How have I never blogged this before? I probably did it on some prior blog and didn’t bring it across. Oh well.
Preserved lemons! They are amazing things and not well enough known outside Australia. I mean, they’re not all that well known inside Australia, but I can safely assume that anyone here who has even half-assed foodie pretensions knows about them, whereas in San Francisco I once found them in a hip foodie type shop and got all excited only to have the proprietors ask me to explain to them what they were and how to use them, because they’d never encountered them before. Sigh.
Anyway, preserved lemons are salty lemon rindy things that you use as a flavouring in Mediterranean-ish, especially North African, food. They are also a great way to put away a big pile of lemons if you have a productive lemon tree and aren’t sure what to do with them, and they’re one of the absolute easiest kinds of preserved fruit, since they don’t need any special processing nor even a sterile container. (No bacteria would last a moment in this much salt.)
What you need:
- A lot of lemons
- A lot of salt
- A big jar
- Some spices: a cinnamon stick, some peppercorns, a bay leaf or two for example
Choose lemons that have unblemished skins. Dirty is OK, but actually blemished isn’t. Give them a gentle scrub in the sink with some cold water and non-toxic dishsoap (I just use a little squirt of the environmentally safe stuff we wash dishes with) then rinse them well.
Make sure your jar is a) big — a litre/quart or more, ideally, and b) clean. The lid should fit well. If you have a jar with a plastic lid that’s great, because a metal lid will end up rusting and not be any use afterwards. (If you’re OK with sacrificing the lid, then don’t sweat it, and use whatever you’ve got.)
Pour yourself a bowl full of salt. You want to work from a bowl rather than from the bag or jar of salt because you’ll get lemon juice all through it. I prefer kosher salt in the US/Canada, but you can’t get it as easily in Australia, so basically any reasonably fine, non-iodised salt is what you’re going for. You’ll want a lot of it — a cup or two, at least — so buy a big bag.
Next, cut the lemons. The simplest is just to quarter them, which is what I did this time. Start packing them into the jar, and sprinkling a generous spoonful of salt after each layer. Pack them tight, and press them down as you go. Every so often, drop in a bit of cinnamon stick, bay leaf, or whatever spices you’re using. Keep going til you get to the top of the jar, then press hard and squish everything down and keep adding more lemon pieces until you simply can’t add any more.
At this point, the salt should be starting to draw out the lemon juice, and it should be rising up to the top of the jar as you press. If you’ve got hangnails or cuts on your fingers, you should be feeling it about now. (Ouch!)
When the jar’s as full as it can get, put the lid on.
Store the lemons in a cool dry place (i.e. the pantry) for about a month, turning them over and giving them a shake every few days, to make sure everything’s well mixed.
When they’re done, the rinds will be soft right through, and you can start to use them in things. At this point, you might want to decant into a few small jars and give away some to your friends (perhaps pointing them here so they know what to do with them). I find that 1-2 small jars are sufficient for my needs for a year, so I usually give away about half of what I make.
So, what do you do with them? Basically, you fish out one lemon-quarter, scrape off the flesh and dispose of it, then chop the rind small and use it to flavour things, such as:
Moroccan chicken tagine with preserved lemon and olives: Brown bone-in chicken pieces, add a sliced onion, preserved lemon rind, green olives, moroccan spices, and some chicken stock. Stew and serve over couscous.
Chickpea tagine, ditto: chickpeas, onion, a can of tomatoes, preserved lemon, olives, spices, veg stock.
Lemony tabbouleh: bulgur, parsley, preserved lemon, currants, toasted almonds. You could also substitute other whole grains eg. brown rice, wheat berries, farro.
Spinach: sauted with garlic, preserved lemons, and currants.
With fish: I don’t cook fish often, but this is an obvious companion. You could bake a fish in tinfoil with preserved lemon and lots of herbs.
Marinated olives: take good olives, some olive oil, chopped preserved lemon, and some strong herbs like fresh oregano and leave them to sit for a bit. This would be good with pita bread.
Yoghurt dressing: Greek yoghurt, finely chopped preserved lemon, mint. Use as a sauce for grilled/barbecued lamb.
Tomato salsa: fresh tomatoes, coriander (cilantro) leaves, mint, finely chopped preserved lemon. Serve with chicken or fish.
The last two ideas there are from this list of uses, and there are a bunch of other suggestions there that you might like to try. Looking around, I also found this recipe for lentils with spinach and preserved lemon that sounds like it’d be right up my alley, though I haven’t tried it yet.
Basically, anywhere where salt and lemons would be good, preserved lemons are even better.
If you’ve got other uses for them, let me know.