How to preserve lemons
It's good to branch out a bit, right? It keeps our brain from atrophying, busting out of routine every now and then.
Several weeks ago I found myself with an overabundance of these sweet, fragrant Meyer lemons. In an effort to put them to good use and to liven up my culinary repertoire, I decided to embrace something new and demystify preserved lemons. There's something satisfying about making with your own hands most anything that is traditionally procured from a grocery store shelf. What I can tell you at this point is that preserving lemons goes a bit like this: take something beautiful and functional and slice it open from one end to the other. Force a large amount of salt into the cut and bottle it up to stew in its own mess with the expectation that what's inside will transform into something even better over time.
The process is amazing if you think about it and despite its already utilitarian state, dare I say the lemon truly does become a more magnificent version of itself. There's a depth and nuance it didn't have before. Even in light of everything they become, the process seems harsh, doesn't it? In lemon time I wonder if those weeks drag on for what feels like years and if the whole cut and salt thing is as traumatizing as it sounds. I wonder if they have any idea of the greater purpose or if it just feels senseless and unfair. Seems a brutal process if you weren't sure it'd all be worth it in the end. Maybe they do know from the beginning that they're being made into more. I imagine if that were the case, if they could see what they were destined to be in the end, that the salt might not have the same sting. Maybe they'd even welcome the process exclaiming valiantly in their tart little lemon voices, "Bring it on!"
Is this resonating with you or is my metaphor breaking down? For those that have been through the hard process of preservation, through the deep cuts that life can render, and the hard work of waiting and healing and still more waiting, I think you're tracking.
It's summer and while the days are getting longer it seems like the sun still has just as hard a time rising in the morning as I do lately. It's been a tough season. Anxiety plagues me in the mornings and I'm slow off the line, wading through the early hours in a fog of depression. Too many days the fog lingers, stubbornly casting gray over the entire day. This particular morning began no differently but as I laid there in the dark, listening to the silence and the hum of the refrigerator in my tiny studio, I started to pray. Flat on my back my soul fell to its knees. I walked my story and let the Lord call to memory so many of the ways He's moved, gently connecting the dots for me, calling out the purpose through what has, at many times, seemed a senseless path.
God. Must be nice to always know the purpose.
I shouldered some hard stuff a lot younger than I should have. It's taken longer than I anticipated to make my way out of it. It's likely that you can relate. The difficult seasons of our lives prompt us in one of two directions: They can crush us (for a time they do) and if left unchecked bitterness can take root and leave us for dead on the side of the road, jaded about God and hopeless for ourselves. It's a place that, on the surface, seems easier than slowing to process and safer than looking whatever we need to deal with in the face. The hard things also have the potential to propel us forward and transform us into better, truer versions of ourselves. Solidify our faith, sharpen, strengthen, and humble us and in times of stability it's the path we assume we'll take. Beyonce calls that Lemonade. Seems easier if you're Beyonce, doesn't it? I can't remember the last time my lemons made me millions. If you're like me, when life hands you a fresh fistful of sour fruit you're more likely to end up in that old familiar place: the ditch on the side of the road.
So for the rest of us, what are we to do with our unsightly wounds and not-quite-so-glamourous salt? What are we going to allow it all to do with us? Can you grasp that you have a choice in the matter? Turning inward to hunker down and heal can be a beneficial, almost necessary incubation but it's all too easy to get stuck there. Over the past 8 years I've spent as much time in the ditch as I have out of it. My own personal preservation jar. I owe growth and maturity to it. I've also met some of my dearest friends there, both of us flat on our backs. But eventually it comes time to turn outward because maybe like you, I also owe a lot of wasted time and opportunity to it. And that grieves me.
We each chose, actively or passively, consciously or not, one day at a time, our response. To trust the process and live intentionally in light of everything life hands us. Or not. Not to sound too dramatic but your responsibility to your story is real and it's urgent. So is mine. Our lemons aren't only for us or for the vain sake of themselves and your response to them matters. If you can wrap your tired mind around the fact that nothing you go through is accidental then you must acknowledge that there are specific things you're meant to do and be as a result. God's efficient like that. Because of what you have persevered through you're needed, not disqualified, and there are people that you are uniquely equipped to care for and walk beside in their own seasons of preservation. By His grace I'm just now grasping the weight of this truth in my own life.
