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.