A gift of a pretty jar holding a preserved lemon should thrill any experienced or adventurous cook. Salt-cured whole lemons preserved in extra-virgin olive oil are a staple in almost all Mediterranean cuisines. They are used to season slow-cooked dishes like tagines, and diced preserved lemon and its oil can be used to marinate or garnish grilled meats and seafood as well as feta and other dry cheeses. In Greek tavernas small wedges of preserved lemon are served with drinks, along with slivers of dry, aged sheep’s milk cheeses, olives, and flatbreads. The oil alone is a perfect addition to marinades and vinaigrettes. Whole cardamom pods and fenugreek seeds can be found in South Asian markets, natural-foods stores, and online. Preserved lemons improve with age and should stay good for about six months. It is essential to cover the lemons by at least a half an inch of olive oil in order to store the jar safely at room temperature.
|12 small, firm organic lemons||2 tablespoons white peppercorns|
|5 tablespoons coarse sea salt||2 tablespoons cardamom pods|
|12 fresh bay leaves||2 tablespoons fenugreek seeds|
|4 cinnamon sticks, each broken into three pieces||2 tablespoons mustard seeds|
|12 small dried red chile pods||4 cups extra-virgin olive oil|
Scrub the lemons and cut each one into 8 wedges from the blossom end to, but not through, the stem end, so that the wedges remain attached at the stem end, Arrange the lemons in a glass or ceramic casserole dish. Gently spread the wedges apart and heavily sprinkle each lemon with sea salt. Tightly cover the dish with plastic wrap. Set the salted lemons aside in a cool place for 24 hours.
Meanwhile, prepare the jars: You will need 12 small wide-mouthed jars (1/2-pint canning jars are fine). Wash the jars and lids in hot, soapy water, rinse them, and dry them in a 190F oven. Keep the jars and lids warm until you are ready to fill them.
Drain off and discard any accumulated juices in the casserole of lemons. Put one lemon in each jar along with a bay leaf, a piece of cinnamon, a chile pod, and a small portion of the other seasonings. Fill the jars with olive oil, using about 1/3 cup for each jar, making sure the lemons are covered by at least a half inch of oil. Use a chopstick or the handle of a wooden spoon to dislodge any air bubbles. Wipe the jar rims with clean paper towels and cover the jars.
Store the jars in a cool, dry pantry or closet for 2 weeks, or until the lemons are soft and you are ready to assemble and deliver the gifts.
Easy, moderately expensive, do not freeze or ship, can be doubled or tripled
Wrapping it Up
The lemons, spice, and rich green olive oil provide about all the good looks any small gift needs. But a great looking label and a few recipes would complete this gift nicely. If you have good computer skills, you might consider creating a booklet of recipes (you can search online or in any Mediterranean or Middle Eastern cookbook) to accompany the lemons. You should include a note with storage instructions, too: The lemons can be stored at room temperature, but as they are used, the jar should be replenished with olive oil to keep the remaining lemons covered and fresh. See Resources for information on free downloadable labels.
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