On top of that personal issue, we just got back from a trip to heavily-lemoned California, where lemons are not only for sale in markets at prices to make an Easterner weep, but on most streets they are just tumbling to the ground and rotting in heaps, dripping from the branches of trees that people drive by without stopping to sing hymns of gratitude, let alone picking or eating them. To the bafflement of my West Coast family, I packed myself a flat-rate box of lemons and shipped it back here, where I could sing hymns and go all nose-to-tail on them in the privacy of my wintry home.
I set out below to give you a brief, simple recipe for taking what is essentially refuse or compost, stuffing it into a machine, grinding it up--pulverizing it, really; just absolutely blasting it to bits-- and getting something enticing and lovely for your trouble.
It’s an appealing metaphor, as well as (once you're done) a tasty ingredient.
In the process of writing it up, I turned that quick notion into about three posts’ worth of lemon intel, at the conclusion of which I figured out I could have just copied and pasted a few links and had us both on our way in about a minute. The links are below if you prefer Xpress Xecutive service to reading a whole long thing. But since I wrote a whole long thing, that is also on offer.
THE WHOLE LONG THING
Right before the holidays, Julia posted a beautiful shot of some Meyer lemon slices she was drying, captioned with the exciting idea that they would be nice to set afloat in a cup of tea. I banged out a tray of those (as well as some tangerines and blood oranges treated similarly) ASAP and they made lovely gifts. The process also yielded a slush pile of little scraps of Meyer lemon that I was loath to toss. After a few bungles in the dark, I hit upon a way to powder them up for later investment in baked goods and other forms of happiness, feeling like, you know, some kind of inventor/pioneer/rock star. This feeling rarely lasts, as we’ve learned.
Much like that salt I keep prattling about, the grinding and pulverizing that I am ultimately going to describe is a great method to wring full sensory and cash value from the citrus which keeps us all scurvy-free in the New England winter.
It should be noted that the brilliant, ground-breaking method works on the ends and scraps inevitably left from any activity involving lemons, including that jar of preserved lemons you’ve been meaning to put together before the Meyer season ends. Now is the time for that, by the way. Meyer lemons are available one way or the other (ladder/credit card) in most zipcodes, and high-quality recipes for preserved lemons abound, all of which I mean to try, but I usually default to the method that my ace friend Julie taught me, and by ‘default,’ I mean ‘think that I remember, then frantically text Julie for a reminder when I am in the middle of slicing.’
For reference (mine, of course, though you are welcome to make use of it too), Julie's method is to mix 2 parts kosher salt to one part sugar (these proportions, simple as they are, are what I never remember), slice the lemons into ¼ to 3/8” rounds and seed them, then coat one side of each slice in the salt mixture as you stack them salty side down in sterilized jars to about 1½ ” from the top. After they've stood a day and wept out as much juice as they intend to, top up with fresh lemon juice, squeezed from spare lemons (remembering to zest those bad boys before juicing, either for citrus salt, or just to keep the frozen zest on hand to sprinkling into this and that, or try this!) to the level of the top lemon slice. Let the jars stand, with their lids on, at room temperature for three days, shaking the jars gently now and then to keep a nice tide of brine bathing the top lemon, then on the third day, take the tops off long enough to pour in excellent olive oil to just below the rim of the jar and re-cap. They are ready in about 3 weeks, during which waiting period you can stash them in the fridge or on the counter, as no bacteria are likely to invade a mixture containing so much salt and acid, and they keep (in the fridge, at my house) for a really long time which I can't define too precisely because I have always used them up before they showed any evidence of turning, and I try to make enough jars to carry me through to the next Meyer season, so: a really long time.
In answer to questions you may have:
- The sugar sounds weird but I assure you that in this proportion to salt and sour, it utterly vanishes, flavor-wise, in a magical act of bitterness-balancing umami magical magic.
- Lots of people suggest adding spices to the brine, all of which (chiles! dried leafy herbs! Coriander seeds and cardamom pods!) sound tasty, but I like a very cuisine-neutral preserved lemon, myself.
- Many people suggest that you rinse the lemons before using (what?!) and/or discard the pulp and only use the rind (WHAT.) and you can see what I think of those suggestions, which is not much, in case you couldn’t tell what I thought.
- Instructions often call for you to cut a deep cross in a whole lemon rather than slicing. Blessings on your path, and on the undoubtedly delicious results. I slice. Slicing is what I do.
