Thursday, May 19, 2011

D.I.Y.: Chinese Chili-Scallion Oil and Preserved Lemons

D.I.Y. Chinese Chili Scallion Oil and Preserved Lemons
Kimchi was one of my favorite things to make (yes, ever)... and with that early success I've always had plans to pickle all sorts of things and make sauerkraut and, and, and.  Yet here we are a year and a half later and basically all I've made is ghee. Not that there's anything wrong with ghee, but I was hoping to have a little more "Do It Yourself" experience by now than making a few quick pickles in the course of a recipe. Well luckily for my (lack of) motivation, a while back The New York Times released a handy little interactive guide (if you just want recipes go here) on some simple D.I.Y. projects. There's plenty in there, from the aforementioned kimchi to crème fraîche, but the two projects I pricked were chili-scallion oil and preserved lemons. The former because it's my favorite condiment to dump into phở or ramen, but have never really found a good store bought equivalent for home use... the latter just because I've never had them before and a bag lemons and a bunch of salt are a lot cheaper than the $10-12 you pay for a small jar of preserved lemons.

So, some tips and issues. For the lemons, it seems a lot of recipes (including the NYT one) want you to cut the lemons into quarters and leave them attached at the base, so that you can get salt inside but so they can still sort of look like a lemon if you push the quarters together. I don't really have any idea why this is... aesthetics?  So I know exactly how much one preserved lemon is? I dunno, I feel like I can add four quarters together and still get one... and its seems really inefficient as far as stuffing lemons in there.  Why not just quarter them, squeeze out some juice into the jar, salt the squished flesh, and dump them in like that? Maybe a lemon preserving expert will come by and give my the reason... but not knowing the answer at the time, I followed directions for the most part (there were some gaps that offended my sensibilities, so I stuffed some quarters in to fill). What's also interesting is that two recipes I found didn't have you worry about whether the lemons were covered until after few days, whereas the NYT one seemed fairly obsessive about getting them covered from the get go. Presumably the salted lemons will exude more juice, but I squeezed out quite a bit trying to get them in the damn jar, so I don't expect I'll be pouring a bunch out in the coming days...  but I suppose I shall have to monitor and report back. Perhaps having them covered in the juice preserves the flesh better? Regardless, it takes at least 4 weeks to brine these babies, so it'll be a while before you see any Israeli Couscous with Roasted Butternut Squash and Preserved Lemon type recipes posted here.

As for the chili oil, there's not a whole lot to say. It makes about 3/4 of a liter, which is obviously a lot for a condiment... though it will last for ages. If you're good with fractions and cup to tablespoon conversions, it might make sense to half or third it for something more in the "small jar" size (though make sure you have a small enough saucepan). The simmering here is key to avoid any risk of botulism that you have with oils infused with raw garlic... the 15 minutes between 200-250 degrees is plenty, but this is something where you want an accurate thermometer. Too low and you won't kill the germs and too high and you've got rancid oil. Last night I used our old candy thermometer and compared it to my (admittedly exorbitant) Thermapen and the old thermometer was off by 30 degrees (and slow as molasses). You don't need to own a $100 thermometer to make this, but I would certainly recommend an accurate one (perhaps the RT600C for $25?).

UPDATE: I decided to separately bottle the chili oil and "sludge"... to much better utility I think. Read more about it here.