I've always been afraid to make any sort of Indian pickle. Too much labor. Too much effort if they have to be cooked gently in the warmth of the sun. No instant gratification as they take months to pickle. One could just as well step out to the Indian grocery store and buy excellent pickles, as good as homemade ones. But the lemon pickles without oil are hard to find. So far I have only found Priya's Lime Pickle that has no oil. All other pickles have a thick layer of oil, which helps preserve the pickle but I like my lemon pickle without any oil.
I was forced to take the plunge when I ran out of the small bottles of two lemon pickles my sister sent me in February this year, both made without any oil. One with green chillies and the other with red chilli powder. I had a bunch of beautiful lemons that were sitting invitingly on the counter - so inviting that I ignored the fact that the peel is much thicker than the Indian lemon and decided to just go for it.
I used an old family recipe that has been passed down through several generations. The beauty of these pickles is enhanced by the "no-oil" factor.
- Wash and dry 6 lemons thoroughly. (12 lemons if you are in India as they are much smaller than the lemons in the US.) There should be no water on the lemons or in your jar. This is very important.
- Slice off the stalk scar as shown below.
- Cut the lemon into quarters and then cut each quarter into a half along the length. Then cut each resulting piece into quarters or thirds.
- Fill the glass jar as you go along. Your jar will soon look like it will overflow. Don't worry. Everything will settle down and there will be tons of space in the jar.
- Add 1/2 cup salt.
- Add 1/4 cup chilli powder.
- Add 1/2 cup sugar.
- Add 3 tsp of turmeric powder and shake the jar about to help the powders get to as many lemons as possible.
- Next you need 1 tsp methi seeds.
- And 1 tsp black mustard seeds
- And 1/4 tsp asafoetida or hing powder.
- Roast these three ingredients on medium flame for about 4-5 minutes till there is a mouth-watering aroma in your kitchen and the methi seeds look a little tanned. They should not look sun-burnt, just nicely tanned.
- Grind these in your coffee grinder. What? You think your coffee will smell of methi and hing from here onwards? Tch! Tch! You mean you actually grind coffee beans in your coffee grinder? Never do that. Repeat after me: Coffee grinders are for grinding spices! Well done! Now add this powdered mix to the jar. The lemons should have started oozing juice already.
- Add the juice of 1 lemon. If necessary, use a dry palette knife or a dry table knife to stir the contents of the jar. See how the lemons have become limp and there is so much space in the jar?
- The jar must be placed in the sun to cook slowly in its warmth.
- Give it a good shake as you put it out and bring it in each day. Your pickle should be ready in about 2 months when the peel has softened and is no longer crisp.
See what I mean about labor intensive? Putting it together takes less than 20 minutes. But after that, it's a lot of effort! Nevertheless I am very excited about it. Here is what my pickle looks like after 1 whole day in the sun. My home is in the East-West direction so I just follow the sun as it moves over from the backyard to the front and leave it out till just before sunset. It's nice and warm when I bring it in. I am really looking forward to this pickle. I hope after all this effort, it works out!!
A lot of people cook it gently on the stove. But in my family, we've always followed this procedure and all of us prefer this taste.
For those of you looking for the ingredients in a concise list, here it is:
- 6 lemons (12 Indian lemons as they are much smaller)
- 1/2 cup salt
- 1/4 cup red chilli powder
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 3 tsp turmeric powder
- 1 tsp methi seeds
- 1 tsp black mustard seeds
- 1/4 tsp hing powder
- Juice of 1 lemon (2-3 lemons in India)
- Large glass jar, approx 2 liters in volume
Think you want to join me in trying this out? Go ahead! And if you do, be sure to let me know how it's doing. Or just wait to see how mine does before you try yours out. After all we have the whole summer ahead of us! I'll be posting an update every week or so. The juices will start thickening as it cooks in the sun.
Update Feb 11, 2007: I made lemon pickle from 3lb of Sunkist lemons on the stove today. After the low temperatures ruined so much of California's citrus crop, I gave up hope of seeing Meyer lemons in the stores here. I decided not to wait any longer and purchased a 3lb bag of citron lemons. They are the best looking lemons I could find. The organic ones at Whole Foods and Wild Oats looked really sad. Anyway, I cooked it on low, uncovered for 5 hours, stirring every so often until the juices thickened. The final consistency should be similar to that of thick pancake batter. The only thing to watch out for: ensure that the juices don't start sticking to the bottom of the pan and charring. The juices will start burning and the pickle will get a strange taste.
I made one mistake: I added 1/2 cup of red chilli powder instead of 1/4 cup. I was trying to do too many things all at once and while this level of heat may be fine for many folks, it's way too much for us. I added 1/4 cup sugar to balance it out but it's still too fiery. I am planning to buy another 3 lb bag and make more pickle on the stove, but without any red chilli powder and mix the two.
Which one is better? The one cooked in the sun has far more flavor. Slow-cooking in the sun rules!