cucumbers & limes.

an obsessive cook's exploration of time, place, food and nostalgia. Contact at minerva.orduno@gmail.com.

The Salty Bitterness of Lemons.

There’s two types of cooks in a kitchen, or really, two types of people in the world. There’s the type that will see you working on cutting up a case of lemons, or working any other type of non-prep list item, and will stop to chat, asking for details. 

'What are you doing?'

'Making preserved lemons.'

'How do you do that?'

'You pack them in salt, but you squeeze the juice out first, so you can cover them with it.' 

'Why are you throwing away the ends? And the seeds?'

'The ends have too much pith, too bitter. And I take the seeds out because I'm not lazy. Ok, I'm lazy, but not that lazy. Might as well clean them properly now so I don't have to worry about it later. I can just use them as they are.'

The same conversation over and over, mostly in Spanish, every time someone walks by. Sharing what I know is not something that ever bothers me. What use is it for me to know something if I can’t teach it to someone else? 

What bothers me is the other type of person. The type that walks by, asks you what you are doing and with a sneer asks:

'Why?'

I’m making them because no one else is making them, because I can. Because there’s lemons and salt. Because there’s nothing else to do. Because I don’t need an actual reason to make something that tastes good and is useful. Do you?

Preserved Lemons:

Preserved lemons, at their best, taste of salty, gel-like bits of slightly fermented, mellowed out lemons. At their worst, imagine tasting lemon dishwashing liquid with gritty kosher salt granules thrown in for texture. 

Disposable food-safe gloves are incredibly useful when preparing preserved lemons; there’s nothing quite like the sudden burn of acid hitting a break in the skin.

Select lemons that feel light for their size; heavier lemons have a thicker pith, and will be unpleasantly bitter. Organic, or home grown lemons are preferable, but conventionally grown lemons are just fine, provided they are washed well before using. 

You will need approximately 6 to 10 lemons, depending on their size to fill a pint size jar, and around 1/2 cup of kosher salt. But this recipe is more about technique, rather than specific measurements.  

Cut the ends the lemon, discarding. Cut the lemon in half, lengthwise, and depending on the size, cut each half into two or three pieces. Trim the white center of the lemon (and if anyone knows the technical name for this, please do tell me), and remove any seeds. 

Press the lemons, straining the juice as you do so. Pour a thin layer or salt in the glass jar, about 1/8”, and begin layering the lemons, overlapping as little as possible. Cover each layer of lemons with a layer of salt, continuing to do so, leaving 1/2” of headroom in the jar. Pour the strained juice over the lemons, making sure it reaches into the bottom of the jar. Seal the jar tightly, give it a good shake, and leave it resting at room temperature for two weeks, or until the the salt has dissolved. Invert the jar every 3 or 4 days, as undissolved salt will settle to the bottom.

Once the juice in the lemons has visibly thickened, and the salt has dissolved, refrigerate the lemons, and allow to rest for another two weeks, or until the skin of the lemon has become smoother, and gel-like in appearance.

Once they’re ready, strain the lemons, and soak them briefly in cold water to eliminate any excessive saltiness, and remove any undissolved grains of salt. Place the lemons in a clean jar, and cover them with a 50-50 mixture of olive and canola oils. Store refrigerated, for up to six months.    

Just in case it was starting to look like everything that comes out of my kitchen is a perfect result, every time, please let me correct that tought. 

I could sat I get lucky, and get good results frequently without effort, but instead those good result are the byproduct of thinking on what I’m about to make for hours or days before I make it. Doing research and comparing recipes, tasting thr results of different methods in my head.

And then some days I get lazy and sloppy, and throw something together, getting a strawberry jam of passable taste, but runny texture. And that late night loaf of bread to go with the runny jam? Instead of the light, fluffy bread I was looking for, the unfamiliar recipe I made turned out a dry and crumbly bread, far more scone like than I was expecting. 

Was everything tasty? Sure. But nothing like I was hoping for. I can’t bury my mistakes, like a  doctor. I can’t grow vines over my mistakes, like an architect. But I can still eat them.

Just in case it was starting to look like everything that comes out of my kitchen is a perfect result, every time, please let me correct that tought.

I could sat I get lucky, and get good results frequently without effort, but instead those good result are the byproduct of thinking on what I’m about to make for hours or days before I make it. Doing research and comparing recipes, tasting thr results of different methods in my head.

And then some days I get lazy and sloppy, and throw something together, getting a strawberry jam of passable taste, but runny texture. And that late night loaf of bread to go with the runny jam? Instead of the light, fluffy bread I was looking for, the unfamiliar recipe I made turned out a dry and crumbly bread, far more scone like than I was expecting.

Was everything tasty? Sure. But nothing like I was hoping for. I can’t bury my mistakes, like a doctor. I can’t grow vines over my mistakes, like an architect. But I can still eat them.

'Ugh Poor People'

Working at a five star resort is like having a gateway into the very best and worst of humanity. Some days, it seems like every gluten-avoiding person from California to the Mississippi is staying with us, and they all want bread, as they drink a tall refreshing glass of gluten juice, aka beer. 

We have the guests that go out of their way to let the kitchen know how much they enjoyed their meal, the celebrities that appreciate the effort the staff puts into making their stay comfortable and private, not like that treatment is really better than what the average Joe would receive. 

But how strange is it that an ordinary ticket, one where a table of four orders half the menu, no special requests, everything shared, nothing split 2, 3 or 4 ways would get a nasty comment from someone in the kitchen? You know what happens when you split a salad four ways? A pile of lettuce the size of a golf ball on each plate. 

