Preserving the Perfume of Lemons


So how do we take beautiful but tough-skinned lemons like these and turn them into the succulent, translucent beauties known as Preserved Lemons? All you need are 1-2 sterilized jars and lids, 10 lemons, one cup of coarse sea salt, and after 5 days, some olive oil. Plus 4-6 weeks of patience.

Our efforts, however, will be rewarded with nothing short of liquid gold. Yes, you can use the rinds in tagines like
Chicken with Preserved Lemons & Olives, but the briny lemony curing liquid is also a quick flavor boost for dressings, marinades, and drinks; and even the oil sealing in the lemons can add a touch of clean citrus flavor when used to pan-fry meats or fish, or saute vegetables.

The end result will look like the next 2 photos. Admittedly, not pretty perhaps. But here is a jar filled with a perfumed elixir redolent of sunshine and citrus, ready to bring the light and lightness of summer to any dish, savory or sweet. In the depths of winter, it's a real joy to have one of these jars gleaming at the back of the fridge, promising that summer will return, and boosting our spirits until it does. (I did have 8 winters in Germany and Boston before we moved to Hawaii . . . I remember the feeling!)
The last of the presrved lemonsPreserved lemon rind, sliced for use

The Jars

You can use a single 1 quart/liter jar for 6 lemons, or 2 half-liters with 3 lemons each. The advantage of using 2 jars is two-fold. I find they're easier to store in the fridge; and opening the second jar for the first time in the middle of winter is a special kind of present for the chef. (In the photos below you see one half-liter bottle with 3 lemons.) Sterilize your jars and lids as you would for canning.

The Lemons

If you have access to particularly flavorful lemon varieties such as Meyers or Sorrentos, by all means use those, but regular lemons will work just as well (I've only ever used regular lemons, but will cheerfully accept donations of Meyers or Sorrentos if someone wants me to experiment with those!). If you can find organic ones, even better. No matter what variety, look for lemons that are unblemished and with a firm skin.

Wash the lemons well. I used to lightly scrub the surface with a soft vegetable brush (not a potato brush, the bristles are too hard and will release the precious lemon oils into the wash water). A couple of years ago, however, I started looking for alternatives to remove pesticides and dirt from all produce and found many sites recommending soaking or washing with white vinegar, so we adopted this method with great success. Then last fall, National Public Radio ran a story (
"What does it take to clean fresh food,") about the importance of removing pesticides and dirt from all produce before using, and recommended using white vinegar. The magazine Cook's Illustrated has also tested white vinegar against a commercial vegetable cleaner for 2 purposes: 1) removing wax from vegetables (they tested cucumbers, but apples, lemons and other citrus are also waxed, see April 2007 edition), and 2) killing bacteria (March 2007). In both cases, they recommended plain white vinegar over the purchased product. (The NPR story link is accessible to anyone, but the CI articles are available to members only on the Web, but check your library for back issues.)

Now I soak the lemons in a solution of 1/4 cup white vinegar and 1/2 gallon of water for about a minute, then rinse in cool water. Dry each lemon with a clean paper towel. (If you lightly rub the surface of a lemon with your thumb before and after this brief soak, you will appreciate just how much wax, if nothing else, is removed by this simple step.) And since the prized part of preserving lemons is the rind, it's really a step worth doing.

Cut 6 of the lemons into 6-8 pieces, depending on the size of each. Remove straggler seeds that can be reached without having to dig too hard into each piece. Cut remaining 4 lemons in half crosswise and juice well with a lemon reamer or juicer. Keep juice aside. (If you're feeling really motivated, zest the lemons before cutting in half, and keep zest either in the freezer for future use; or add to 4 cups of sugar in an air-tight container and keep for 2 weeks, after which you will have a wonderful lemon sugar to use in baking or iced tea.)

