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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Local-style lemon peel begins with pickling

 •  Food for Thought: Advice rolls in for lemon peel

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

Here, with the help of various readers, a guide to making pickled lemons and lemon peel.

• Lemons: Thin-skinned backyard lemons are preferred, though purchased fruit can be used.

Kona farmer Ken Love says there's a lot of confusion about backyard citrus here. For one thing, many fruits that people call lemons actually are limes — the confusion comes because most limes ripen to yellow. Barney Lau, a former Islander who lives in California, recalled making pickled lemons with round green limes from Wai'anae.

Many Island backyard citrus trees are upstarts, Love said: They were brought in as root stock — material onto which other fruits were grafted. In many cases, the grafted part, whatever it was, died off and the anonymous root stock has grown up. One common Island backyard citrus that began as root stock is Rangpur lime, a very sour, orange-fleshed Mandarin-type lime (Citrus x limonia Osbeck, aka Canton lime in China, Hime lime in Japan). Love uses them for pickling and marmalades. (See www.hawaiifruit.net for more on this and other fruity topics). Add to this the tangle of different names by which the same fruit may be called: ethnic names, common names, botanical names.

Love didn't know anything about the white-flower lemon that reader Sharon Lee says her Honolulu auntie uses (in Chinese, bahk faah ling moong), but that didn't surprise him. "It's common to find uncommon citrus here," he said. But he did say, in answer to Lee's query, that Meyer lemons, often available in farmers markets, would work for pickling.

Most recipes specify unripe lemons, but some prefer riper fruit; it's a matter of taste. Wash the lemons well before you start.

• Preliminary steps: lomi or hot water.

Lau says it's important to neutralize the oil in the lemon skin before starting. Do this by placing the whole lemons in a big ceramic or stainless-steel bowl and massaging them well with kosher or Hawaiian salt. Then place the lemons on bamboo drying trays (or some appropriate substitute) in the hot sun for three days or more, bringing them in at night. They will drain, shrink a little and turn brownish.

Several readers wrote about another preliminary step — using hot water to release the oils in the skin. Evelyn Tsuda of Kailua sent in a recipe in which you begin by washing whole lemons and then immersing them in very hot water (as hot as it comes from the tap) and letting them sit overnight before proceeding with the salt and pickling steps. Others pour boiling water over the lemons and let them sit for a few hours; this is a must if you are using waxed, store-bought fruit.

• Straight to the jar.

Some don't bother with any preliminary steps.

Crescencia "Auntie Cres" Poligratis of Kawaihae, for example, taught herself to make pickled lemons. Sometime in the 1970s — she can't recall when exactly — she was living next door to someone in Kawaihae who had a tree full of lemons, just falling to the ground. "I cannot see any fruit wasted," she recalled, so she asked permission to use the excess fruit.

Poligratis, who is of Filipino ancestry, recalled that pickled lemon was sometimes used to flavor fish in cooking, and she had seen jars of lemons pickling on people's carport roofs, but she had no idea how to proceed. She asked around and was told, "just put Hawaiian salt and leave 'em" — but was given no proportions or technique.

That first year, she put up seven gallons of lemons, washing the fruit, layering them with about 1 cup of Hawaiian salt in a gallon jar. After the fruit had marinated in the sun for several months, she decided to make sweet-sour lemon peel, even though she had not no idea how to go about it. She drained the lemons, squashed them a bit and piled them on two rimmed cookie sheets, covering them with brown sugar and baking them in a slow oven until the sugar melted into the peel.

About that time, her extended family came over for a party. "I told them, 'This is my first try. I no know if that's how it's supposed to be, but try and go see. And do you know, in one hour, the two pans was gone?" she recalled.

Auntie Cres's sour lemon and sweet-sour lemon peel are family favorites now: The guys like to suck the sour lemon when they drink beer and the peel is the first thing far-flung members of the family ask for when they return home.

Although she is 71 now, retired and living with her daughter in Kawaihae, Poligratis still pickles lemons every year. She also likes to mix the sweet-sour candied peel with dried, mixed fruits to stretch the recipe.

• Pickling.

Use a glass gallon jar, not a plastic one. These are getting hard to find; Auntie Cres gets hers from a daughter who works in a restaurant. The metal lids of the jars will rust; some people place a sheet of plastic wrap or waxed paper under the lid to help preserve the lid and keep rust from contaminating the fruit. Auntie Cres has found that cereal-box liners — the thicker waxed paper bags inside cereal boxes — work best for this. She also has had some luck with the new product, Press'n Seal Wrap.

The ratio is 1 cup Hawaiian salt (or kosher salt) to the 15 or 20 well-washed lemons that can fit in a gallon jar. Lay down a layer of lemons, sprinkle with salt and proceed until jar is full.

Place jar in sun and allow to age. Placing the jar on its side and rotating it every week allows lemons to remain in contact with the released juice and assures more even pickling. It takes four to six months to pickle the lemons, depending on how much direct sunlight your neighborhood gets. Jars are placed on the roof of the carport or the house, because roofing materials absorb heat and give it off even in the cool of night. The lemons shrink and release dark brown liquid. They're done when the jar is one-third to one-half liquid and the lemons are well shrunk.

• Making lemon peel.

Some people dry the lemon in a dehydrator, some people bake it with sugar or cook it on the stove top, others do a second pickling process but with sugar or honey. Some use li-hing powder, some Chinese five-spice, some powdered licorice, and some no spice, just sugar or honey. Some people add other fruit or li hing seed. Yvonne Vierra Criado recalled her dad, George Vierra, adding plums to pickle along with the lemons. Guy Haywood of Wailuku said he used the "sauce" and technique for making prune mui to make lemon peel from his home-pickled lemons.

However you proceed, drain the pickled lemons, cut them into quarters, remove seeds and smash flat before proceeding to make sweet peel.

Try Auntie Cres's approach above, or here's a start-to-finish recipe from Evelyn Tsuda:

Sweet preserved lemons

  • 15-20 unripe, unwaxed lemons
  • 1 cup or more Hawaiian salt
  • 1 1/2 pounds honey
  • 2 boxes brown sugar
  • Pitted prunes
  • Li hing mui
  • Dried apricots

Wash whole lemons. Place in very hot water and let stand overnight. Dry lemons. Pack tightly into gallon jar, layering with Hawaiian salt. Place waxed paper on top of jar and place lid on tight. Write date on lid and place in hot, sunny area on its side for 5-6 days.

When brownish liquid brine measures about one-third of jar, empty out brine. Rotate jar and continue emptying brine when it collects for about the next six weeks.

At six weeks, drain lemons into colander. Rinse once with hot water and drain. Cut lemon into quarters or eighths (smaller is better). Pack cleaned jar one-quarter full of lemons and sprinkle with half a box of brown sugar. Repeat until jar is full. Set in sunny area on side, rotating every 2-3 days for three weeks.

At three weeks, empty contents into colander and rinse with hot water. Allow lemons to drain overnight. The following day, place in cleaned jar, alternating lemons with dried prunes, li hing mui and dried apricots. Pour honey over to barely cover. Stand jar upright in hot sun 4-6 weeks — the longer, the better.

Can be stored in refrigerator.

Note: Change waxed paper every time you empty the jar or if signs of rust appear.

Makes 60-80 pieces.

Editor's note: Nutritional analysis is unavailable for this recipe; a chemical analysis would be required.