While making space in my overstuffed refrigerator last week, I chopped a last slice of brined lemon, tossed it into the bean soup bubbling on the stove, and began to tip the jar of brine into the sink. But I couldn’t resist the scent of that lemony liquid. If cucumber pickle brine can make a good cocktail ingredient, I thought, how much tastier a drink could you make with the salty, sour, bitter, tantalizingly aromatic brine of preserved lemons?
So I heated the brine to sterilize it, funneled it into a bottle, and stored the bottle in the liquor cabinet for Robert to find.
He couldn’t resist. That same day he invented his new favorite cocktail, the Vodka Lemon Pickletini. Here is his recipe:
Combine the gin and lemon brine in a chilled cocktail glass, and stir.
The lemon brine, said Robert, “softens the alcoholic edge of the vodka, and the saltiness brings out a dimension of umami. The bitterness of the lemon oil fills out the taste, while the citrusy, slightly medicinal aroma excites the nose.”
You might decorate your glass with a sliver of brined lemon.
*Put whole fresh, thin-skinned, unwaxed lemons into a glass jar. Pour over the lemons brine made from one tablespoon fine salt to each cup of water. Weight the lemons, cover the jar loosely, and leave the jar at room temperature for about three weeks. Then close the jar tightly, and store it in the refrigerator.
When you’re making fermented pickles, you must usually weight the food, because until it is well acidified it can easily spoil on exposure to air. Vegetables or fruits fermenting in a crock or plastic bucket are typically weighted with a water-filled jar placed over a plate. The best crocks, in my opinion, come with stoneware weights made to fit, so no plate is needed.
But when you’re fermenting only a small quantity—say, a pint of garlic cloves or a quart of turnip chunks—you need a weight that fits a small jar. For pickling in jars up to a gallon in size, I often recommend freezer-weight polyethylene zipper bags, such as the Zip-loc brand, filled with brine. (Plain water works as well, unless the bag happens to spring a leak or spill out the top when it’s not fully zippered). A brine-filled freezer bag not only makes a good weight; if it’s properly filled and set in the jar it also seals out yeast and mold. These bags contain no phthalates or BPA; they don’t “outgas” any chemicals; and neither acid nor salt degrades the plastic.
But the bags are made from petroleum, a nonrenewable and ever more dear resource—and that’s reason enough for many home picklers to avoid them. So I sometimes suggest, as an alternative to brine bags, rocks—hard, smooth, well-scrubbed rocks. If you want to ensure the cleanliness of the rocks from your garden or neighborhood creek, you can boil them before using them. Mentioning rocks, though, seems to immediately transform me in others’ eyes. I can almost feel my arms lengthening, my jar and forehead thickening, dense hair growing all over my body.
What sort of weight, then, can we trust through our senses and experience to always wash up pure and clean and civilized? It must be glass, I concluded. So last summer I went looking for small glass weights for pickling. And where else would I start my search but the dollar store?
And there I found just what I wanted. For a dollar I bought two glass candleholders, heavy, thick glass discs that just fit inside a standard wide-mouth mason jar. At first I regretted the hollow, intended for a candle, in the center of each disc, but then I noticed that the hollow made a good gripping point for my fingers.
I had a chance to put one of my weights to use the other day after my friend Ruth presented me with a few lemons from her hothouse. When I get my hands on unwaxed lemons, I usually pickle them whole. Ruth’s lemons were too big to fit neatly in a standard wide-mouth jar, so I put them into a globe-shaped Weck jar. Although the Weck jar has a much wider mouth than the standard mason jar, the candleholder is broad enough to keep the lemons well submerged in their brine.
In case you’ve never brined whole lemons, here’s how to do it: Mix a brine of 1 tablespoon salt to each cup of water. Put the lemons in a jar, cover them well with the brine, and weight them. Cap the jar loosely, or cover it with a cloth. Leave the jar on your kitchen counter for about three weeks.
Russian cooks slice these lemons thin and serve them with fish and game. I like them best in a Moroccan-style chicken stew with spices and home-cured green olives.
After reading “Real Lemon versus ReaLemon,” Harry Merzian of Dream Foods International sent me a sample bottle of his company’s Italian Volcano Lemon Juice. This juice is not made from concentrate but squeezed from fresh-picked lemons, which are organically grown near Mt. Etna in Sicily. Instead of preserving the juice with sulfites, Dream Foods “gently” pasteurizes it. Once you open one of the 1-liter glass bottles, Harry says, the juice will keep for 30 days in the refrigerator.
My husband, my daughter, and I did a comparative tasting of Italian Volcano Lemon Juice, ReaLemon, and the strained juice of an organically grown lemon. (I thought the lemon was from California, via the supermarket, but my daughter now tells me that a local friend grew it in her hothouse. In either case, the lemon was almost certainly a Eureka or a Lisbon.) My husband and my daughter, for both of whom the tasting was blind, could immediately tell which juice was which. Whereas the ReaLemon was cloudy, pale, and notably bitter, with the aroma of added lemon oil and a slight but unpleasant aftertaste, the fresh lemon juice was clear and yellow with a mild aroma, a balanced sweet-tart flavor, and no bitterness. The Italian Volcano had to be the one with a pinkish-brown tinge. This juice was extremely aromatic, much more tart than the other two, a little sweet, and only mildly bitter. To me, the Italian Volcano tasted a bit like grapefruit juice.
The strong aroma of Italian Volcano comes from the lemon juice itself, Harry says. No oil is added, and the pressing method doesn’t allow accidental inclusion of oil from the rind. The Sicilian lemons must be like no lemons I’ve tasted before. Harry credits the volcanic soils.
Italian Volcano isn’t standardized for acidity. Harry says the pH (pH is a measure of acidity different from percentage of titratable acid) ranges from 2.2 to 3.6. I’ve just tested the pH of the juice Harry sent as 2.4, which is close to results I’ve gotten in the past for fresh lemon and lime juice and various kinds of vinegar. To my husband, my daughter, and me, the Italian Volcano tasted more acidic than it actually was.
Because of its neutral flavor, fresh California (or Oregon) lemon juice would generally be my top choice for canning. But Italian Volcano would be excellent in many desserts and in lemonade and cocktails, and it would be preferable to ReaLemon in canning if anyone with an allergy to sulfites might eat the canned food. Do keep Italian Volcano’s variable acid level in mind.
Dream Foods International was founded in 1998 by Adriana Kahane, who as an MBA student at the University of Southern California studied the feasibility of importing Sicilian citrus, especially blood oranges. The company today imports only juice, lemonade, and limeade, not fresh fruit. For more information about Italian Volcano juices, visit the website at www.dreamfoods.com.