- Making salad dressing in the jar that held the lemons once you have used the last lemon is the best thing that I never tell you about because it's a pretty unique circumstance that I hope you find yourself in sometime soon.
For the dried slices, I’ve tried slicing my lemons (all types of lemons, plus tangerines and blood oranges, are nice for tea) with a super-sharp knife, with a serrated knife and with a mandoline, and I’ve found that all these tools have their pluses and minuses. A firmer citrus slices nicely on a mandoline, and very thinly, too. If you have a softish fruit, as Meyers tend to be, and especially if you have one with a lot of seeds, the mandoline will lead to weeping on your part and a big mess of citrus on the cutting room floor. A knife of either type gives you the best control over the slices staying centered (on the mandoline, things began to wongle mid-lemon no matter how hard I tried to stay true), but it’s hard to get the slices as thin. Then there’s the perennial risk of a trip to the ER with that thing—fear of same means that I pay scrupulous attention when using it, and then fairly predictably cut myself when I am either washing it or putting it back in the box. Anyway: slice them up without doing yourself harm.
If you’re going to dry them, and they are thin, it’s imperative that you set the slices up on a parchment-lined tray (or the fruit leather sheet that came with your dehydrator, if one did—my dehydrator is a faux-woodgrain model from the homesteading 1970’s and if it had any accessories back when Carter was in office, they are lost to history now, along with my father’s three-piece burnt-orange wide-wale corduroy suit of similar vintage, which was a trophy from the last time he was allowed to shop alone until the mid 1990’s, when he promptly went out and bought a camouflage suit).
A lined sheet means the slices take longer to dry because the liner blocks the flow of air, and that means that the slices usually want to be flipped as well, but these can be sticky little misters and you don’t want to see them stuck to the tray. Trust me. I’ve seen it. And another thing: you want to make sure they are bone-, crisp-, absolutely dry, or they will develop mold and you will develop sadness.
Once they are dry dry dry, slide those see-through lovelies into a jar or cello bag and Bob is your gift-giving uncle, whatever the occasion, maybe with a bottle of honey and some nice tea tucked in alongside them if you really want to win friends and influence people.
THE MAGIC DUST
Regardless of how you slice or dry, you are going to end up with some oddball bits and pieces plus the two unlovely-looking hind ends of the lemon. Given the price of the lemon, and all that fragrance too, and my lemon issues, it’s hard for me to let those go.
Mince the scraps up nice and small so they dry at the same rate as the slices. Make sure there are some fleshy bits as well as rind among the scraps, as they will add a tartness that really makes this pop. Spread them out on a separate sheet when you are ready to dry your slices.
Once they are also crisp-dry, break up the bits with your hands (this helps the grinder to grind evenly, and also alerts you to any sections that are not quite dry, which you should set aside to drop into your tea or rub behind your ears or something) and put them in a blender or a food processor or a very clean spice grinder (I have a small coffee grinder that never gets used for coffee that fulfills this role for me). Blitz them to a powder. I think I get a little buzz off the scent that wafts up when this happens. I am a really cheap date.
Sweet applications include:
- Add the powder to some honey or agave and use it in tea
- Add the powder to a cup of granulated or caster sugar and use it in baking or to rim a drinking glass
- Grind the powder with a cup of granulated sugar to make powdered citrus sugar, or even some crazy kind of instant lemonade if you get the proportions right
Savory applications include:
- Add the powder to a spice rub, marinade or salad dressing
- Mix the powder into some fine coarse salt, or into a salt-free seasoning like gomasio where the tartness won't permit you to miss salt at all
- Mix the powder into hot, buttered rice and then try to tell me you do not wish to marry that pot of rice right on the spot.
XPRESS SERVICE DIRECT TO THE PEOPLE WHO THOUGHT OF ALL OF THIS FIRST BEFORE I DID ONLY I DIDN'T FULLY REALIZE THAT UNTIL LATER:
- Alana on preserved lemons, and then follow her to things like hummus and cocktails and other things you can soup up once you have them.
- Marisa on drying lemons, and what to do with dried lemons (see the comments, too: good morning, water bottle!), and (bonus!) on turning preserved lemons into a super-useful and accessible puree
- More preserved lemons, pureed and otherwise, and still more, including some cork genius to try if your lemons insist on floating and lots of things to put the little dears in.