Keeping along with the citrus and Moroccan theme from my last post (Moroccan Anise Bread and Blood Orange Marmalade), I thought I would introduce you to another delicious North African inspired food --preserved lemons. Used as a condiment in many Moroccan dishes, preserved lemons are easy to prepare, versatile for use in many dishes, and won't require you to bring out your gigantic canning pots. Instead of being processed in a hot-water bath or pressure canner, preserved lemons utilize other preservation techniques: salting and fermentation.
What are Preserved Lemons?
Preserved lemons are a North African (typically Moroccan) condiment made by cutting and salting lemons and letting them ferment a sealed container for several weeks. The growth of bacteria and yeasts softens the rind of the lemons and turns what was once bright and sharp tasting into a peel that is rich and rounded in flavour. Preserved lemons lend a unique and distinctive taste wherever used.
What Happens During the Fermentation of Lemons?
For the sake of briefness (and because I'm not a scientist), the fermentation happens like this: antimicrobial substances are formed during the fermentation period (lactic acid bacteria, carbon dioxide, and yeasts, just to name a few) and these substances will flourish and suppress the growth of other microbes that cause spoilage and disease. At the same time, most of lemon itself is left intact, including its vitamin C, and the microbes often add a significant amount of B vitamins. The microbes also generate new volatile substances that enrich the lemons aroma. Harold McGee's book, 'On Food and Cooking- The Science and Lore of the Kitchen' gives a more in-depth explanation.
If any of this sounds familiar, that is because similar processes happen in the preparation of many different foods from around the globe. Yogurt, poi, sauerkraut, pickles and kimchi all rely on fermentation for preserving and for flavour. (I'm working on a future blog post about Korean kimchi- my first batch is fermenting as I type.)
How Do I Make Preserved Lemons?
There are a few common ways of making preserved lemons. The first method, which is considered to give the best results, requires the lemons to be layered and/or stuffed with salt and then covered with enough lemon juice for the fruit to be completely submerged under the liquid (pictured above). The second method requires the lemons to be simmered in a salt-water brine until tender and then covered with oil (pictured below). The second method is faster, but doesn't have the same depth of flavour as the first. No matter what method, be sure to wash and scrub the lemons well and use an additive-free salt such as kosher.
Method #1 Preserved Lemons in Salt
You will need 8 lemons (five lemons for slicing plus about three more for juicing) and approximately 1/2 - 1 c of kosher salt.
Wash, scrub, and dry the lemons. Cut off the stems. For each of the slicing lemons, make four longitudinal slits evenly split around the lemon, effectively dividing the lemon into quarters attached at the ends. (Untraditionally you may cut the lemons into quarters completely- I do.) Over a bowl to catch the excess, pack each cut with the kosher salt. In a wide mouthed jar or container, spoon a layer of salt on to the bottom and place one layer of lemons on top. Layer with a few tablespoons of salt. Repeat with all the lemons, pressing firmly to pack tightly and to release some of the juice from the fruit. Finish with a final layer of salt and cover the jar tightly. Leave at room temperature for a few days and monitor the amount of liquid in the jar(s). The lemons should be submerged completely after a few days and if not, juice the remaining lemons add the liquid to the jar. The lemons will be ready to eat after about a month and will keep for up to a year. They do not absolutely require refrigeration but I keep them in the refrigerator at the kitchen.
Optional: add whole spices such as cinnamon sticks, thyme, or bay leaves to the jars for added flavour.
Method # 2 Preserved Lemons in Oil
This quick method gives good results in about four days, and the lemons can last for months.
You will need 8 lemons and 1/2 c of kosher salt.
Wash, scrub, and dry the lemons. With a knife, make 6 slices longitudinally on the lemon skins, from close to one end to the other (but still attached at the ends). In a large pot, make a brine using 8 c of water and 1/2 c of kosher salt. Place cut lemons into the brine and use a plate or smaller lid to keep the lemons submerged. Over medium heat, boil the lemons until the peel is very soft, about 25 minutes. Remove the lemons from the brine and allow to cool. When cool enough to handle, spoon out the flesh from the lemons and pack the peels into clean glass jars. Cover completely with light olive or vegetable oil. Store in the refrigerator.
