When Life Hands You Lemons, Preserve Them

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The chopstick jig proves invaluable to the preservation process.

In the words of the late Richard Armour, expanding on a poetic observation by the also late Ogden Nash, “Shake and shake the ketchup bottle / None’ll come, and then a lot’ll.” [Nash’s original, entitled “The Catsup Bottle,” is said to have read “First a little / Then a lottle.”] And while I am writing about a different condiment here, the purpose of the verse is to reiterate what every amateur crop-grower knows: your fruit tree, your tomato plant, your herb garden has a tendency to belch forth its bounty from zero to a degree where you’re practically begging neighbours to take the extra off your hands in about the time it took to write this sentence.

Thanks to a 10th century Egyptian Jew who was chief physician at Saladin‘s court, we have a way of managing the “very pretty” lemon tree‘s excess. And all it takes (apart from the lemons, of course) is a bunch of salt and a little patience.

Abū al-Makārim Hibat Allāh ibn Zayn al-Dīn Ibn Jumay‘ (a/k/a Abu-‘l-Makārim Hibatallāh Ibn-Gumaiʻ, but usually truncated to Ibn Jumay’, sometimes without the trailing apostrophe) apparently was a fairly prolific author, penning no fewer than eight medical tomes. His enduring masterpiece, though, seems to have been the lemon-plus-salt recipe that has gone largely unamended since the 12th century, and which was included in his treatise On Lemon, its Drinking and Use. The “drinking” part yielded the first known recipes for lemonade, and the “use” part gave us the preservation technique employed herein. Sadly, no original manuscript seems to have survived. As Toby Sonneman notes in his excellent book Lemon: A Global History, though, another physician [Ḍiyāʾ Al-Dīn Abū Muḥammad ʿAbdllāh Ibn Aḥmad al-Mālaqī (better known as Ibn al-Bayṭār)], born in Spain the year before Ibn Jumay’ died, lifted pretty much the entire On Lemon… text and incorporated it into his Al-Kitab ‘l-jami’ fi ‘l-aghdiya wa-‘l-adwiyah al-mufradah, also known as The Comprehensive Book of Foods and Simple Remedies. It went through dozens of editions in Latin, and was translated into French by Lucien Leclerc in 1842. To the best of our knowledge, Netflix has not as yet optioned it for a mini-series.

The uses for the umami-laden preserved lemon are legion. Just ask any friend from North Africa. Marinades. Drinks. With fish. With chicken. In salads. In risotto. Once you taste it, don’t be surprised if our imagination kicks into overdrive.

One note of caution: the preserved lemon(s) should be rinsed before using, as they are saltier than a sailor on leave. And, somewhat counterintuitively, the part you use is the rind. Go fig. But if you make these guys once, you’ll be a convert for life.

Lots and lots of lemons.

INGREDIENTS
NOTE: Amounts will vary depending on the number of lemons and size of container

lemons
kosher salt, or other large-crystal NaCl
Lemon juice, if necessary
cookie sheet, to keep the salt from going everywhere
Jar with lid (size depends on number of lemons)
Patience
Nothing else!
Ignore other recipes that call for cinnamon or bay leaves or whatever.
Totally unnecessary.

DIRECTIONS
Wash and dry preserved lemon container. [Some recipes have you go the full boiling-it-sterile route, which seems excessive to me. After all, the salinity and the acid content do a magnificent job of creating a hostile environment for wee beasties. Just make sure your lemons are covered with salt and/or juice during their stay in the jar. ]

Wash lemons.

Cut lemons nearly into quarters, taking care not to sever them entirely (see picture at top of post, in which chopsticks are employed as a device to keep the knife from cutting all the way through the lemons). Rub salt generously over all the interior surfaces, then pack salt inbetween the cuts. Place salted lemon in jar, and cover with salt. Repeat until jar is full, then top off the jar with salt and a little lemon juice, if it’s available and convenient. Basically, the salt will leach out the juice from the lemons, and you’ll have a sort of brine in which the lemons will morph into a really delicious condiment.

Wait about 30 days, turning the jar occasionally to mix it up and get the saline/lemon solution into all the nooks.

