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Thursday, June 21, 2018 12:01 am

When life gives you lemons, preserve them

From every restaurant in which I’ve apprenticed, I’ve walked away with at least one “pearl” of kitchen wisdom that has helped me up my cooking game. Sometimes I learn a clever little trick to improve my speed and efficiency. Sometimes I learn a new knife technique that increases my precision. Sometimes I learn to cook with a new ingredient. Sometimes I learn swear words in the native tongues of the dishwashers.

Every restaurant kitchen is a unique environment and the lessons from one kitchen don’t necessarily play out well in another kitchen. I try hard to make my presence a benefit, not a burden. I attempt to read each chef’s body language. I’ve been yelled at for asking a question when the chef is busy cooking at the stove during dinner service: “Could we have this conversation later?!!” And I’ve been yelled at for standing beside a busy chef and waiting patiently for a good moment to ask my question: “If you have something to say, just say it! Don’t just stand there!”

I’ve learned good restaurants run on surprisingly low profit margins. Some restaurant kitchens emphasize keeping payroll costs down and getting the food prepped and cooked as fast as possible without regard for waste. In other restaurants the focus is on minimizing food waste and controlling food costs. All restaurants complain about the high cost of laundering towels and napkins. (Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor spends $40,000 a year on linen service.) Rather than trying to find out where the clean towels are hidden, I always bring my own.

As I’ve written in previous columns, my most recent educational opportunity was at Vicia, St. Louis’ hot new vegetable-focused restaurant in the Central West End. Vicia’s executive chef and co-owner Michael Gallina was just named to the 30th annual Food & Wine magazine’s Class of 2018 “Best New Chefs in America” and appears on the cover of the July issue. His kitchen culture is grounded in a strict “no waste” food policy. One of my tasks as an apprentice was to carefully peel the rinds, without including any white pith, from two cases of lemons. Vicia’s bar goes through a lot of fresh-squeezed lemon juice for its “botanical” cocktails, and the cooks in the kitchen always have lemon juice in squeeze bottles to adjust acidity and add brightness to their dishes. I asked the chef what he was going to do with my big container full of peels. “We ferment the lemon peels the same way preserved lemons are made. We can mince them and put them into chimichurri. We use the pickling liquid in vinaigrettes.”

One of the problems with learning on the job is that I often walk away with incomplete knowledge of a process. I knew that preserved lemons were used in North African cuisine, and I knew the basics of how they were made. I really didn’t know what they tasted like or what to do with them. When I returned home from my week at Vicia I found my old copy of Paula Wolfert’s classic cookbook Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco and canned my first jar of preserved lemons. Fermentation is a time-dependent process that favors delayed gratification so I’ve been waiting patiently for over a month to taste the results and learn how to use them. This is what I have learned.

Lemons were originally preserved for the same reason that other foods are preserved – to store and eat them past their season. Preserved lemons are made with nothing more than lemons, salt and time. Wash some lemons. Cut each fruit into quarters lengthwise without slicing through the base and toss with salt, coating all cut surfaces. Pack them into a jar and press down the lemons until they are submerged in the liquid. Seal the jar tightly and store in a cool place for a month or more – the longer the better. Preserved lemons will last in the back of your fridge for up to a year.

Preserved lemons are commonly used in North African dishes: Algerian couscous dishes, Tunisian chickpea stews and Moroccan chicken tagines. They add a savory lemony umami quality to dishes that regular lemons don’t, with heavy citrus and floral notes coming from the oils in the peel.

Most recipes call for using the peel only. However the brining liquid shouldn’t be discarded. I use it to pimp up my bloody marys. The flavor also combines well with horseradish in cocktail sauces.

For a quick meal, toss pasta with some olive oil, a little garlic and chopped preserved lemon peel. If desired, the pasta can be topped with some chicken or fish. Preserved lemons can also be chopped into little pieces and added to salsas, chimichurri, guacamole and hummus.

Preserved lemons
• 3-5 lemons (preferably organic)
• Kosher salt

Scrub the lemons.

Quarter each lemon from the top to within 1/2 inch of the bottom leaving lemon attached at one end.

Rub kosher salt over the cut surfaces, and reshape the fruit. Cover the bottom of the jar with salt. Pack in all the cut lemons. Sprinkle salt on each layer.

Press the lemons down to release their juices and if necessary squeeze additional cut and salted lemons into the jar until totally covered with the liquid. Additional lemon juice can be added if necessary.

Close the jar and allow to ferment at room temperature, agitating the jar every day for 3 to 4 weeks or until the rinds are tender to the bite.

Store in the refrigerator.

Preserved lemons should be rinsed off before using to remove any surface salt. They can be added to any recipe that calls for lemon. The minced rind should be used raw or added to a dish at the very end of cooking.

The pulp can be added to simmering stock.

The next public informational seminar presenting the experiences of the CrossFit Instinct intermittent fasting study will be held on Tuesday, June 26, at 6 p.m. at Springfield Clinic at 900 N. First St. Free parking is available in the adjoining parking garage to the north. Enter into the first floor and turn left into the first hallway to the media room.

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