Preserved Tomatoes with Meyer Lemon
Savannah, Georgia; December 13, 2017: For the past few weeks, I have been harvesting big, orange-sized Meyer lemons from my tree. I first wrote on the blog about Meyer lemons almost exactly 10 years ago, in a piece about Christmas, which included recipes for Lemon Squares. (You can read the blog here.) I was living in Washington, DC, at the time, but the couple who had bought our house in Charleston continued to send me lemons from my tree there. I’ve had a bumper crop this year and have made not only lemon squares, but marmalade as well. Last night I had some friends over for dinner and I sliced a couple of lemons very thin and put them in a hot oven with olive oil and some sliced tomatoes. We got lost in conversation and I let them go a bit too long, but what wasn’t burnt was a gooey, intoxicatingly fragrant, lemony tomato chutney-like sauce that I served with buttery filets of broiled flounder.
A few weeks ago I was perusing C. Anne Wilson’s marvelous The Book of Marmalade: Its Antecedents, Its History and Its Role in the World Today · Together With · A Collection of Recipes for Marmalades & Marmalade Cookery (which won the 1984 Diagram Prize for the oddest title of the year at the Frankfurt Book Fair). Wilson was an early culinary scholar whose first book, The Food & Drink in Britain, was published in 1973, just as food writing was becoming more scholarly and in-depth. Karen Hess, the eminent progenitor of culinary history in America, cited Wilson’s work often, with praise. In the marmalade book, I ran across an intriguing recipe for “Lemon and Tomato Marmalade,” which Wilson noted was from the United States, but the source for which she did not cite. Online searches revealed many similar ones: 5 pounds of tomatoes, 2 lemons, 2 teaspoons grated ginger root and 4 pounds of sugar cooked together until thick and smooth.
But I didn’t want marmalade, I wanted a savory sauce, more chutney than jam, more tart than sweet.
I pored over the literature of canning, but came up with nothing I didn’t already know, so I decided to wing it.
First, I quartered my 3 largest Meyer lemons lengthwise, then halved those quarters, scraping away the seeds. I then cut the quarters into 1/4″ slices. I placed them in a large roasting pan (12″x 17″) the bottom of which I had covered with a film of olive oil (3-4 tablespoons). I peeled and quartered 5 pounds of tomatoes and added them, along with a tablespoon of salt and a tablespoon of unrefined sugar that I had just brought back from Louisiana (see M. A. Patout & Son). I placed the pan in a 350° oven for about 2 hours, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid was cooked out. I tasted the mixture and added a half cup more of the sugar, which actually accents the sour notes of the lemon. No herbs. No spices. No ginger.
The mixture had cooked down considerably and I could see that it would only fill 2 pint jars, so I put them and their lids in a pot of boiling water to sterilize and let the tomatoes and lemons cook down some more. I checked them at 10 minutes, stirred well, then checked them after another 10 minutes, at which point the saucey mix was beginning to caramelize on the edges and there was no liquid left.
I was so pleased when I tasted it again. Into the two pint jars it went — perfect! — and I processed the jars in the boiling water bath for 30 minutes, which is standard for tomato sauces.
I will be stingy with this winner, but can’t wait to have it again with fish — and with grilled and roasted meats.