Use lemons. Refrigerate after opening.

Instant Pot® Vegan Risotto with Mushrooms, Preserved Lemons, and Basil

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Canadian man makes Italian food.

As the news swirls with epic chills in the Midwest due to a polar vortex that has been altered by climate change, and when rain threatens my California home, it seems like the rib-sticking comfort of risotto is a reasonable response. Unlike my previous recipe for Saffron Risotto with Peas and Langoustine, this version was concocted in a cool bit of technology that had barely penetrated the public consciousness back then, and it’s vegan (although for my second helping, I grated a bit of Pecorino-Romano on top, and found it excellent).

Full disclosure: Although the idea for combining mushrooms and preserved lemons in a risotto originated with a yearning created in my tastebuds, several blog posts guided my thinking as I developed the recipe. You can find them at the Simple Vegan Blog, Vegan Heaven, Vegan Richa, Vegan Huggs, Chew Out Loud, and the ubiquitous Epicurious.

As is often the case, the recipe was developed around existing ingredients; I had some fresh basil in the fridge, it seemed like it would fit in with the other ingredients, and KAPOW, in it went. [One of my #squadgoals for 2019 is to undertake fewer unintentional fridge-based science experiments, a/k/a using ingredients before they stink up the joint.] Same deal with the dried mushrooms; they had been intended for a soup I was going to make for a friend who I later found out doesn’t like mushrooms.

The dried mushrooms I used were porcini (Boletus edulis), and an interesting variety known variously as slippery jack, pink boletus, and sticky bun. Although the package referred to them as Boletus luteus, which is their original 1753-era moniker gifted by the legendary botanist, physician, zoologist, and taxonomist Carl Linnaeus, they are now known to be of a different genus and are more properly called Suillus luteus. You are of course welcome to use fresh mushrooms in addition to or instead of the dried.

Two other ingredients might be slightly unfamiliar to those with a limited pantry. Nutritional yeast is sold as flakes, granules, or powder, and is often employed in vegan dishes to add a cheesy or nutty flavour. You’ll find it in my recipe for Vegan Potatoes au Gratin, in fact. If your local supermercado carries it, you’ll likely find it next to the spices or in the health food/gluten-free/dairy-free ghetto. If not, well, your local GNC or Amazon.

The other possibly unfamiliar ingredient is preserved lemons. Common in South Asian and North African cuisine, preserved lemon is basically a brined or pickled lemon, generally salted heavily and marinated/pickled/brined for a month or so in salt and either lemon juice or water, if liquid is employed. Sometimes spices are added to the mix, but not generally. If you have neither the time, patience, or lemons for this process, they can be found in jars at many Indian, Middle Eastern, or North African markets, should you have such in your area. And yeah, Amazon. But seriously, they are super easy to make and they last a long time, so even if you have to buy a jar to get started, you should make your own, too. Surprisingly, the part you mainly want to use is the peel, not the flesh. Weird, huh?

The Instant Pot® doesn’t let you off the hook entirely when it comes to stirring stirring stirring your risotto; it bypasses only about 85-ish percent, which is not insubstantial. And while this method in all honesty may not yield that Michelin-star-worthy risotto of your Tuscan dreams, it gets close enough that I’ll take it on a weekday when I don’t have the Zen-like attitude or schedule that the former requires.

INGREDIENTS
100 g / 3.5 oz dried mushrooms (to be rehydrated) (or 16 oz. / .5 kg fresh mushrooms, preferably crimini)
2 tbsp. / 30 ml extra virgin olive oil (or other preferred oil)
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 cups / 600 g uncooked Arborio rice
1/3 cup / 75 g preserved lemon, minced
8 cups / 2 liters Aneto vegetable broth, or other low sodium veggie broth
1 loosely packed cup (1.5 oz. / 45 g) fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
1/4 cup / 10 g nutritional yeast
1/2 teaspoon / 1 g white pepper
salt to taste

“Mushrooms and lemons,” ring the bells of St. Clements.

