Home Plate: Preserved lemons brighten any dish
I recently picked up Paula Wolfert’s beautiful cookbook, The Food of Morocco, in which Wolfert extols preserved lemons as “the most important condiment in the Moroccan larder.” Fresh lemons, she warns, are no substitute, and I agree.
Brined in sea salt and lemon juice, then fermented for up to a month, preserved lemons take on a melting texture. Their flavor becomes more complex and mellow, as the tang of lactic acid fermentation melds with the lemon’s natural acidity. So while most of us wouldn’t want to eat more than a nibble of raw lemon peel, preserved lemon peel is as addictive as good olives; in fact, olives and preserved lemon are a classic combination in Morocco’s famous tagines.
Preserving lemons at home is easy. All you need are good quality organic lemons (conventional lemons harbor too many toxic chemicals), sea salt and a jar. How long the lemons need to ferment depends on size, skin thickness, acidity and room temperature. Small lemons may be ready in as little as 10 days to two weeks, large ones will take about 30 days.
Once the lemons are fermented, they can be stored in the refrigerator for months, though I doubt a jar will last that long. Generally, only the skin, rinsed of excess salt, is used in recipes, although the pulp can be added to any dish that requires a little salt and acidity.
In Cambodia, fermented lemons are stirred into simmering soup. In southern India, they are eaten alongside “rice curd,” a combination of rice, spices and yogurt. My husband likes to add a twist of preserved lemon rind to his hot tea; I love it chopped into grass-green olive oil and spread on crusty bread.
Below, in addition to the basic recipe to preserve lemons, are three easy dishes brightened with preserved lemon peel. The first is a versatile sauce that also includes heart-healthy olive oil and walnuts along with garlic and red peppers. The next is a winter squash and tomato gratin hearty enough to serve as a vegetarian main course. The last is a classic dish of kale sauteed in olive oil and garlic with a lemon twist; it makes an excellent side dish or, served over pasta with a grating of good cheese, a nice winter meal.
5 to 10 organic, thin-skinned lemons, such as Meyer, for preserving
coarse sea salt, about 1 scant tablespoon per lemon
2 to 3 large lemons for juicing (organic if you prefer, but you won’t be eating the skin of these)
Wash the skin of the organic lemons with mild soap and water, rinse well and dry. Roll each lemon on a flat surface, pressing down firmly in order to make them more juicy. Cut the lemons into quarters, but only to within about a 1∕2 inch from the bottom of each – you want the quarters to remain attached.
Sprinkle the interior of each of the quartered lemons with sea salt. As soon as each lemon has been salted, place it in a large jar or crock, so that any juice that runs out of the lemon will be preserved. Pack the lemons into the jar tightly, sprinkling in a bit more salt between layers. The lemons should release quite a bit of juice as they are packed.
Squeeze the juice from the remaining lemons and pour it over the salted lemons. If the salted lemons are not completely submerged, or if any float, use something heavy that will not react to acid to press them down into the liquid; a smaller jar filled with water works well.
Put a lid on the jar or crock and set the lemons aside at room temperature. Allow the lemons to age for at least 10 days before tasting them to see if they are ready to use.
In general, only the skin of preserved lemons is used in recipes. Before tasting a lemon to see if it has been brined long enough, peel off the pulp and discard it. Or, as long as it hasn’t been contaminated with other foods, the pulp can be reserved for use in recipes that require some salt and acidity, such as vinaigrette.
Rinse the remaining skin with cool water to remove excess salt before tasting. It should be soft, a bit salty but not unpleasantly so, and delicious.
If the lemons don’t taste fermented enough, allow them to continue aging for several days before trying again. If the lemons are big and their skin is thick, this may take up to 30 days.
The lemons will continue fermenting as long as they are left at room temperature.
When they taste just right, refrigerate them and they will keep for at least 6 months (though you will probably finish them off long before that).