The Salt

I prefer coarse sea salt, but kosher salt will work too — what you're looking for is a salt that is minimally processed, and is not Iodized. Iodized salt will cloud and add a strange off-taste to your finished product. Measure out about a cup of salt for every 6 lemons you intend to preserve. Put 2 tablespoons or so of salt into the bottom of your sterilized jar, and place first layer of lemon pieces atop salt. Cover with 2-3 more spoonfuls of salt, then next layer of lemons. Continue layering salt and lemons, ending with salt. If you're doing 2 separate half-liter jars, you will probably need 1-2 more tablespoons of salt for each jar.

Using a sterilized spoon, press on the lemons to pack them well, then add reserved lemon juice. Cover and leave in a warm dark place.
Days One thru Five of preserving lemons
Day Two. The lemons will begin to soften, use a sterilized spoon to press them below the juice line as much as possible, and shake gently to re-distribute the salt.

Day Three - Five. Repeat process of pressing down lemons and shaking bottle.

On Day Five, after pressing lemons, gently tap bottom of the jar against the counter several times to ensure all air bubbles have been released. Top mixture with olive oil to seal: place the back (rounded side) of a spoon about and inch above the juice line, and touching the inside of the jar, and slowly pour oil over the spoon — this will allow the oil to just sit over the juice and lemons with splattering. Add about an inch of oil. Cover and place in a dark cool corner of the pantry.

And now we wait. Today is the end of the Week One. Only 3-5 more weeks to go. The end time is determined by the weather, the types of lemons, quantity being preserved, etc. The rinds on these particular lemons looked a bit thick, so I'm guessing these will take another 4 weeks (for a total of 5) before they're done. If you find a thinner-rinded lemon, like the Meyers, yours might be ready in 4 weeks total. You can follow the transformation of this batch at the
Lemon Vigil, which will be in the sidebar for the next 2 months. I'll put up a photo each Friday with notes about any special care the lemons needed. When the lemons are ready, we'll have more recipes to try, too.

See also:
Preserved Lemon & Almond Polenta Torta


Honolulu's Chinatown, Part 2: Best Buys

Next Thursday, February 7th, is the start of the year 4706 in the Chinese calendar and, as my niece's new T-shirt points out, is also called the Year of the Rat. People born in the Years of the Rat (1924, 1936, 1948. 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996 and this year) are said to be intelligent, just, balanced, orderly, and honest in personal relationships, or so says our all-knowing wall calendar! (Were you born in a Year of the Rat?) Festivities to welcome the new year are well underway in Honolulu's Chinatown and other Chinese communities around the island, but key festivities still remain (see side bar at bottom). Streets are festooned with colorful lanterns and signs bearing wishes for prosperity and long health; dragon-like lions wend their way through shops, banks, markets, and malls; and the air cracks with sharp reports of firecrackers to ward off evil spirits and bad luck. If you need a reason to venture into Chinatown, these last few days leading up to the New Year are a great time to visit this historic district at its prettiest and liveliest. Shops and restaurants are filled with special foods, prices can be even more competitive than ever, and there is just an air of celebration and anticipation.

As far as we're concerned, though, T and I think any day is a great day to be in Chinatown. As outlined in the earlier post,
Honolulu's Chinatown: come see what you've been missing, we visit a couple of times a month for the freshest local produce, noodles, seafoods, smoothies (see Summer Frappe post) and ready-cooked meats, dumplings, and other goodies. Locations and some parking options were also covered earlier. Here we highlight some of our key finds.

Goji berries, aka wolfberries (Fructus lycii). We've used this medicinally for several years, but within the last year include wolfberries in our weekday daily breakfast oatmeal. Generous 1lb. packages retail between $4.50-$8.00 -- perhaps a third to half the retail cost we've seen elsewhere.

As mentioned in earlier posts, we prefer to shop for produce here because the turnover is so high that freshness is almost a given. We frequent many of the vegetable vendors, but our first stop is always a stall in the Kekaulike Mall marketplace called Cheap Market, Kahuku Farmers (right photo) for our leafy greens watercress, choy sum, Chinese broccoli, baby bok choy, dill, herbs, and gai choy but they have many others as well.