DIRECTIONS
Rinse dried mushrooms thoroughly to cleanse them of grit, then drain. Then cover them in a liter (or quart / 4 cups) of warm veg broth. I used the stupidly expensive and stupidly great Aneto vegetable broth, available at a case discount at Amazon. If you have your own veggie stock, great. Otherwise I would recommend a mix of water and one of Better Than Bouillon‘s stock bases, such as the No Chicken Base. The mushrooms should hydrate in about 1/2 hour. Remove them from the liquid, then strain the liquid to remove any remaining possible grit and reserve the liquid. [The mushrooms soak up about 100-150 ml of the original liquid, which you can replace with more stock, water, or dry white wine.]

Dice onion, mince garlic, mince preserved lemons.

You can chop the mushrooms if you want; I didn’t.

Set Instant Pot® to “Sauté” and add olive oil to the stainless steel inner container. Add onion and sauté for about 5 minutes, until soft without colouring. Add the garlic (and fresh mushrooms, if you are using them) and sauté for another two minutes or so, stirring regularly. Don’t worry if there’s some browning on the bottom of the stainless steel container. Add minced preserved lemons and sauté for another minute or so. Add rice, and stir, to coat all the rice with a little oil. [Add another few ml or a tbsp. of oil if you feel like you need to.] Deglaze the bottom of the container with a little of the reserved mushroom soaking liquid. Add the rest of the liquid and the mushrooms, close the lid, then set Instant Pot® to high pressure (I used the “Bean/Chili” setting) for six minutes, making sure to set the vent on the lid to “Sealing.”

Chop the basil and set aside.

How much basil? This much basil.

When the timer goes off, carefully turn the vent from “Sealing” to “Venting.” [You may want to do this wearing oven mittens; be mindful to avoid the rapid jet of steam that will be emitted.] Turn power to “Off.” When the steam has vented, carefully open lid and set aside. The risotto will look a little soupy at this point, but it will thicken as you stir in the remaining ingredients. Stir in the chopped basil, nutritional yeast, and white pepper a bit at a time, making sure they are well distributed, until remaining liquid is absorbed. Add salt (if necessary), ladle into bowls, and serve.

Just like mamma mia didn’t used to make.

Praying for Grain: Vegan Fried Rice, Mushroom, and Super Greens Bowl

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Asked the bride last night if she had any ideas for tonight’s dinner, and she responded with, “I pinned some grain bowls on my Pinterest page.” Some people find Pinterest really useful and convenient. I am not one of those. So after I looked through all 266 pins in the “No Animals Were Harmed” folder, I wound up (as I often do) perusing Food & Wine’s website. On it, I found this recipe, for Kale-and-Shiitake Fried Rice. It was pretty close to where I wanted to go, but it had eggs, and I was in a vegan mood, so I made a few simple mods for tonight’s meal.

This is super easy to whip together if you already have some cooked rice lying around, so I made a bunch in the Instant Pot last night before going to bed. Obvs, you can use any type of rice, but I find that brown Basmati rice is a good middle path between an insipid white and a cloying brown. The author of the Food & Wine recipe (David Lebovitz) recommended day-old rice, which he says works better to absorb the flavourings. Makes sense, since it will dry out a bit in the fridge overnight. As far as the greens go, I used a mix from the local market, but you could easily add or substitute arugula, collard greens, turnip greens, watercress, or even the leafy part (not the stem) of bok choy. Mustard greens, on the other hand, might overpower the dish, so have a care if you are thinking of adding them.

[NOTE: I love my Instant Pot; I made a whole slew of rice all at once with nary a care. Typically, the recipe for rice in the Instant Pot calls for a 1-to-1 ratio between liquid and dried rice; for brown rice, however, I’ve found that a 1.25-to-1 ratio of liquid to rice works better. Also, the “Rice” button on the front of the cooker is calibrated for white rice. If you are making brown rice, you’ll want to cook it at high pressure for 22-24 minutes, then let the cooker depressurize naturally, which takes about 10 minutes.]

