21 February 2007
Of Lemons and Laziness
To many home cooks, preparing Middle Eastern dishes can seem awfully labor intensive. There's the long-cooking of beans, the soaking of grains, the straining of yogurt, not to mention the endless chopping of parsley. And there are cookbook authors like Paula Wolfert leaning over your shoulder telling you you absolutely must do these things, you must use the proper clay pot or steam your couscous just like this. Certainly, all these things make a difference, but I am here to tell you that very few Arab women do any of this themselves. They pay other people to do it. On almost every corner, fresh cooked chickpeas and foul (large fava beans) are available, artichokes in the market are trimmed for you, bags of freshly chopped herbs and peeled garlic cloves line the stalls. As a Syrian friend of mine said with a laugh, "we love good food, but we are also a lazy people." I would point out that Arab women still put a lot of energy into their cooking, chopping miles of parsley for tabboule and squeezing bushels of lemons, but they naturally use some conveniences.
Preserved lemons are one of those products readily available alongside pickles and relishes, and they are a wonderful addition to anything from salad to a roast chicken. Luckily, even if they aren't readily available where you live, they are very easy to make, I mean, what could be lazier than packing them away and forgetting them for 3 weeks? After that, just pull one out when you want it and you're good to go. This little green olive salad is available ready-made at most cheese shops in Damascus, but it's just as easy to make yourself. It can be served as an appetizer, part of a mezze spread, or on it's with some bread or as filling for a sandwich. I've made it the traditional way, but I think it would be just as good finely chopped as more of a relish or spread.
Green Olive, Carrot, and Preserved Lemon Salad
3 tbl olive oil
1/2 tbl cumin
1/2 tbl paprika or aleppo pepper
1 tsp salt
1 cup carrots, diced
2 cups green olives
1 cup preserved lemons, chopped (see below)
Heat the olive oil in a skillet. Add the spices and stir so that they infuse the oil and become fragrant. Add the carrots and cook, stirring, until the carrots are just softened, but still maintain their shape and do not brown. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the olives and preserved lemons. Keep in the refrigerator, this keeps well and is even better after a few days.
You can also chop up the salad to make a green-olive relish that's great as a dip or spread.
lemons, as many as you want and will fit compactly into your jar
extra lemon juice, if necessary
1. Trim the tips of the lemons. One by one, cut the lemons as if you were going to cut them in half lengthwize, starting from the tip, but do not cut all the way. Keep the lemon attached at the base. Make another cut in a similar manner, so now the lemon is quartered, but again, attached at the base.
2. Pry the lemons open and generously sprinkle salt all over the insides and outsides of the lemons.
3. Sprinkle some salt in the bottom of a canning jar. Pack the lemons in the jar, squishing them down so that juice is extracted and covers the lemons . Fill up the jar with lemons, make sure the top is covered with lemon juice. Add more fresh squeezed lemon juice if necessary. Top with a couple tablespoons of salt.
4. Close the jar tightly and let sit at room temperature for a few days, turning the jar upside down every once in a while. Transfer to the refrigerator and let sit for 3 weeks, until the lemon rinds soften.
5. To use the lemons, remove one from the jar and rinse off any salt. Remove and discard the pulp and seeds. Lemons can keep for 6 months to 1 year in the refrigerator.