleasant task of removing the squeezed flesh from the peels. I was at least fortunate enough not to have any cuts on my fingers, so that the job, while messy and slippery, was not literally painful. I ended up cutting the squeezed halves into squeezed quarters, which made the job a bit easier.

You can candy the peel from any number of lemons, though you will probably want to have at least half a dozen to feel that it's worth the effort. I believe that I had about ten, but I am not sure. Regardless of the number you have, when you have either removed the peel from the lemon or the lemon from the peel, then you cover the peels with cold water, bring them to a boil and let them simmer for a few minutes, then drain and repeat. And repeat. So that's three boils altogether, if you're keeping track, which you will need to do if you actually make the recipe. The reason you boil the peels, of course, is to remove much of the bitterness from the white part of the peel (aka the part of the peel that you aren't supposed to use when you use lemon zest because it's very bitter). Even if you do the full three boils, and even if the last boil/simmer lasts for half an hour because you've forgotten that you left it on the stove while you were upstairs doing your back exercises, you are not going to get all the bitterness out. When you candy orange peel, you end up with something that's not bitter at all. When you candy lemon peel, you end up with something that's bittersweet. It is still wonderful to my taste, though I can eat only small amounts of it at a time. I have not really decided how I'm going to use all of it yet, but I suspect that it would be very nice in a cocktail of some sort, and I will likely grind up a bit of it when I'm grinding up a larger amount of orange peel to put in my lebkuchen.

Anyway, when you've finished the boil-and-drains, your peel should be relatively soft and easy to cut into narrow strips. You could cut it into any size or shape that you want, of course, but I find that cutting the quarters into thin strips leaves me with especially nice pieces when I'm finished.

I ended up with four cups of julienned lemon peel, waiting to be candied. For this amount of peel, two cups of sugar and one cup of water make about the right amount of heavy syrup. I dump the two cups of sugar and then the one cup of water right into a heavy saucepan, swirl the saucepan once or twice, put the lid on, and turn the heat on high. Within five minutes or so, the syrup should be happily boiling away. At this point, turn the heat to medium, stir in the lemon peel, and bring back to a boil. Then turn the heat to low. It will take at least two hours for the peel to absorb as much of the sugar as it's going to absorb. You should check it and stir it occasionally. If you have something else you have to do, you can put it in a 200 degree (Fahrenheit) oven and ignore it for an hour or two and then put it back on the stove. Eventually, the syrup will have thickened significantly, and nearly all of it will have been absorbed. When it seems like much further cooking will start to scorch the peel (you can tell this, if you don't already know, because when you stir the bottom, there won't be any syrup left where you've stirred for a second or two, and it will make a funny sound), then turn the heat off. Dump the whole mass into a strainer set over a bowl and let it strain until the syrup has stopped running out of it.

At this point, you may carefully separate the strands and roll them in sugar so that they'll stay separate, but I just leave mine all together. It looks very pretty that way (I promise; I know that it looks like a big yellow blob in the picture, but if I were a better photographer, you would see that the pieces are transparent and shining, like edible gemstones), and I can pick out a strand and chew on it every once in a while. Sometime later today I will put it in a ziploc bag and then hide it behind the case of dried marjoram.


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