Kitchen tools I love: The julienne peeler (left), allows you to make julienne slices as easily as peeling a potato ($7-8), from Hong Fa Thai market on Maunakea/Pauahi. A Laotian rice steamer for sticky rice; the aluminum pot and bamboo basket are sold separately, and the assembly retails less than $20; also at Hong Fa. Vietnamese drip coffeemaker, a relaxing way to enjoy your favorite cup of joe on the weekend, with or without the traditional condensed milk accompaniment, retails less than $5 at most Vietnamese markets along King.

Kitchen collectibles: I have a weakness for wood kitchen articles, old and new. These antique mooncake molds and hand-grater are from Guan Hua (Chinese antiques and reproductions) on King.

For newer mooncake molds, check out Bo Wah on Maunkea. If you're discerning about hair care and insist on a boar-bristle brush, consider also using a wood, rather than plastic, comb. Wood is said to be less likely to pull (and therefore, weaken) hair; and to provide a massage-like feeling on the scalp to promote blood circulation. I love them the top right 3 are mine, I have one at home and one in my purse, and one in my backpack; all the others are gifts for family. All the models shown retail less than $6, except for the 2-tone one which starts at $18 (depends on size and type of wood used). Available at the Americomb House on Maunkea/King it's hard to miss with a giant wood comb in the window!

Char Hung Sut Manapua Factory's hand-made selection includes sweets and savories for every taste. Go early, things start selling out by mid-morning.

The selection of roasted chicken, char siu, pork, duck, as well as various kinds of offal at the ever-popular Wing Loy's BBQ on Maunakea. We also frequent Hong Kong style BBQ at the Far Eastern Center on King, and Nam Fong, also on Maunakea.

Fresh local and imported fruit selections are unparalleled. Visitors and picnickers looking for a ready-made taste of the islands will find cleaned and cut fruit bowls ranging from $2-4, depending on the fruits included. Chau's Fruits (middle) at the Hotel St. entrance to the Maunakea Markets, Summer Frappe in the Maunakea courtyard, and several vendors in the Food Court have ice-cold fruit bowls from which to choose. It's the best way to try a new fruit, too, if you're unsure how to prepare or eat it everything from the common (in Hawaii) pineapples and mangos, to watermelon, rambutan, sapote, dragonfruit, jackfruit and durian (seasonal).

Here's a special find for connoisseurs of fish cakes. These are made daily from fresh spearfish/marlin at KC Meatball House, one of the stalls inside the Markets at Kekaulike Mall. KC also carries Asian-style (bound with cornstarch for a springy texture) pork meatballs that are one of T's favorites.

This factory on Likelike Mall produces hundreds of the thin, rolled rice sheet noodles in shrimp (tiny dried kind), plain and char siu flavors. Each roll is $1 or less, depending on the flavor. Recipe: Char-siu or Shrimp Funn with Chive Oil.

This small dark store-front on King Street, just ewa of Kekaulike Mall, belies the bustling noodle factory inside. Dozens of types of fresh-made wheat and egg noodles in varying thicknesses and forms, as well as wrappers for wonton, gyoza and mandoo are available. A price list is posted in the foyer just before you step down into the factory proper to place your order. Often there's a line here (but it moves quickly) so you may have time to peruse the list and make your selections before you get to the counter. Shown here are udon (left) and thick saimin noodles, both sell for $1.00/lb.

Ready for lunch? Dim sum at Good Luck Chinese restaurant at Mauna Kea/Beretania allows diners to select from dozens of steamed, fried and sauteed dishes from their traveling carts or off the extensive menu.

Pho 97 on Maunakea, near the Marketplace entrance, is our go-to stop for all Vietnamese meals: BBQ pork bun (left), Vietnamese mung bean crepe, or soups.

