You love giving holiday gifts, but Black Friday and Cyber Monday made you nervous and you dread last-minute shopping. Crowded stores and overflowing parking lots add to the perils of gift giving. This year, instead of buying all your gifts, why not make baked goods, homemade sweets or preserved lemons. They make such welcome holiday gifts.
Make, don’t buy your gifts
Living in Rhode Island years ago, I learned that lesson from my friend Risa Gilpin. With snow sticking to the windows and the crackle of logs ablaze in the wood-burning stove, after work Risa would spend December evenings sitting in a comfortable, old easy chair knitting sweaters and crocheting soft sculptures. I still have the palm tree she made me to help cure my longing for sunny Southern California.
Risa loved holiday gift giving even as she pushed back against commercialism.
Her thought was simple and straightforward, “What you buy in a store isn’t personal. It might be nice, but it isn’t special.”
Homemade holiday gifts are more personal
With the holidays coming, that thought resonates with me. Knitting and crocheting aren’t my thing, but cooking comes naturally. A box of chocolates made in my kitchen and boxed up nicely is a perfect gift. The same goes for preserved lemons, an essential ingredient in Moroccan cooking.
After a recent trip to Morocco, making tagines and couscous at home was a high priority. All the ingredients were easy to find, except for preserved lemons. A local restaurant supply store stocked only frozen ones. An Italian specialty market sold two lemons in a jar for $10, which was expensive and, unfortunately, the lemons didn’t taste fresh.
Making preserved lemons is easy and inexpensive. All you need is half an hour, a sterilized jar, half a dozen lemons and pickling spices. Once preserved, the lemons keep in the refrigerator for months, although you’ll enjoy the flavor so much, they probably won’t last that long.
In the time it would take to drive to the mall and back you can spend a few peaceful hours listening to the radio and preparing a dozen or more jars of preserved lemons. Then all you need is a colorful ribbon on the jar and a card and you have a very special holiday gift.
Moroccan Preserved Lemons
Select unblemished, ripe lemons. At the market, gently squeeze each lemon to confirm they are juicy. Meyer lemons are good to use, although any medium-sized lemon will give you the perfumed result you want.
Use a lidded, glass quart jar. A recycled mayonnaise jar or canning jar works well. To eliminate bacteria, the glass jars should be sterilized with a cleaning in a dishwasher.
Most recipes call for only the rinsed peel of the preserved lemon. The pulp is scraped off and discarded; the peel rinsed in clean water. In a cooking class in Marrakech at La Maison Arabe, we were directed to finely chop the seeded pulp and to cut up the peel without rinsing. The resulting sauce was lemony and salty in a very good way.
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
4 bay leaves
¼ teaspoon pepper flakes or 1 dried Szechuan pepper, quartered
1 cinnamon stick (optional)
½ teaspoon coriander seeds (optional)
4 large, ripe lemons, washed
6 tablespoons kosher salt
1 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1. Place the peppercorns, bay leaves, dried pepper and other spices in the jar.
2. Prepare the lemons one at a time. Place a lemon on a cutting board with the stem side up.
3. Using a sharp paring knife, first halve, then quarter the lemon lengthwise, but do not cut all the way through. Stop cutting 1 inch from the bottom of the lemon.
4. After you cut each lemon, place it in the jar. Sprinkle one teaspoon kosher salt onto the flesh and press down to release the juice. Do this to each of the lemons until the jar is filled within 2 inches of the top.
5. Add the lemon juice to cover the lemons. To avoid spoiling, the lemons must be covered with liquid. Seal and place the jar in the refrigerator.
6. Every day shake the jar and turn it over so the lemons pickle evenly.
(After four weeks the lemons are ready to use.)
7. To keep the lemons submerged as you remove lemons from the jar, add fresh lemon juice and shake well or put the pulp removed from the peel back into the jar.
Top photo: Preserved lemons. Credit: David Latt