Every afternoon, I get a ping on my computer announcing the number of days since my hard drive was backed up in Paris, where I live part time. That ping means it has been 128 days since I was in Paris — the longest I’ve been away from that city and my friends in decades. One hundred and twenty-nine days since I had a haircut; I think the last time I had to push my hair out of my eyes, the Beatles were still together. And a record 122 dinners and counting that I’ve cooked at home. (I’ve subtracted the three meals we had in restaurants in February and the three at friends’ homes later that month.)
Happily, I don’t mind all that cooking. I’m used to spending a lot of time in the kitchen — my desk is there, and the floor between it and the oven is scuffed bare. I’m also used to making meals from what’s at hand. Because a quick round trip to the supermarket can take more than an hour from our Connecticut home, I became adept long ago at foraging in my pantry and shopping in my fridge. I think of the refrigerator as my supermarket, its door the specialty-foods section. That door is where I keep “the transformers,” ingredients that can change whatever dish they’re added to. There are nut oils to drizzle over warm vegetables; chile sauces, capers, anchovies and olives for salads, pastas and tuna-on-toast; hard-to-find yuzu kosho; easy-to-get soy sauce; and my homemade lemon goop, which is next to the lemon syrup, which comes along with the goop. (There’s also a vinaigrette that I make with both the syrup and the goop.)
The first time I made the lemon concoction, I offhandedly dubbed it “goop,” and years later, I haven’t found a better name for it. It’s like lemon marmalade, but not really sweet, though not not-sweet either. It’s salty, and a touch tangy too. My inspiration was an offbeat lemon jam I had with fish in a Paris bistro. I think the fish was mackerel, but I know the jam — thick, almost velvety, shiny and as yellow as goldenrod — was distinctive because it was made with an ingredient I find hauntingly alluring: preserved lemons.
I wanted that jam, but I knew I wasn’t going to get preserved lemons, a mainstay of Mediterranean cooking, in my little town. I also knew it was improbable I’d take the time to cure them myself. Preserved lemons are made by partly slicing lemons, packing them tightly into a jar with a copious amount of salt and pushing them down to release their juice, then turning the jar upside down and right-side up for a month, until the lemons’ skins become soft and salty and their fruit, which is not as prized as the peel, becomes meltingly tender. The salt intensifies the lemons’ flavor, making it a magnified version of itself. It’s technically pickling, but the result is less crisp, less acidic, more mellow. It’s this subdued-but-present flavor that made the jam so memorable, and it’s what I wanted to capture using what I had at hand: six ordinary lemons.
What I ended up doing was a combination of pickling and marmalade-making. I took the zest from half the lemons, and the fruit from all of them, and cooked them in a sugar syrup with just enough salt to give the blend a savory edge. As is almost always the case when I’m working on something new, I started with a hunch and high hopes. Sadly, after an hour of poaching and pot-watching, it looked as if I’d made a grave miscalculation: All I had was a powerfully fragrant syrup with lots of raggedy stuff floating around in it. It was unpromising, but I carried on with my plan. I strained what was left of the lemons and zest — the amount was paltry — turned it into a mini food processor with some of the syrup and whirred away.
Jam! I actually got jam! It was glossy and as velvety as the original and so good: more sweet than salty, intensely lemony and pleasantly tart.
And then there was the syrup. A lagniappe. Where the goop was mysterious, the syrup was brash and, as I came to discover, a surprisingly good team player.
The goop can be just what the jam that inspired it was, a side-of-the-plate dipper, like mayo or ketchup. But I prefer it as a glaze — a swipe of goop over just-cooked scallops or shrimp, grilled chicken or vegetables or anything steamed, increases a dish’s delectability. As for the syrup, you can put a little of it in a cocktail or make a fruit spritz or a bracing tea with it. You can add it to marinades for chicken or pork, salmon, sword- or bluefish. Inexplicably, it adds fullness to lean foods and cuts the too-muchness of fatty ones. My favorite way to use it is to whisk some with goop, cider and sherry vinegars and olive oil to make a vinaigrette that’s good tossed with beans or grains or salads made with sturdy greens.
These days, with so much time in the kitchen ahead of me, I keep thinking I ought to preserve some lemons. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. But I’m not giving up my goop — it will always have the front-row-center spot on the middle shelf of my fridge door.
Recipe: Lemon Goop and Vinaigrette