This was perhaps the easiest ticket of the night. They just wanted the food and wanted it soon. Easy. Sharing everything, all $200 worth of food they ordered between the four of them. So easy. The response from someone in the kitchen, ‘Ugh, poor people.’ Our food runner quickly whispers, 'They're Asian!'

Ugh, lack of cultural awareness and understanding of different cultures. 

So Many Sandwiches…

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Cooking for only myself gets pretty repetitive. Eggs. Sandwich. Eggs. Sandwich. Eggs… Sandwich…

I can’t have another ham sandwich. I just can’t. But a pork belly sandwich, from braised dry cured pork belly, so much better. 

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After curing, rinsing and drying the pork belly, braise it gently in chicken stock, beer and a small amount of onions, carrots and celery. Maybe a bay leaf and some garlic cloves. No chicken stock? Use pineapple juice and beer. Add enough liquid to come up at 3/4 of the thickness of the belly.

Place the belly skin or fat side up in a 425F oven for 20 minutes, or until the top surface develops a light golden tone.

Drop the temperature to 325F and cook until the belly is very tender, basting occasionally. Allow the belly to cool in the braising liquid; it is specially happy resting in the liquid for a full day. 

As for the sandwich itself, cut the belly into strips. Sear them over medium high heat, deglazing with the braising liquid, and reducing until the liquid coats the belly.

Toast the bread. Coat the mayo, pile on tomato, lettuce, cucumbers, queso fresco, avocado. 

liberatingreality:

We must brave the discomfort of realizing our potential, rather than decay in the complacency of wishful thinking.

liberatingreality:

We must brave the discomfort of realizing our potential, rather than decay in the complacency of wishful thinking.

Blueberry Thyme Shrub

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The main problems of this summer has been my body’s unwillingness to deal with the Arizona heat (which is relentless, joint crushing, mind numbing, soul deadening), and an overabundance of fruit and canning jars. 

A shelf of jars. Bags of fruit. Too many of each, as it has been documented, I cannot bring myself to throw away a jar, and summertime fruit is just to colorful and fragrant to pass by. 

And then that fruit disappoints. A two pound clamshell of blueberries, plump and dark, but just dull in flavor. Can’t throw it away, can’t make more blueberry jam just quite yet. Thankfully another one of my problems is an over abundance of vinegar and sugar.  Combine and drink.  

Cooking enhances the flavor of anything (obviously), and is a preferable solution than eating a large amount of bland blueberries. 

Blueberry Thyme Shrub:

3 cups blueberries, washed
3 cups granulated sugar
3 cups distilled white vinegar or apple cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
6 to 8 fresh thyme sprigs

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a very soft simmer. Cook gently for 10 minutes, or until the liquid has slightly thickened. Cool the mixture, refrigerate, and allow to infuse overnight. 

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Strain through a double layer of fine mesh strainers, to try to catch as many blueberry seeds as possible. Use a spoon to gently press the liquid out of the blueberries. 

Use the syrup as you would any fruit syrup, mixing with soda water or tonic. Use it in cocktails. Drink it straight and make funny faces, just don’t wear out all the enamel in your teeth. Just use your fruit and mason jars. 

Blueberry-Peach Preserves and UFOs.

My fridge and pantry are a dumping ground for UFOs, Unidentified Food Objects. Jar after jar filled with questionable brown sauce contents. Deli containers with viscous liquids and floating chunks. Nothing labeled, of course. Chile sauce? Pickling liquid? Brine? Simple syrup? Throwing them away admits defeat in kitchen experiments, things abandoned, I’m sure I intended to pickle something. Maybe those petrified jalapeños I threw away some time ago?  That shriveled up ginger was probably meant for the maybe simple syrup. Eventually everything ends up in the garbage. 

The freezer is really no better, but slightly more useful. Those two year old bottles of limoncello and arancello. A pint jar of macerated peach puree from the time I picked 70 pounds of peaches at a local farm in 15 minutes. It’s the peach picking trip that keeps on giving. 

Blueberry-Peach Preserves:
Yields 4 cups

4 large peaches
2 pounds blueberries
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/2 cup tequila, rum, vodka, etc
2 lemons, zest and juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme, picked and finely chopped

Cut the peaches into large dice. Place the peaches and blueberries in a large ceramic or glass bowl. Using a potato masher, lightly mash the fruit. Add the remaining ingredients, mix to combine. Cover and refrigerate, allowing them to macerate for 4-6 hours, or enough time for the sugar and alcohol to combine into a shiny syrup. 

Cook at a gentle simmer until the preserves have thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon. The result should be a shiny, sweet and dark preserve.  

Process in cup size jars in a hot bath for 12 minutes. 

Then put it on toast.

Rules of Pork.

If the pork cut is fatty, dry cure it. 

Dry Cure:

1/2 pound kosher salt
4 ounces brown sugar
2 tablespoons black pepper
1 tablespoon Mexican oregano
1 teaspoon coriander

Grind the spices coarsely. Mix well with the salt and sugar. 

Rub generously on item to be cured. Rest for one or two days, depending on the thickness of the cut. Rinse well under cold running water. Pat dry, and rest, refrigerated, for at least a day before cooking. 

If it is lean, brine it. 

Brine:

2 quarts water
1/2 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
1 teaspoon black pepper, coarsely ground
1/2 teaspoon coriander seed, crushed

Bring half the water to a boil with the remaining ingredients. Simmer for for 5 minutes. Add the remaining water, preferably very cold. Cool completely before using. 

Most items need no more than 24 hours of brining. When removed, rinse lightly in cold running water, and rest, refrigerated for another 24 hours.