We fall, we fail, we eff up. Grandiosely I might add. We're all just a bunch of knife-wielding (albeit well-intentioned) people who don't understand the extent of the damage we can do. Either that or life just happens while we're in the middle of minding our own business. Death. Loss. We're the unassuming victim of any or all of the aforementioned. Whatever side we're on, and no doubt we'll all get many turns on both, we're left hurting. There's no avoiding it. The emotional, spiritual, physical, even financial wreckage of our carelessness, the aftermath, is real.
Maybe you're in the thick of such things and grappling with your response. Maybe you're just walking out. Maybe you have no idea what I'm talking about. Not to sound cruel but I pray someday you do. Not because I'm desperate for company here (certainly I'm not) but because you'll be more interesting to talk to afterwards or in the midst of it. The preservation process wields a far better you than you ever would have been without it. So if you can't relate to any of this, if these words seem dark and depressing for such bright and cheery pictures, well, that's pretty much the paradox of it. Life is learning to hold joy in one hand and despair in the other. I trust that in time this will all resonate. No one gets out scot free. I'm doing my best to honor the preservation currently in process in my own life. I hope you're able to do the same with yours because it's likely that I'll need you someday soon if I don't already. And even if I don't then certainly someone else will. It may seem senseless, endless, and wholly unfair, your preservation. It may seem like a lot of things but vain it is not. There is a purpose. And there will be an end. I believe, actually I know, we can ultimately experience a different kind of fallout: Gentleness. Grace. Hope. Healing. Forgiveness. Beauty from ashes. More than we ever thought possible. Instead of the aftermath, the aftergrace.
If you'd have told me eight years ago that it'd take that long to walk freely (and then straight into more preservation) I'd likely not have been able to bear it. I would've likely collapsed in defeat. Sobbed for sure. I would've raged. And swore. It would've been ugly. That's a long-ass preservation time. In hindsight, I wouldn't trade it for anything. Cuts, salt and all. Your story is uniquely your own and what you have to offer in light of it is just as unique. What I have to offer in light of mine is becoming clearer every day and every day it's an all but physical fight to choose to stand rather than take a load off on the side of the road. Every day is a battle to trust that something that was valuable before is being made priceless beyond what I can comprehend. You and I, I pray, will choose the truth, against what may seem like all contrary real-time evidence, that we are in process not at the hand of a distant or aloof God but an intentional one for a specific purpose that is actively being revealed to each of us if we're willing to open our eyes.
San Francisco is a city of urban valleys and impossibly steep hills. When my friends and I walk our standard route takes us down to the water and up to the tip top of one of the highest points in the city. As we're huffing and puffing upwards, one block at a time, we pause at each intersection to, as we say, "reflect on progress." [If you haven't gathered yet, symbolism, metaphors, analogies...it's all kinda my jam. At this point you're a salty lemon in a ditch on top of a hill barely holding it together. I know it's a lot. Hopefully all of this is still making sense.] But so it goes with our seasons in life, right? You and me. We're being made into something extraordinary that only time and trial and hard work can cultivate. When a preservation process comes to a close, when we're finally able to climb out of the ditch, when we reach the top and we're able to turn around, we'll reflect on progress and we'll get it. Maybe not all of it. But enough to trust a little more for the next round with eyes more open and more fully ourselves than we were before, thankful for our stories, and prepared to extend a hand.
So why don't you give me yours. I'm sick of this ditch and I know a new path is waiting. It's time to stand up.
How to preserve Lemons
Don't not make these if you only have a few of the optional spices on hand. Outside of salt, lemons, and very clean jars there's no right or wrong way to do this.
Wash and dry the lemons. Place a bit of salt at the bottom of a sterilized* canning or Weck jar. Quarter the lemons from top to bottom keeping the last 1/4 inch of the stem end in tact (see photos.) Rub the insides with kosher salt and layer the lemons into the jar. Pack them in there good sprinkling in and layering with any combination of optional spices as you go. Squeeze juice from remaining lemons into jar. The lemons should be fully submerged. Cover and allow to sit at room temperature for 3-4 weeks before using.
*To sterilize canning jars wash them and their lids with warm soapy water. Place the jars and lid rings (not the flat part with the rubber seal) in a large pot and cover with an inch of water. Bring to a rolling boil and boil for 10 minutes. Carefully remove the jars using rubber-tipped tongs and allow them to touch only clean paper towels until sealed.
Lemons - as many as you need to fill your jar plus 5-6 extras
Salt - about 1/2 - 3/4 cup of kosher salt
Black peppercorns (8-10)
Bay leaves (1-2)
Whole cloves (5-6)
Whole allspice (5-6)
Juniper berries (5-6)
Dried chiles (1-2)
Fennel seeds (1 teaspoon)
Cinnamon sticks (1-2)