A Fresh Start and Preserved Lemons

Nana’s house always smelled of food. The scent of stew would hang in the air from the morning when she’d start prepping it until the evening, long after it was gone. And when she’d fry fish, the smell of hot bubbling oil would fill the basement, where she kept the deep fryer, waft upstairs and soak into clothes and hair. Nana could never hide when or what she was cooking. Even a big hug far from her kitchen was a tell; her shirt would absorb the scent of whatever she was cooking. I know she owned perfume (only because I saw the bottle of Chanel No. 5 in her medicine cabinet), but I associate the scent of sautéed aromatics with her more closely than any floral fragrance.

My Nana wasn’t always a good cook, I’ve been told. Her skill developed out of necessity; scarce resources forced creativity and years of trial-and-error led to perfection. In the time I knew her, she didn’t miss a beat in the kitchen. Each dish she made was as delicious as the last, and even the semi-home made ones felt like she created them from scratch.

This was true of her lemon tarts, which were a staple at our holiday gatherings. She made the dough from scratch and generously dolloped lemon curd into the flaky pastry shells. I’d gorge myself on these tangy-sweet melt-in-your-mouth bites, eating way more than I should but not so many that I ever tired of them. Until I saw the jar of curd on the counter one day, I thought the filling was a product of her stovetop. Either way, I didn’t care. Roasts and fish and sautéed vegetables may be the smells I attach to memories of Nana’s kitchen, but her lemon tarts are the taste.

I just moved to Brooklyn from Chicago, and in the midst of purging and packing my belongings, I felt the urge to preserve something. It wasn’t just the Brooklyn speaking; for the better part of the last month, I’ve been traveling, reducing my necessities down to what could fit in a suitcase and maintaining an understocked refrigerator. Somehow, I ended up with a bowl of lemons left on my counter – the result of several offhand purchases at the grocery store, and me cooking much less than I anticipated and just loving lemons. Throwing them away seemed wasteful, so I tried my hand at preserving.

Compared to canning other fruits, preserving lemons seemed benign. At its simplest, the recipe calls for two ingredients – lemons and salt – a jar and an imprecise set of skills. Take the lemons and slice them, salt them, smush them and store them. Then wait. The result is something wonderful: intense lemon flavor and a barely-there tang. The fruit softens over time; the flesh breaks down and the peel becomes the most delicious and desirable. Preserved lemons add some oomph to savory dishes, like chicken and fish; they’re especially common in North African and Middle Eastern cuisine. Still my favorite way to eat them is rinsed (to remove some of the salt), finely chopped and sprinkled over a thick yogurt with a bit of brown sugar (or coconut sugar) and a pinch of black pepper.

The best part (aside from how they taste) is that you don’t really need to know what you’re doing in the kitchen. Preserved lemons are forgiving, and a bit of patience pays off. I’m not patient. And I certainly haven’t reached Nana’s skill level. But experimenting with recipes like this make me think that one day, I’ll get there.