INGREDIENTS

1/4 cup / 60ml olive oil
One 1-inch / 2.5cm chunk of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
2 oz. / 57g sliced or slivered almonds
6 scallions, thinly sliced
12 oz. / 350g mushrooms, thinly sliced
5 oz. / 141g coarsely chopped “super greens” (kale, chard, mizuna, and baby spinach or whatever greens you prefer)
4 cups day-old cooked brown Basmati (or other) rice
3 tablespoons / 45ml lemon juice (juice of one medium lemon) or equivalent rice wine vinegar
Sea salt

DIRECTIONS

In a wok or large skillet, heat the oil. Add the ginger, almonds, scallions, and a pinch of salt. Cook over moderately high heat, stirring constantly, until the ginger and scallions are tender, about 2 minutes. Add the sliced mushrooms and a generous pinch of salt and cook, stirring occasionally until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the greens, season with salt and stir-fry until wilted, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the cooked rice and stir-fry until heated through, about 3-5 minutes. Serve immediately.
 Serves 2 as a main course (see bowl in picture), or 4-6 as a starter or side.

Enter The Octagon. Salad, that is.

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This is going to be a little frustrating for those of you who need precise measurements or who aren’t comfortable grilling a steak. I’m just warning you up front, so you won’t be disappointed and won’t waste your time. That said, if you are agreeable to a bit of improv, you’ll be rewarded with a tasty, carnivore-pleasing meal. It’s called the Octagon Salad, not in homage to the ridiculous 1980 film starring the ridiculous Chuck Norris, but because it has eight elements, to wit:

    INGREDIENTS
    Mixed Greens
    Grilled Steak, cut in strips [Chicken or Pork may be substituted if desired]
    Corn (fresh, canned, or frozen)
    Tomatoes (cherry or grape; chopped sun-dried tomatoes can be substituted)
    Marinated Bell Peppers (1 jar usually does it for me)
    Cashews (preferably roasted and salted)
    Tortilla Strips*
    Cilantro-Pepita Caesar Dressing
    Finishing salt

The beauty part of this salad is that, apart from the steak and the tortilla strips, it can all be assembled from pre-packaged ingredients; cherry or grape tomatoes work particularly well in that regard (you can slice them in half if you feel the need). It’s also a terrific way to use up leftover grilled meats, should you have some. While I’ve tried making this with store-bought rotisserie chicken, the texture just doesn’t work, so I advise against it. I haven’t yet tried it with grilled sausage, but I’m sceptical as to whether it would work… maybe an herbed chicken sausage could be acceptable. Or maybe not. [If you find one that fits, please let me know!]

As for the cilantro-pepita dressing, if you happen to live in California (as I do), it’s a pretty good bet that one of your local supermercados carries the El Torito brand, which is right tasty, if somewhat expensive. If you are feeling more adventurous, or are just plain thriftier, copycat recipes for a DIY version can be found here and here.

The steak, corn, tomatoes, and marinated bell peppers can be combined with the dressing ahead of time, and if you have more than one evening’s worth of those ingredients, they may be kept in an airtight container in the fridge for a few days. Don’t add the cashews or the tortilla strips until the very end, or they’ll lose their crunch (part of this salad’s attraction is its variety of textures). It is best served al fresco with a white wine (Sancerre, Albariño, and Moschofilero all work well) or a rosé (even sparkling!), but if you are watching calories, some lemon and cucumber spa water is an excellent substitute.

Be sure to sprinkle a tiny bit of coarse finishing salt over each individual plate immediately before serving. This is a place where a little Pink Himalayan salt or black “lava” salt (which is just salt mixed with charcoal, incidentally) can add some visual interest. I have a bunch of different salts from all over the world for just this purpose. Trust me, your guests will feel special when you tell them that you had your grey sea salt shipped in from the Guerande Salt Ponds on the Breton coast. Or they may just consider you a dimwitted gasbag easily fished in by the latest culinary fad. But either way, it will be entertaining for them, and that’s the point.

And yes, I realize that the finishing salt brings the ingredient total up to nine. But who would want to eat a nonagon salad?

