(This was originally written (and promptly not posted) before I went off on a film shoot for several weeks that involved many a night shooting overnight, outdoors, in the coldest winter in 30 years, where I redefined how cold I thought I could be. So it seems doubly true, especially as I watch yet another volley of snow fall from the grey sky.)
There is a wonderful episode of Doctor Who where they reference the solstice in December, saying it is celebrated because it is “halfway past the dark.” This is a lovely sentiment, but as a Midwesterner, let’s be honest. It doesn’t feel that way. Yes, after December 21st, the days technically do start to get longer. But that just gives you more daylight time to watch the flat grey expanse of winter that is January and February. Maybe this is why so many New Year’s resolutions are broken. You start out with this ideal of the fresh start in January. Maybe you stick to them all through January. Screw the grey skies and frigid cold, you are doing this! Then February hits. The grey skies are still there. It feels like they have sunk a little lower. You sit on the couch, under a nice blanket, and from your cozy position you eye the sinking grey sky and think… “oh just one more episode of Breaking Bad…” Your resolve cracks. The lack of sunshine begins to wear on your psyche. By the end of February, that couch has become an extension of you, and you wonder why you keep living in such a cold, icy place.
The thing is, the grocery store does not help this much. Veggies start to look as disinterested in being there as you are. You are pretty sure that half-wilted pile of swiss chard would also like to be catching up on some episodes of Law & Order. Even in our age of shipping veggies and fruit willy nilly all over the country, by the end of February, it’s looking pretty grim. The one thing that is great this time of year? Citrus. Glorious citrus. Brightly colored orbs of tangy, juicy flesh, reminding you of a warmer clime far from here. Somewhere sun is shining on citrus fruit. Secretly, you get a little jealous.
Enter the lemon. I am a huge fan of the lemon. The bright acid hit of its juice is a welcome addition to almost everything. The zest has a seductive aroma that brings even the biggest humbug a momentary bump in mood. Recently I learned of this beautiful thing called a preserved lemon. The concept is simple, based on the ages old phenomenon known as preserving. Salt, lemon, and time combine to create a moment of preserved sunshine that you can eat. The origins are from the Middle East and Northern Africa, and I have to stop and applaud these people. There is a particular tang to a preserved lemon that instantly fills you with culinary light. Or maybe that’s just me. Every time I sprinkle a bit of minced preserved lemon on a dish, each bite drives that lowering grey sky away, inch by inch.
There are, of course, many recipes out there, but I started with one from Judith Jones. Take four lemons. Almost quarter them, leaving a bit at the end to keep it held together. Jam the inside of the lemons with kosher salt. Massage them deeply, taking long deep inhales of the glorious lemon scent. Let them sit for a day in a jar. Take 8-9 more lemons and juice them right into the jar until the juice covers the salted stuffed lemons. Cover, and let sit for three weeks. And that’s it. To use, just pull off a quarter of lemon, cut out the pulp, and use just the peel. Every time I crack open that jar, any troubles I might be having get pushed aside by the bright sunny aroma that comes forth.
What to do with the lemon, other than inhale the aroma? Chop up a bunch of veggies. Potatoes, zucchini, red peppers, onion, maybe some mushrooms. Douse them in olive oil and a bit of salt and pepper, and let them roast. Near the end, add a load of chickpeas and a fistful of finely chopped parsley, and dill if you are lucky enough to find it. Top it with some harissa, if you have some made, and the minced preserved lemon. And that’s it. In the dead of winter, my bowl is glowing with flavor. So try it. Go start it right now, and when February comes, you will be ready to combat the grey.
(note: so sorry… I meant this to go up earlier, but you can still get it in time for March, since that damned groundhog says we will still be having deep winter then.)