Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Spiced Lemons

Well, after weeks of repeated (and, until now, empty) promises I am finally getting around to this spiced lemon business. This is a very fast canning project and one that is ideal for beginners because there's no worry about setting up as there is in jelly or jam, and processing time isn't so much a worry because we are, after all, talking about lemons and an awful lot of salt here. More advanced canners will likely have their own ideas about the mix of spices and technique and may simply use this recipe as the basis upon which to create their own customized to suit their tastes and projected uses.

First, sterilize your lids and jars. I do my jars either in the dishwasher or in the oven (set to 200 degrees F) on a cookie sheet. Lids get put into simmering water. Also start your water bath so that it's at a rolling boil and ready when you are.

There are two ways to approach the basic preparation of the lemons. If you wish to leave your lemons whole, which is a tad more authentic, then scrub them well and place them in a pot of boiling, salted water and boil for 10-15 minutes. You want enough water so that the lemons have enough room to bob around a bit. You'll notice that they'll start to look a little bloated and may even seem a bit lighter in color. After the boiling, drain and cool.

Or, you can do as I did. Because I feel that whole lemons are better suited to quart jars which are a little large for my use, I cut mine to fit better into pints. Because the boiling process allows the lemons to be more receptive to taking in the spiced brine, if choose to cut yours you can dispense with the boiling altogether. I merely tossed my sliced lemons in a large bowl (see above) with some kosher salt and let them sit for a couple hours.

While the your lemons are either boiling or sitting, prepare your spicing brine. There are many opinions about what spices and in what quantities result in authentic spiced lemons, but they pretty much boil down (ha!) to this: cinnamon (sticks), whole cloves, black peppercorns, coriander, salt and, occasionally, garlic. Since I like garlic I decided to include it along with a bit more salt. As it happens, I discovered that I was out of coriander. I don't think this is a huge problem and happily proceeded without - you may feel the same about any of the ingredients. In my opinion, the only musts are the cinnamon, cloves and salt but I am not dogmatic on this point.

Anyway, the brine is simple: place your spices in a saucepan with enough water to fill the number of jars you're working with. Make sure you have at least one cinnamon stick per jar - I like two - and enough cloves and peppercorns to put about a tablespoon into each jar. Add a bit more salt - more if you've boiled your lemons, less if you haven't. Simmer all the brine ingredients together - this smells heavenly - for about half an hour. You want to encourage the hard spices to release their flavor and fragrance a bit and soften ever so slightly.

(An aside about quantities: This is one of those times when I'm not going to tell you how much to use of this, that or the other. To do so with a recipe like this would be, pardon the expression, fruitless. Because spiced lemons do not rely on a chemical reaction to be successful the basic procedure can be adjusted to suit anyone's individual tastes. I happen to love cinnamon and cloves, but you might be more into the garlic/salt components. Trust yourself and do what you like. Even if your lemons are different from your Moroccan neighbor's they'll still be delicious. And you can always tweak it next time, right? Life's an experiment, party on.)

Pack the lemons into jars and fill with brine, manipulated so that the spices are evenly distributed among the jars. Allow some space to add a couple tablespoons of olive oil at the top. Wipe the rims and seal. Because we're basically talking about a jar of acid and salt, the processing time is minimal, 15 minutes from the time the water returns to a boil after you've added the jars. Remove (carefully!) and cool on a folded tea towel.

And there you have it. Now, what do you do with these things now that you've got them? First, let the jars sit for 4-6 weeks before opening. Once that time has passed you can use them to stuff roasting birds (my usual) - be sure to keep them in the carcass for making broth. Or you can dice them as a substitute for olives or in a tagine. I've seen recipes that use them along with tomatoes, mint and stale bread in a salad and my husband thinks they'd be great sprinkled on top of steamed broccol along with butter and lots of fresh black pepper, although I haven't tried it yet.

Let me know if you decide to make some lemons of your own. I'd love to hear about other variations and how you alter the recipe. If you find that my chatty way of relying the recipe is a bit much for you, let me know and I'll do my best at a more streamlined version.

If life gives you lemons, spice them up!

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