Favorite summer rituals have been rolling back around—curing umeboshi plums, finding ways to use various produce gluts, seeking black raspberries in the hills, dreaming up new ways to make melon palatable—but I never seem to honor them the same way twice. This year’s plum glut—in my town it’s plums, not oversize zucchini, that your neighbors surreptitiously leave on your front porch—has been turned into not Grandma’s freezer jam but plum sauce, made savory with the addition of salt koji and to be used with poultry or ribs instead of bread. Less sugar, more savor. I’d never heard of koji until this recent SF Chronicle article. I found rice koji at my local produce market and fermented it into salt koji which is a wonderful seasoning and quick pickling agent, and apparently a hot ingredient among chefs. Koji provides a hit of pure umami, the wonderful savory flavor that fills the mouth with deliciousness and makes foods tomatoes, anchovies, bacon, Parmesan cheese, miso, tamari, mushrooms, broths and fermented foods so important in cuisine.
A new project for me this year has been making preserved lemons, an obvious hobby for a Berkeleyan, where Meyer lemon trees abound. I’ve been using them in salad dressing, condiments and in my exploration of Moroccan cooking, the most sumptuous of Mediterranean cuisines and my latest passion. I used them in a batch of Harissa, the fiery Tunisian condiment important in North African cuisine. Now that the weather is hotter, eating some spicy and pungent foods helps keep the body temperature regulated, promote sweating and balance the cooling foods like cucumbers, summer squash and the nightshade vegetables (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants) that star in summer’s dishes.
Extend your harvest and culinary repertoire by preserving citrus in salt and spices and you’ll also create a probiotic inoculant for many other dishes and ferments. Adapted from Real Food Fermentation by Alex Lewin. Check out this great fermenation resource here. Makes 1 pint.
5-6 medium lemons or an equivalent amount of other citrus
¼ cup of sea salt
3 bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick
½ tsp coriander seeds
1-2 additional lemons, for juice, or whey
Soften the lemons by rolling them on the counter under your palm, then cut them into eighths, removing as many of the seeds as you can. Put a layer of salt in the bottom of the jar, followed by a layer of lemons, a sprinkling of spices and so on, continuing to fill the jar and pressing the fruit down to eliminate air pockets and release the juice. If there is not enough liquid to cover the lemons, you can add additional lemon juice or whey. Make sure the liquid is covering the fruit then close the jar, leaving 1” of headroom at the top. Store the jar at room temperature, away from direct sunlight. For the first week, open the jar every day and press the fruit down so the liquid rises to cover. You’ll see the fruit start to change character after week or two, and continue deepening in flavor for a year or more. Store in the fridge at any time to stop the fermentation.
I’ve adapted this recipe from Mourad: New Morrocan—The Cookbook (Mourad Lahlou, Artisan 2011). Noting that the recipe called for a good dose of vinegar, I figured that in the past it was probably fermented instead to bring out the sour taste. So I reduced the vinegar and changed the type to umbeboshi vinegar, which is one of the few vinegars commercially available that isn’t pasteurized. Instead of fresh lemon juice, I used preserved lemons which also add fermentative bacteria. Then I let it sit out at room temperature for a few days to ferment before storing in the fridge. It should keep for several months. Meanwhile, harissa is great with scrambled eggs, potatoes, stews and tagines, on soups or as a dip for pita or bread.
3 oz. dried chiles (pasilla, New Mexico, chiles negros or other medium spicy chiles)
½ oz. dried chipotle chiles
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp. sea salt, or to taste
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1/8 tsp. cayenne
1 garlic cloves
2 tablespoons umeboshi plum vinegar
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons each coarsely chopped parsley and cilantro
½ preserved lemon
Put the chiles in a large bowl and add enough boiling water to cover. Place a small plate or other weight over the chiles and push it down so the water covers the chiles. Let it soak overnight. Drain the chiles and reserve the soaking liquid. Don a pair of rubber gloves and pull off the stems of the chiles, removing the membranes and seeds inside. You might need to run them under water to do this. Puree the chiles with as much of the soaking liquid as you need to add to get a smooth paste. With the motor running, drizzle in the olive oil and blend until smooth. Add the other ingredients and continue blending to combine. (Moraud’s recipe calls for forcing the harissa through a sieve to remove traces of chile skin, but I’m too lazy to do that. You should try it, perhaps. They were detectable in the finished harissa.) A rubber spatula will help you scrape the paste into small jars. Cap them and leave them to sit at room temperature for a day or more, then store the finished harissa in the fridge.