Based on a recipe in
“The Food of Morocco” by Paula Wolfert
Red Pepper, Walnut
and Preserved Lemon Sauce
1∕2 cup chopped walnuts
2 to 3 cloves garlic, peeled
tiny pinch of salt
1∕3 cup peeled roasted red peppers (canned are fine), chopped into small pieces
1∕4 cup olive oil
1∕2 teaspoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons chopped preserved lemon skin (peel off pulp and rinse before chopping)
juice of half a lemon (optional)
The sauce can be made in either a food processor or with a mortar and pestle. Combine the walnuts, garlic, roasted peppers, and a tiny pinch of salt (this helps the mixture emulsify, but you don’t want to add much because the lemon rind will add more salt). Pulse the mixture in the food processor or grind with the pestle until well combined.
Pulse in the olive oil or stir it in with the pestle. You should wind up with a fairly chunky sauce. Stir in the cumin and chopped lemon rind, then taste for seasoning, adding a little lemon juice if it isn’t tart enough for you.
The sauce can be used in many ways. Try serving it as an appetizer/dip with crusty bread and fresh vegetables, as a condiment on sandwiches, or as an accompaniment to grilled fish. Mixed with a cup or two of hot chicken broth and brought to a simmer, it makes a wonderful gravy for sliced chicken.
Winter Squash and Tomato Gratin with Olives, Feta and Preserved Lemon
21∕2 cups halved cherry tomatoes, or previously roasted and frozen tomatoes, or drained canned tomatoes lightly chopped
3 cups of butternut squash chunks about 1 inch in diameter – about 1 pound before skinning (you may substitute any other sweet, firm winter squash)
3 to 4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1∕4 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil
1∕4 cup pitted, chopped black olives, such as Kalamata
several sprigs of fresh thyme or the leaves from a sprig of rosemary, or 1∕2 teaspoon dried thyme or rosemary
1∕2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes (or to taste, optional)
11∕2 cups coarsely crumbled feta
skin of 1 small preserved lemon, stripped of pulp, rinsed to remove excess salt and cut into thin strips
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Use a small amount of the olive oil to grease the bottom and sides of a baking dish (it should hold at least 21∕2 quarts – a 13-inch oval works well).
Spread the tomatoes over the bottom of the dish. If using fresh cherry tomatoes that are not very juicy, pour a half cup or so of water over them. Spread the squash chunks, garlic and olives over the tomatoes.
Sprinkle half the olive oil, half the herbs and half the hot pepper flakes over the vegetables.
Cover the dish with a lid or aluminium foil and place in the oven. Bake for about 45 minutes, or until the squash has become quite tender – this will vary depending on the squash used. If at any time all the liquid evaporates from the dish, add a bit more water – there needs to be enough liquid to keep the tomatoes from burning and to steam the squash.
When the squash is tender, remove the dish from the oven. Spread the feta over the vegetables, then sprinkle with the remaining olive oil, herbs, pepper flakes and preserved lemon. Return the gratin, uncovered, to the oven and continue cooking for 10 to 15 minutes, until the feta browns a little around the edges. Serve either hot or at room temperature.
Serves 6 to 8 as a side dish, 4 to 6 as a main dish.
Sauteed Kale with Garlic
and Preserved Lemon
2 tablespoons good quality extra virgin olive oil
3 to 4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
4 cups washed, chopped kale (well-packed – if not packed, the same amount of kale will look like 8 cups)
1∕2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
skin from 1 preserved lemon, pulp removed, rinsed of excess salt, sliced into thin strips
juice of half lemon (add to taste)
Warm a large skillet over medium heat then add the olive oil. When the oil is well warmed, add the garlic. Cook gently for a few minutes, not allowing the garlic to brown. Add the chopped kale and pepper flakes and stir. Cover the skillet and let the mixture steam a bit. Add the preserved lemon rind and lemon juice to taste. Cook a few minutes longer, just until the kale is soft enough to eat, but still has a little bite to it. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Serves 2 to 3 (this recipe doubles easily, but you will need to saute the kale in two batches).