Dehydrating: condiments experiments lemon preserving Szechuan
Back when I made my first Moroccan-style preserved lemons, I speculated that it might be worth trying to dry the finished lemon peels in order to grind them into a powder. This weekend I finally got around to trying it, in addition to rolling that thought into another experiment.
A couple years ago, Michelle bought me a really lovely cookbook by Kylie Kwong based on her My China television show. Ms. Kwong often sings the praises of a condiment called “Szechuan pepper & salt,” which she apparently uses liberally in her restaurant. Kylie—I feel comfortable that she’d want me to use her first name—is such a warm, generous presence on TV that it’s hard to resist anything she suggests trying. I think that’s why Szechuan pepper & salt lodged so firmly in the back of my mind.
When it finally came time to try drying and grinding the preserved lemon peels, I immediately thought of Kylie’s S&P mixture. I also thought of trying this, truth be told, because a while ago Michelle bought a crappy bottle of lemon pepper seasoning that I was snobby about at first, and have since used every time I make a tuna sandwich.
Either way, it seemed like a natural: dried preserved lemon peels mixed with toasted Szechuan peppercorns ground into a condiment. And, listen, the final product is freakin’ amazing.
Step one: I took 1 whole preserved lemon, sliced out the pulp and cut the peels into thick strips. I then put the strips in our dehydrator for about 12 to 14 hours, until the pieces of peel were like shards of glass.
Before we get to what I did, let’s get straight about Szechuan peppercorns: they’re not pepper or chili, but rather a seed from a plant in the citrus family.** According to Harold McGee “…they produce a strange tingling, buzzing, numbing sensation that is something like the effect of carbonated drinks or of a mild electrical current…“—which, he neglects to mention, is awesome. The only tricky part can be trying to find them in a Chinese grocery store. The package I picked up was labelled “prickly ash,” but the three other packages next to it were labelled “Chinese red pepper” and “wild chili” or something, but all seemed to be Szechuan peppercorns, so use caution and ask around.
I toasted a tablespoon of the Szechuan peppercorns in a cast-iron pan over high heat until fragrant and just starting to change colour.
Step three: I put the toasted peppercorns and dried lemon peel into the bowl of a meticulously cleaned coffee grinder and let ‘er rip.
The final powder is incredibly fragrant. It smells sharply of lemon, but has that spicy undertone of the Szechuan pepper. It’s incredible.
Let me caution you though if you try making this: don’t taste it straight like I did. My lips immediately went numb and it felt like I had just injected lemon into my brain through my tear ducts. It was a cool experience, but more dare-devilish than culinary.
Once my face had cooled off, the flavour was spectacular though: strongly lemony,* lightly salty and uniquely spicy. Fish fillets, sure, of course, but also on barley risotto, braised endives, cocktails, deserts…and, yes, tuna sandwiches.
*I recently joined a Scotch Club organized by my good friend Richard and partly inspired by Jonah Campbell’s great post on same. Richard provided a number of detailed charts from scotch-tasting societies, and one of the flavour profiles they use is “solvent,” which sounds like a bad thing, but isn’t.
**And the key to Chinese five-spice powder along with (usually) star anise, fennel, ginger and cinnamon.