Want something faster than a sit-down restaurant affords? The food court at the Maunakea Marketplace has the most compelling assortment of Asian food stalls on Oahu: Singaporean, Malaysian, Thai, Laotian, Filipino, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese vendors offer fully-cooked meals ready to take, as well as short-order items like noodle soups cooked to order. Of the more than dozen stalls here, almost half offer Filipino foods so if you've ever been curious about Filipino foods, this is the place to sample different regional styles.

This is in no way a complete list, just a few of our favorites. We've only been exploring for 2 years, so if we've missed your favorite haunt or you know we're missing out on a great product, please share it with us by leaving a comment below. And if you've recently visited this vibrant district yourself, we'd love to hear what your experience was like.

We missed some of the festivities over the last 2 weekends, but a few remain this coming weekend:

Friday, February 1
First Friday Arts at Marks
Chinatown Open House at Chinese Chamber of Commerce & Chinatown District

Friday & Saturday, February 1 & 2
Chinese New Year Celebration at Chinatown Cultural Place
Friday: 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Saturday: 9:00 a.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Fireworks and lion-dances

Saturday, February 2
CMA Parade - 4:00 p.m.
Night In Chinatown - 9:00 a.m. - 10:30 p.m.

Thursday, February 7
Chinese New Year


What's in the Pantry: Penne with Tuna

It's still pretty damp and dark, but the worst of the weather seems to be behind us (knock on wood!). Unfortunately, many folks on the Leeward (west) Coast and the North Shore are still without power because the electrical company still has to string up new lines to the 30 resurrected utility poles that were downed by yesterday's gusty winds. As the veteran of many many Super-typhoons (maximum sustained winds over 150mph) growing up and living on Guam, I feel their pain. It's usually at least a few weeks following any super typhoon before our village (Dededo, in the north of the island) would get power back. But in 1976, we had no power for 4 months after Supertyphoon Pamela came directly over Guam, THEN reversed direction and came back directly over the island again! Her 200mph winds in the eye wall hit the island in 2 directions so devastation was pretty widespread. So to make a short story long, this legacy has left it's mark on me in terms of disaster coping.

One mark has been to get creative with the canned goods we usually stock. Depending on how exotic your pantry stock is, you can make some really wonderful hot meals to get you through a power shortage. (Suggestions for how to stock a Basic, Expanded, or Exotic Pantry are offered in the "
In the Pantry" section.) So starting with a Basic Pantry, if you've got canned tuna, canned tomatoes, some capers and/or olives (and maybe some anchovies) you can make this Penne con Tonno (penne with tuna). Of course, you don't have to wait for a power outage to try this — we made it with the fresh tuna our neighbors gave us in last month's post, and it's an easy meal-saver when you only have 30 minutes to put dinner together on a weeknight.

So light the candles, open a nice bottle of wine and you'll almost be sorry when the power does come back on!

(for 2 persons, but easily doubles and triples)

1 clove of garlic, minced
TBL. olive oil (don't skimp on the oil, it will coat and flavor the pasta)
1/2 cup (or more, to your taste) olives (green, black, mixed), chopped or left whole
2-3 TBL. capers (I don't rinse for this recipe, but you can)
1/2 can (8oz/225g) diced tomatoes (pictures show roasted cherry tomatoes because that's what we had on hand that day)
2 anchovy fillets (you won't taste them in the final dish, I promise)

1 can (6oz/170g) tuna in olive oil, or water

1/2 box (230g) farfalle (bowtie), penne, or other pasta shape
sea salt
flat-leaf parsley for garnish (optional)

Put water on to boil for pasta.

Saute garlic in oil over medium heat. Once garlic is fragrant, add olives, capers, tomatoes, and anchovies, and stir until the anchovies dissolve. Add tuna (including oil if using tuna in olive oil), and cook over low heat at least 10 minutes, with pan covered. (The last picture shows this same sauce made with fresh tuna.)

Cook pasta until barely al dente (cooking time will vary depending on pasta shape). Drain well, but don't rinse.