How Do I Use Preserved Lemons?
As mentioned above, the inner pulp of the preserved lemon is usually discarded. To use the peel, use tongs or a fork to remove the lemon from the salt mixture. Pull away the pulp and discard (it should come easily away from the peel). Rinse the peel well very, very, very well under water to remove excess salt and dry using paper towel. (Please note the emphasis of 'very'.) Finely chop into a dice, slice into thin strips, or use as directed in your recipe. When cutting the lemons, I also like to slice off as much of the pith (the inner white part of the lemon in between the pulp and the peel). The pith contains undesired bitter flavours. It is not necessary to rinse the lemon preserved in oil, however you may prefer to do so. The oil itself can be used wherever the flavour is desired.
Where Can I Use Preserved Lemons? Recipes & Ideas
Preserved lemons are a North African condiment, so it makes sense that you would find them used in Moroccan or Moroccan-inspired dishes. Tagines (Moroccan stew named for the cooking vessel it is prepared in) often include preserved lemons to be added near the end of cooking. Preserved lemons are also used in Middle Eastern, Indian, and French cuisines in salads, cocktails, with grains, rice, or beans, in soups, pastas, or couscous. Fish, chicken, eggs, and lamb all marry well with preserved lemons. Wherever you would use fresh lemon is a most-likely a great place to substitute in preserved lemons. Keep in mind preserved lemons pack a big punch and can easily over-power all flavours in a dish. Because of the saltiness, these lemons aren't suitable for dessert use (although a savoury cookie doesn't sound like a bad idea).
So, what goes with lemon? Green olives, tomatoes, artichokes, almonds, spinach, capers, fresh herbs (basil!), cream, cheese (parmesan! feta!), red peppers, onions, garlic...you get the idea.
Preserved Lemon Vinaigrette
This is an all-purpose type of vinaigrette. Use as a dressing for grain or bean salads such as quinoa, cucumber, tomato, and feta or drizzled on fresh green salads with spinach, sweet potato, and raisins. When serving this vinaigrette, include a few pieces of diced lemon on the salad. The little pieces of lemon will provide a zippy-pop of intense flavour and it looks pretty. Want to shake things up? Puree the recipe with 1 clove of garlic and serve on Caesar Salad.
1/2 c dry white wine
1/4 c fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 T chopped preserved lemon
Combine wine, juice and lemon peel in a blender. Once pureed, slowly add in:
1/2 c vegetable oil
3/4 c olive oil
Season with a little salt and pepper. Keep refrigerated
Deviled Eggs with Preserved Lemon & Basil
4 T mayonnaise
4 T sour cream
4 T finely diced tomato, seeded
1 T chopped basil
1 T + 1 T finely diced preserved lemon
1/8 t kosher salt
1/8 t freshly cracked black pepper
1/8 t paprika
In a small pot with a lid, cover the eggs with cold water and bring to a boil on the stove. Boil for one full minute, adjusting the heat as necessary to avoid cracking the eggs against each other. After the full minute, remove the eggs from the heat and cover with the lid. Allow the eggs to sit in the boiled water for 13 minutes. (If you prefer a firmer egg, increase coddling time to 14-15 minutes.) After 13 minutes, immediately remove the eggs from the pot and refresh under cold water until cool.
Peel eggs and slice in half lengthwise to create two halves. Using a spoon, remove the yolks (there should be absolutely no trace of grey or green!) and place into a bowl. Mash yolks using a fork and stir in mayo and sour cream. Fold in tomato, basil, 1 T of lemon peel and season lightly with salt and pepper (salt may not be needed). Spoon 1 - 1 1/2 T of yolk mixture into the cooked egg whites where the yolks previously were. Garnish each egg with the remaining 1 T of diced lemon peel and pinches of paprika. Keep refrigerated.
Eating. Drinking. Sharing.