A winter afternoon exploring citrus marmalades,
curds and condiments
by Abigael Birrell • Photo by Mary Oswald
Winter is the ideal time for preservation projects. Canning in the summer can be a hot, hurried affair as we struggle to muscle through the piles of perishable produce before they spoil. Cold-weather preservation affords a more leisurely pace, when both the weather and the ingredients demand that we slow down. The very weight and heft of winter vegetables defy speed. It is a season of simmering, braising, roasting and baking, redolent with spices.
Yet, there comes a moment in the depth of a Midwestern winter when our eyes and palates cry out for color and freshness. The initial excitement sparked by all our favorite fall root vegetables has given way to a deep longing for the crunch and snap of spring produce. Fortunately, there is a perfect counterpoint to the heavy flavors of a winter pantry. The cheery color and bright, bold taste of citrus fruits provide a welcome respite.
It is a happy bit of serendipity that citrus is at its most affordable and available just as the days are getting darkest and coldest here in Nebraska. Delicate Meyer lemons, tiny clementines, kumquats, ruby red grapefruit and blood oranges form a class of ingredients for which even the most dedicated locavores should make an exception.
In Denmark, the cultural concept of hygge, which roughly translates into a feeling of coziness, intimacy, warmth and well-being, is said to be one of the keys to thriving in the dark northern climate. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Danish were ranked at the top of the United Nations World Happiness Report in 2012 and 2013. The meaning of hygge also goes beyond purely physical comfort to include a feeling of camaraderie. Time spent preserving bright, fragrant citrus offers the perfect opportunity to cultivate a bit of that warm conviviality. Try gathering a few good friends together for a leisurely day of kitchen experimentation, long conversations and good food.
An easy and unexpected departure point into the world of citrus preservation is salt-cured lemons. Preserved lemons are a culinary secret weapon. They are traditionally found in North African and South Indian cooking, but their usefulness transcends borders. Salt-cured lemons have an umami-laden tang that is achieved by packing quartered lemons with salt and fermenting them in the resulting brine for a month at room temperature. Through the process, the lemon rinds transform into an entirely different ingredient. They become soft and semi-translucent and develop a flavor that is both savory and intensely lemony.
The tender rind can be cut up finely and added to almost anything that would benefit from citrus. It’s wonderful sprinkled into sautéed winter greens, on roasted vegetables or as a condiment for meats or fish. The pulp of the lemon becomes creamy and can be de-seeded and blended into salad dressings or sauces. Another virtue of the saltiness and acidity of preserved lemons is that they keep nearly indefinitely in the refrigerator. Rarely does 15 minutes of kitchen prep yield such a versatile staple.
The Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi, author of the wildly popular cookbook Jerusalem, has been singing praises of dried lime to all who will listen. Dried limes are common ingredients in Persian Gulf States cuisine. Black and wizened, they look like something that got lost under the kitchen counter, but pulverized and sprinkled on soup or stews they are a revelation. Traditionally, they are made by boiling small limes in heavily salted water, then rinsing and drying them in the hot sun until black, hard and hollow. When hot sun is absent, a food dehydrator or oven set to 100° can work as well.
The limes are then broken into pieces and ground into a powder that can be sprinkled on fish or made into a rub for lamb. The limes retain their characteristic tang but gain a musky complexity from the drying. Having the savory powder on hand can provide an instant lift to any number of foods. A bit simpler and equally useful to have around is citrus salt. Easily made by dehydrating equal parts of lime, lemon and grapefruit zest in the oven and blending with a good-quality sea salt, citrus salt is wonderful rubbed with herbed butter on roasting chicken, sprinkled onto fish tacos or used on the glass rim of a cocktail.
To truly achieve the homey atmosphere of hygge, something more than salty preserves is required. Citrus more obviously lends itself to sweets. Indeed, what could be better than a wintry afternoon spent in the company of a tea tray loaded with buttery scones, jars of soft citrus curd and marmalade?
A spoonful of tart citrus curd is insurance against the worst winter doldrums. While lemon curd is the classic choice for tarts and pastries, lime, blood orange and grapefruit juices all make delicious versions. The method is the same regardless of what juice is used. Citrus curd can stand alone as a spread for breakfast breads or provide a base for a number of desserts. It is fantastic rolled into thin crepes or folded into an equal amount of whipped cream to make a tangy accompaniment to a spice cake. And like all good pantry staples, it can spend a couple of weeks in the back of the refrigerator without damage or even in the freezer for several months.
Marmalades are the coziest of preserves and infinitely variable. Almost any citrus on hand can be turned into marmalade with good results. The key to successful marmalade making is commitment and patience. This is a preservation job for locked-in snow days. The main difference between marmalade and jam is the inclusion of the peel, and it is the peel that makes it both delicious and a bit more laborious. There are several methods for dealing with the bitter peels, usually involving boiling to get rid of the bitterness or soaking them overnight to soften them up. Traditionalists will favor orange marmalade, but grapefruit, lemon, kumquat or clementine are delicious possibilities as well. Keep the flavors clean and focused, or enhance them with spirits and spices. The hard work is well rewarded with jars that glow with impossibly bright reds, yellows and oranges.
Living locally and seasonally goes beyond what we eat. Getting in tune with the rhythm of winter means willfully slowing down. If we resist the urge to hurry through the coldest and darkest part of the year, what do we gain? A chance to cultivate a bit of hygge. More time to gather together, work on long projects, share stories, reflect and find the brightness, color and warmth to see us through till spring.
Abigael Birrell is a farm-focused chef and all-around bon vivant who has recently relocated to Lincoln, Nebraska, from the Pacific Northwest. She is thrilled to have the opportunity to share her passion for preserving with the Edible community here in Nebraska. For more food writing, recipes and photos, visit her at AbigaelBirrell.com.
Recipes found in the links below