Preserved Lemon: Morocco and Beyond

Everyone has a favorite condiment.  You know, that condiment that seems to sneak its way into every meal that you prepare and eat.  For my grandfather, it is ketchup.  He will put it on steak (even if it is a very expensive new york strip in a fine dining restaurant), every form of potato dish (including soup), eggs, and pretty much everything else.  I know some people who swear by sriracha or relish.  For me, if I were stuck on a desert island with only one condiment, it would be the preserved lemon.

“Preserved lemon?!  What the heck is that?” you say.  Or maybe you say, “Oh sure, if I’m cooking a Morrocan dish I’ll use one of those babies.  But otherwise, they just sit in the shelf.”

Well, do I have some things to say to “you.”

First, what are they?  Preserved lemons are lemons that have been pickled.  Unlike most pickles, which are preserved in brine or in vinegar, lemons are preserved in their own juice with the addition of salt.  The lemons take about three months to fully pickle, but once pickled they last a long time.  I’m talking years.

The ingredient list is simple – lemon and salt – but what happens is magical.  The skin of the lemons softens and the bitter flavor usually present in the pith of a lemon disappears.  In fact, it is the skin of the preserved lemon that is most often used in recipe.  Simply remove the flesh of the lemon from the skin using a pairing knife and dice.  The flesh is also delicious and should not be discarded but rather added to a salad dressing or soup.  But, it is the texture of the skin that really keeps me coming back for more.

Preserved lemons are often used in Moroccan and other North African countries cooking.  If you are not familiar with Paula Wolfert’s cookbooks, I can’t recommend them enough.  Her first book, published in 1973, Couscous and Other Good Food From Morroco is a classic.  I’m also extremely fond of one of her later books,-The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen.  Both feature delicious recipes using preserved lemons including Chicken with Lemons and Olives Emshmel and Spicy Potato Tagine with Preserved Lemons and Olives.  The New York Times also recently featured a delicious recipe using preserved lemons, Halibut with North African Flavors.

I would encourage you, however, not to limit your thinking of preserved lemons to North African cuisine.  They are truly a delicious addition to so many dishes.  In particular, I find they work beautifully with Italian flavor profiles.  I often replace some lemon juice in a recipe with small diced preserved lemon.  Biting into that lemon surprise makes a dish so much more interesting.  In particular, I love throwing in a quarter of a preserved lemon diced small with sautéed kale.  It is also delicious in tuna salad or as an addition to a green salad with lemon vinaigrette.

We make our own preserved lemons in the cafe at Feast.  We’ll be featuring them in a few specials in the coming weeks,  and they are always available on our shelves.  Come in and give them a try.

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