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.