Until recently, my friend Sarah lived in a house with an abundance of fruit trees. There were a number of prolific citrus trees, including two or three lemon trees. Most of the lemons were ordinary palm-sized things, but there was one tree that was a little…odd. Through some combination of genetics and trauma, it only produced miniature lemons.
I don’t think any of us had seen lemons like these before: small and round, with paper-thin skins and greenish flesh. They were surprisingly juicy for their size, but we could still only squeeze a thimbleful of juice from each lemon. They were adorable, but not especially useful. A couple months ago, Sarah harvested a box of tiny lemons from her tiny tree, and then stood around in the kitchen at a complete loss for what to do with them. I’m a sucker for tiny adorable foods, so I jumped in and volunteered to take them home. My solution? Preserve the lemons whole.
Preserved lemons–salted, fermented, and minced into a gooey paste–are a staple in North African and (I believe) Indian cuisine. They’re best known as a partner in crime with chicken and olives, usually in the saucy spiced braise known as tagine. They’re not always easy to find in stores, but they’re dead simple to make–if you’re willing to wait a month. Ordinary lemons (preferably on the smallish side) will work fine; Meyer lemons are highly recommended; if you can find dwarf lemons like the ones I have, they make terrific single-serving portions.
The process is similar to when I made kimchi a while ago: you cut lemons into attached wedges, fill them full of salt, then pack them into a jar until they release their juices. Let them sit for a few days to start the fermentation, then top off the jar with lemon juice and stash them in a cool dark place until the fermentation is complete. Like kimchi, what you end up with is a powerful and strangely compelling condiment. The lemons become slippery and squishy over time, losing their harsh edge and gaining something darker and funkier in return. In a strange reversal, the flesh becomes bitter and the rind turns fragrant; you can cut away the flesh and just use the rind, though my lemons are small enough that I just cut up the whole thing. Stir them into any long-simmering soup, stew, braise, or curry to add a burst of rich lemon flavor, without the acrid tartness of fresh juice.
There’s also an extra bonus, which I wasn’t expecting: the lemon brine. Because of the pectin in the lemon peels and juice, my brine thickened to a soft goo, sort of a cross between a syrup and a gel. It’s incredibly salty, and in fact, I’ve taken to seasoning things with lemon brine instead of salt. It’s terrific as a last-minute addition to a simple vegetable soup, or whisked into a salad dressing. Two seasonings for the price of one–not bad for a crop of freak lemons.
Start with organic, unwaxed lemons. This is important, since you’ll eventually be eating the entire fruit–zest, pith, and flesh–and any chemicals or waxes on the skin will end up in your food. (If you know someone with a lemon tree, this is the perfect way to take advantage.)
Thoroughly wash and dry a glass jar, and cover the bottom with a layer of coarse salt. Wash the lemons thoroughly, scrubbing to remove any dirt. Cut each lemon lengthwise into quarters, leaving the pieces attached at the bottom so that the fruit opens up in an X shape. Hold each lemon over the mouth of the jar and sprinkle a generous tablespoon of salt into the cut. After you salt each lemon, pack it into the jar. Sprinkle more salt between each layer of lemons. Keep salting and packing the lemons into the jar, pressing them firmly so they release their juice, until you can’t fit in any more.
If your jar has a metal lid, put a piece of wax paper underneath the lid before sealing it. If it has a glass lid, just seal it directly. Place the jar on the counter for 3-4 days, shaking once a day to make sure the salt is evenly distributed. If the lemons don’t seem to be releasing much juice, open the jar and press them down firmly with a clean implement to help things along.
After 4 days, check the jar to see if the lemons are submerged in juice. If not, add freshly squeezed lemon juice to cover. Stash in a cool, dry place for 3-4 weeks. After that, the lemons are ready to use; transfer them to the refrigerator and store for up to 6 months.
To use one of your preserved lemons, remove it from the jar and rinse it thoroughly to get rid of any excess salt. Finely chop, removing any seeds as you go, and stir it into whatever you’re making. You can also use the preserved lemon brine, keeping in mind that a little goes a long way.