Turn heat to medium high for the sauce, move the sauce ingredients to the edges creating a hole in the center, and add hot pasta to the center. Fold sauce ingredients over pasta and coat well. Turn heat off, cover and let rest for 5 minutes while you open a bottle and set the table. Garnish with parsley, if using.

What's in the pantry: Shiitake mushrooms

Dried shiitake mushrooms
Since I'm still battling the effects of this bout with the flu, I still crave things that support the immune system. I know that sounds weird, but don't you feel sometimes that your body tells you what it needs? (Yes, of course, the body can need chocolate . . . but that's another post . . .)

One such immunity booster is the shiitake mushroom. I was first opened to the healing possibilities of foods in Nina Simonds' book, "
A Spoonful of Ginger." It has remained a valuable and often sought resource in my library since 1999, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the healing properties of everyday food. In her book, Ms. Simonds notes that "[r]ecent research has credited shiitake mushrooms . . . with components that bolster the immune system, prolong life in cancer patients, and are useful in the treatment of chronic fatigue syndrome and AIDS." (page 165) A quick google of "shiitake" on the internet will give you many reports of shiitake's growing use in cancer treatment, and it's reported success in lowering cholesterol and battling hepatitis B.

You'd think that growing up with a n Okinawan-Japanese mother that I would have grown up liking shiitake mushrooms. Not true. I used to hate the taste of these mushrooms — I would carefully pick them out, sliver by sliver, piece by piece, out of whatever dish my mom put them in. I really didn't develop a taste for them until I returned to Guam in my mid-20s. Now, I not only keep a supply of the dried fungi in my pantry, I usually rehydrate more than I need, and cook and season them to have on hand as a quick side dish for lunch, as a topping for ramen and other noodle soups, or to add a quick umami boost to a dish.
Dried shiitake weighted down to re-hydrate

First, you need to rehydrate the mushrooms. Place them in a container at least 3-4 times larger than the dried mushrooms. Cover with cool water, trying to keep the gills of the mushrooms face down. (Many sources say to use hot water, but I don't think this is necessary) Weigh down the mushrooms to keep them submerged (they're going to want to float at the surface). In the photo below, a small plate provides just enough weight to keep the mushrooms below the surface. Leave for 30 minutes of more. When they are fully re-hydrated, the stems will be pliable and not stiff anymore.

Soaked shiitake braising in seasoned liquid

Gently squeeze the mushrooms to release some of the absorbed water (but don't wring it dry). Trim the woody stems using kitchen scissors. You can keep this soaking water as a base for soup or sauce, but strain it through a sieve to keep out the fine grit that will be at the bottom of the container.

To make a braising sauce:
1/2 cup/ 120ml water or soaking liquid
1/2 cup/ 120ml mirin (Japanese seasoned cooking wine)
if you don't have mirin, you can use sake or dry sherry PLUS 1 tsp extra sugar)
1-1/2 tsp sugar or brown sugar
1/2 tsp soy sauce

Combine all ingredients in small pan and lay shiitake gill-side down (so the mushroom can absorb the flavor of the sauce) — the liquid should be about half way up the mushroom caps (add more water or soaking liquid if needed). Simmer for 15-20 minutes or until liquid reduces by half. Taste braising liquid — it should be sweet and the alcohol flavor gone. Add another teaspoon of soy sauce and turn mushrooms over and cook for another 5-10 minutes, or until the liquid becomes a glaze, thick and syrup-like. Turn off heat, cover, and let mushrooms cool in pan.

Braised shiitake cooling in pan

The finished mushrooms are delicious eaten as is. Try them in a sandwich, or as a side dish with any Asian rice meal. Or, as here, as a topping for ramen, saimin, udon, wonton or another noodle soup. You can also chop them finely and add to meatloaf or meatball mixture, season with teriyaki sauce and enjoy a different and healthy twist to your meatloaf. I think once you get used to having these tasty shrooms handy, you'll find many uses for them. I'd love to hear from anyone trying this recipe at home.

Seasoned shiitake in ramen noodle soup