*The way to get the tortilla strips done as in the photo is to purchase a package of taco-sized corn or flour tortillas (spinach- or tomato-enhanced tortillas add an extra colourful dimension), cut them into quarters, stack the quarter-rounds and slice off 1/4″ (6mm) strips. Heat up about 1/2″ (13mm) of canola or other high-smoke-point oil in a frying pan, and dump in the strips, stirring until browned. Remove strips from frying pan with slotted spatula and cool on paper towels. If you have extra, pop them in a Ziploc bag and save for later; they should be fine for at least a week, but they never seem to last that long.

Soupe de la Semaine: Vegetarian (but not Vegan) Avgolemono

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Yakko digs Greek soup.

Yakko digs Greek soup.

One of the very first Greek dishes I can remember tasting (long before I ever visited Greece) was a deli-style version of this soup. This version recreates it fairly well (except for the chicken pieces), presuming my taste memory is accurate. The big plus here is that it can be made in a little more than half an hour, and requires practically no prep.

Avgolemono is the Greek compound word for “egg” and “lemon,” and doesn’t necessarily refer to the soup (an egg-lemon sauce that shares the name is used widely with pork, chicken, and grape leaf dishes). That said, avgolemono is often called the “national soup of Greece,” even though research seems to indicate that it likely originated in Portugal or Spain, quite probably among the Sephardic Jewish popuation. [It’s probable that they were also responsible for the original Tarta de Santiago, whose picture adorns the top of this blog.]

A couple of notes. I happen to like the version thickened with potato starch in the winter, when I’m serving it hot. In the summer, I tend to serve it chilled, and without the extra thickener. No need to be too fussy about any of the amounts here; the recipe is easily halved, and you can use less or more orzo or lemon depending on your taste. I recently added the lemon zest and white pepper to the mix, and I find they both give the soup a subtle boost. The beauty part about the orzo (as opposed to rice, which is used in some recipes) is not only that it’s a great way to use up excess cooked pasta if you have it, but since dry orzo only takes 7-9 minutes to rehydrate, you don’t have to cook it separately. If you have leftover cooked rice, you can easily substitute it for the orzo. [Dry rice will take 40 minutes or so to reconstitute.]

Cook’s Illustrated and America’s Test Kitchen named Orrington Farms’ Chicken Flavored Vegan Broth Base & Seasoning as the best commercial starter for vegetable broth, and the latter published a recipe for making your own base. The downside of most store-bought vegetable stocks is that they’re sodium bombs, and many of them just don’t taste very good. The lemon in this recipe does a decent job of masking their weaknesses, but the better a veggie broth you use for a starter, the better the finished product will turn out.

Former White House Communications Director and current ABC News commentator George Stephanopoulos makes a similar, if slightly more complicated, version if you want to watch an ordinary home cook in action.

Ingredients

8 cups / 1.8 litres vegetable stock
4 cups / 800g cooked orzo (or 2 cups / 400g dry)
6 eggs, whisked
2/3 cup / 160ml lemon juice
zest of 1 lemon
1 tbsp. / 12g potato starch (optional)
2 sprigs of fresh dill, chopped (optional)
white pepper to taste (optional)

Tempering the eggs and lemon juice.

Tempering the eggs and lemon juice.

Preparation

1. Heat vegetable stock and chopped dill (if you’re using it) in large pot or Dutch oven, to just below boiling. Add dried or cooked orzo when stock is warmed. DO NOT allow this to come to a boil, or it will curdle when you add the egg and lemon mixture, below.

2. While stock is heating, whisk eggs and lemon juice in a separate bowl.

3. Temper egg-lemon mixture by drizzling in 2 cups / 500ml warm stock while whisking continuously. Transfer tempered egg-lemon mixture back to soup pot.

4. if thickening with potato starch, place 1 tbsp. / 12 g in the bowl in which you tempered the eggs. Gradually whisk in a ladle of liquid from soup pot until you have a slurry free of lumps. Transfer slurry to soup pot and simmer for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally to keep orzo from sticking to the pot. Soup will thicken noticeably, enough to coat spoon.

5. Zest lemon over soup pot just before serving, and stir to incorporate. Whisk in white pepper to taste (if desired), and ladle soup into mugs or small bowls, making sure to get plenty of orzo. Garnish with dill if desired.