Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Herbs and lemons in salt.
We all know that Salina means salt. Shame on you if you do not! If you go to the island of Salina, you step off the dock and take a right to go to Malfa and most of the other towns. You go straight into the town surrounding the dock for Santa Marina. If you take a left, however, you go along the shore to Lingua. In the distance, just as the land turns away forming a point, there are the ancient salt pans. Sea water is introduced to this shallow depression, bounded by low walls, then the water is evaporated by the sun till crystals form. It is then piled up and turned regularly to finish drying. This is not unique to Salina. They do it a lot in western Sicily, like at Trapani. But this process gave the island its name. Sea salt can sometimes be pink from bacterial growth. No harm in it. The salt that forms like a frost at the top of the undisturbed drying salt is called Fleur de Sel in France and is a very gourmet product.
Our families used the salt to preserve all sorts of food,(notably capers, caper berries and fish) in a time and a place where refrigeration was not available. I still buy my capers in Boston, packed in sea salt from Salina. Short term preservation might be done by burying food or hanging it in the cisterns to stay cool. Evaporating coolers may have been impossible, because water was so precious there, and was more important than the preserved food in a place where food might be obtained all year round. The variety may not be great however.
In this method of cooling, a porous earthenware vessel is kept damp, or the contents seep through the body of the vessel. Evaporation on the surface removes heat from the contents. Also, a lattice like box is draped with coarse cloth. Water from a source above drips on the cloth. As the water evaporates, it draws heat from inside the box. Neither of these will keep things as cold as a modern refrigerator, but it is much better than room temperature storage. You sometimes see a tall cylindrical bisque vessel just big enough to hold a bottle of white wine, and a half inch or so of water. The evaporation through the clay chills the wine.
Anyway, it is very simple to preserve herbs with salt. Sea salt is best, and certainly honors our traditions. Other salt will also work.
Just get some nice clean covered jars. It is best to find old ones that are like apothecary jars with glass covers, but improvise. How about putting stone, glass or ceramic coasters on top of the uncovered jars to keep air out. The salt will corrode the metal covers.
Start by putting a layer of salt on the bottom of the jar, then a layer of herbs. Cover with salt and repeat till the jar is full, with salt on the top. Use the herbs like fresh, and the salt may also take on some of the flavor from the oils as well. What a nice gift for a culinary friend.
Keep in a cool, dark place.
You know that lemons become available at some times of the year for very low prices. We from the islands also have very close ties to Arabic and north African traditions. There are a number of recipes with spices for instance that we mostly think of for apple pie rather than regular food.
Preserved lemons figure heavily in recipes from those areas.
Buy plenty of lemons. You should get a few more than you think you need.
Scrub them, and cut off the little "nipple" at the end. Remove the green stem remnants at the other end where the lemon attaches to the branch.
Stand the lemon on the stem end and cut almost all the way through to the bottom, but leave it attached. Give the lemon a quarter turn and cut again. You have basically quartered the lemon, but the four quarters are still attached at that stem joint.
Open up the lemon and sprinkle a generous amount of salt on all the exposed cut surfaces. Sprinkle the rest of the lemon as well. Put the lemon into a large glass container, cut end down, and push the whole thing down firmly so that it nearly "Juices" itself. Add more lemons till the jar is full. The lemons should be tightly packed and submerged in the salty juices, but not so tightly packed that juices will not flow around them. If not covered, add more lemon juice from your extra supply. Sprinkle extra salt on top and seal them in. Metal will corrode so avoid metal near the preserves.
Allow them to sit for at least three weeks. Agitate them periodically by turning the bottle upside down for a moment then righting it again. The skins will soften when ready to use. You may add a wide variety of spices of your choice, such as cloves or cinnamon to the layers of lemons for variety.
Julienne or coarsely chop the rinds into long cooked sauces and layer into juicy meat dishes as they are baked.
To use, rinse thoroughly to remove most of the salt. Use or remove the pulp as you wish, but get rid of the seeds. Use in fish recipes, but take a look for Moroccan recipes to give you ideas.
Chicken, oily fish and goat would be naturals but do not overlook other meats.
Watch the salt in your recipe!!!