Lessons in Caretaking: Preserved Lemons

Because you can't kill a jar of fruit.

Preserved Lemons

Preserved Lemons

Lemon and salt—powerful on their own, but even better when combined and let mature into preserved lemons, a North African pantry staple.Romulo Yanes

You're supposed to flip the jar once a day to swirl around all the little red pepper flakes and the viscous layer of salty lemon juice that settles at the bottom, but sometimes when I get home from work late, I crawl into bed with a bag of granola and forget to do this. I feel bad about it.

I've also read that you're supposed to keep the jar in a cool, dark place, but I've accidentally forgotten it in my windowsill after admiring the way the glossy Meyer lemons catch rays of sunlight. I even once left the lid off the jar for a few hours after making my friends smell its contents: "It smells like a lemon that isn't sour anymore!" I said as I shoved the jar under their noses. This instance made me late to a first date.

When people ask me why I didn't get a cat or a succulent when I moved to New York and needed something to make me feel like an adult, I remind myself that I shouldn't be responsible for a living thing; I struggle enough just to keep myself standing. I knew I wanted something that I could care for, but I didn't want it to be killable. Even sourdough starters and kombucha mothers were out—too alive.

So I decided to preserve lemons. I blocked out an entire Sunday in my planner for a task that would take a mere 10 minutes. My roommate asked: "What do you even do with preserved lemons?" I paused.

Even sourdough starters and kombucha mothers were out—too alive.

"I'll throw them in a cast iron skillet with a filet of something," I shot back. I quickly realized I had no idea how I planned to use them. Sure, I had fallen in love with Sami Tamimi and Yotam Ottolenghi's Jerusalem when I was in college, which included a recipe for the condiment, and I had enjoyed their assertive brine in Moroccan dishes before. But when it came down to it, I was answerless. I didn't know why I decided to preserve my own lemons. I knew I wouldn't use them often. But that wasn't the point. And so I squished six salted Meyer lemons into a mason jar, feeling their juice squeeze out and up onto my fingers.

As time passed, I noticed the liquid getting a little thicker, the lemons looking squidgier than before. I compared the process to a maturing child and started to wonder if anyone else had ever felt so strongly about lemons. These lemons depended on me, and I liked feeling dependable. Every night, I agitated the jar before going to bed, watching the red pepper flakes snake up through the lemons. Halfway through their maturation, when I finally got a job, I knew I was ready for the responsibility. I mean, have you seen my lemons?

I haven't tasted them yet; they still have two weeks to go. But as soon as I’ve let the jar sit for the suggested minimum preservation time, I’ll be a little showy about it. I’ll invite over a few close friends, pour some glasses of an extra-dry white wine, and while everyone is mingling, I’ll throw thick filets of a firm white fish, olives, and my matured lemons in a casserole dish and into the oven. Again, I’ll wait. And when it comes time to eat, when we’ve all sloppily scooped the tagine onto our plates, when voices are raised, when forks are scraping against plates, and when everyone’s had a little too much wine to give me attention, maybe I’ll feel some sense of accomplishment. I’ll be able to say, “Hey, I made those preserved lemons,” if only to myself.