When life gives you lemons …

From N., 20 September 2010, preserved lemons – is there a faster way?

Q: Hi – this may be a silly question, but I got a tagine recently and I want to use it to prepare a Moroccan meal. I want to preserve lemons, but this dinner is set for 2 weeks away. Am I out of luck? Any chance I can preserve lemons now to use in a week or 2 weeks time?

Also, if you have any input on Moroccan food generally, I’m happy to hear it!

A: Hey there and thanks for your question. First off, I love Moroccan food. I first tried it in Paris, in 1990, just before going to law school, on a family holiday (which I believe was business for my dad but pure fun for the rest of us). We were staying in a small hotel in the Quartier Latin, not all that far from Notre Dame, and walking around the area, I found restaurant upon restaurant serving grilled fish rubbed with chermoula, couscous, tagines, and b’stilla. On our penultimate evening in Paris, before moving on to London, we went with a family friend to a couscouserie, where bowls of steamed semolina appeared before us, and a waiter ladled a broth rich with spiced lamb, carrots, tomatoes, and potatoes on top. Every time the couscous would absorb the broth and we appeared to have spooned up most of the rest, the waiter would reappear and top us off. In this fashion my then-fifteen year old brother ate several quarts. He’s eaten neither lamb nor couscous since.

But anyway – you wanted to know about the preserved lemons. For those who have never tried these, lemons preserved in salt and lemon juice add an intense lemony taste, sweet, tart, and slightly bitter from the pith, and are a hallmark of Moroccan cuisine. Generally, whole lemons take about a month to preserve. The method is easy and as old as lemon cultivation itself. Slice the lemon in intervals about 3/4 of the way through (leaving it basically intact), rub with a good quantity of salt (maybe 2 tbsp per lemon), pack tightly in a sterilized jar, and squeeze the lemons to extract enough of their own juice to cover them completely (or add additional juice). Let them ferment for a month, shaking from time to time to redistribute the juices and salt.

A month is a long time to wait, though, and you said you have about two weeks. It seemed to me that lemon preservation should follow the same rules as any other aspect of cooking – specifically, that small pieces cook more quickly. Slicing the lemon should allow the salt to penetrate in under a month. Paula Wolfert, one of the authorities on North African cuisine, confirms this and has provided a recipe for “Seven-Day Preserved Lemons.” Her method involves slicing the lemons into eighths, tossing with salt (about 1 1/2 tbsp per lemon), and packing in lemon juice to cover, for about a week. I haven’t tried it, so I can’t guarantee results, but if Paula Wolfert says it works, I’d take her word for it.

Anyway, I don’t prepare classic Moroccan dishes all that often, but I do enjoy using the flavors in my cooking. I’m providing my recipe for chermoula, which I like to mix with yoghurt (not a traditional North African cooking element) for a flavorful chicken or fish marinade. Try it with a side dish combining courgette with preserved lemon. Or use the chermoula in your favorite tagine.

Chermoula

Customarily, this spice blend, in combination with the iconic spice blend ras el hanout, flavors tagines from Morocco to Tunisia. As opposed to ras, chermoula usually refers to a wet marinade combining spices with lemon juice, fresh herbs, garlic, and olive oil. I also enjoy preparing it without the “wet” elements as a dry spice blend – stored this way, it’s convenient for weekday fish, shellfish, or chicken preparations. It lends pungency, heat, smokiness, sweetness, and complexity, but the citrus and herbal elements keep it light.

I like to blend chermoula with ras or harissa (depending on whether I want heat or more sweetness) and then add both to yoghurt for a marinade. This is not a customary North African use but the acidity in the yoghurt keeps the proteins moist when grilling or roasting, and helps the spices penetrate. Add garlic, lemon juice, and fresh parsley at the time of preparation.

2 tbsp each ground cumin and coriander seed
1 tbsp hot paprika
1 tsp pimenton
1 tbsp turmeric
1 tsp dried lemon zest, ground
1 tbsp ras el hanout [optional, but delicious]

Combine the ingredients. Store in a tightly sealed jar or bag.

Marinade for fish, shellfish, or poultry

This marinade will coat one medium (3 1/2 lb) chicken and between one and three whole fish like rockfish/striped bass, depending on size.

1 tbsp chermoula {from above]
1 tsp hot paprika
1 tsp harissa paste [buy it here, or make your own]
2 cloves garlic confit, minced
1/4 c parsley, minced
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp yoghurt (greek or full-fat would be best)

350F oven

Combine all ingredients. Rub a thin layer under the chicken skin; any remaining marinade you can rub over the chicken skin; drizzle olive oil on chicken skin. If using whole rockfish/striped bass, heat the oven to 400F, cut shallow slits in the surface of the fish, at about a 45 degree angle, about 1″ apart and rub the fish with the marinade.

Roast chicken for 50 mins or until fully cooked, on a rack in a roasting pan, with a little water in the bottom of the pan. Baste occasionally. Rest 10 mins before carving.

Roast fish for about 12-22 minutes (the roasting time depends on the thickness of the fish).

Courgettes/Onion/Lemon/Honey

This is a nice accompaniment to the roast chicken.

2 courgettes/zucchini, quartered lengthwise, and then sliced in one-inch lengths
one medium onion, diced
half a preserved lemon, peel only, rinsed and diced
2 tbsp lemon juice [if using the preserved lemon brine, taste first to be sure it’s not too bitter or salty]
1/4 c parsley, minced
olive oil, preferably Greek
salt and pepper
2 tsp honey

Place saute pan over medium-high heat. Add olive oil. Saute onion until translucent; add courgettes. Saute until golden. Add preserved lemon; season with salt and pepper. Add parsley and drizzle with olive oil. Toss well. Add honey and lemon juice.

2 thoughts on “When life gives you lemons …

  1. Pingback: Preserved lemons. « The Upstart Kitchen

  2. Preserved Lemons are a reminder that food can be transportative — your taste memory links to your travel memories or to your travel reading memories or to memories of movies from far away places.

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