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Preserved lemons - a first recipe

"Pluck one from the jar, rinse it off, and add it to everything that calls for lemon – and everything that doesn't,"

Clara Ines Schuhmacher - Serious Eats

Today I'm continuing to ramble through my cookbook collection. Well actually it's rather more structured than a ramble in that I am gradually working through them all one by one. I shall never finish by the way. There are just too many.

Anyway, today, continuing with my collection of mini-books here is a companion book to my last one - on Cajun cooking. This one is on the food of Morocco.

Moroccan food is often described as the pinnacle of North African cuisine. It's a long, long way from the Middle-East and yet it always gets lumped in with the food from that region these days. And, of course, there are similarities which are down to its history. I think what we forget though is that the indigenous population of Morocco is not Arab but Berber, and today I learnt that for two hundred years the Berbers ruled the Spanish. Of course the Arabs invaded Morocco, as did the Spanish, the Turks and more latterly the French. Then there are the slaves that were brought from other parts of Africa. So it is an extremely multicultural country with an extremely multicultural and refined cuisine.

As a young man, Robert Carrier fell in love with the south of France. In his later years he fell in love with Morocco and lived there for a very long time in an elaborately restored house in Marrakech, from where he wrote A Taste of Morocco, which is still considered by many to be the top Moroccan cookbook. I finally got a copy a couple of years ago at Christmas when my son tracked down a copy for me. It is long out of print for some reason. Claudia Roden too, played her part in reviving interest in the cuisine and nowadays there are many who have absorbed it into their own cuisines. However, my little book does nothing in the way of providing background to the whole idea of Moroccan cooking - I got all of that from the scholarly Claudia Roden. It simply gives you recipes for the most well-known dishes for that country. Which should not be knocked. It's a simple introduction to a vibrant cuisine.

And its first recipe is for preserved lemons.

Now I think I have done preserved lemons before. If not I should have. You really should have a jar in your pantry - I do. It's lemon season so grab yourself three or four from your own or your neighbour's tree and preserve some. It will take ten minutes of your time maybe. They must be unwaxed lemons though. Hence the exhortation to get them from an actual tree.

Scrub them, cut them into lengthways quarters and put them into a sterilised jar (heat in the oven on low heat for a while) layering with rock salt as you go, and putting small pieces of cinnamon bark and bay in between the layers. When you get to the top which should be salt, pour over lemon juice - if you have access to lots of lemons - and if not with boiling water. Put in your cupboard, tip them around every now and then and after about a month when you open the jar you will be greeted with the most amazing smell. Oh and the lid should be plastic.

That's the way I do them anyway, but I'm conscious of the fact that it's not quite right. Claudia Roden has three different ways.

  • Cut into quarters - well the classic way is to not quite cut through the base. Put a tablespoon of salt into each lemon and squeeze shut. Put in jar with others treated the same way and close. After 3 or 4 days press them down as much as you can and cover with fresh lemon juice.

  • Same as above but cover with brine made by adding 2 tablespoons of salt to warm boiled water.

  • Unorthodox but quick and her favourite. With a sharp knife, make superficial, not deep, incisions in the skin from one end of the lemon to another. Put into large pan with salted water (4 tablespoons salt for 4 lemons). Put a smaller lid on top of them to keep them down and boil for 25 minutes or until the peel is very soft. When cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh, pack the skins in a glass jar and cover with sunflower or light vegetable oil. I must try this sometime although I suspect it might taste rather different. But then it's the great Claudia Roden so maybe not.

So what now? Like all the wonderful flavourings I have in my pantry and my fridge I admit I forget to use them. The obvious use is a tagine - with the chicken and olive version being the generally top pick. And my little book does have a recipe - which I cannot now find online as this is an old book. But here it is in case you want to try:

12 chicken pieces; 1 teaspoon each of ground cinnamon, ground ginger and sweet paprika; 1/2 teaspoon each ground pepper and ground turmeric; 1/4 cup olive oil; 2 onions, chopped; 1 red capsicum chopped; 1/4 cup fresh coriander, chopped; 1 1/2 cups chicken stock; 4 strips preserved lemon rind, grated; 2 tablespoons lemon juice; 1 cup green olives

Combine chicken and spices in large bowl and stand covered for 1 hour. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in large pan. Cook chicken until well browned, but not cooked through. Transfer to a larger pan. Add remaining oil to pan. Add onion and capsicum. Cook over low heat for 5 minutes, stirring; Transfer to large pan with chicken. Add coriander and stock, lemon rind, juice and olives; Simmer, covered, for 40 minutes until tender and liquid has reduced.

Or you can try an adaptation of Robert Carrier's recipe for Djaj mqualli - Chicken with preserved lemon and olives - or rather an adaptation on a website called The World Cup of Food which merges Robert Carrier with Claudia Roden and a couple of other experts as well.

I'm willing to bet that if you are at all interested in cooking then you will have given this particular recipe a go at some time in your life, and simple and tasty though it is it's probably not something you cook all the time. So what to do with all the rest of your preserved lemons, because, there is no recipe that uses vast quantities of them. No matter how delicious it is, it does have a very strong flavour. Less is probably more.

"it’s not exactly a love/hate relationship with cooks in America as much as love/bewilderment. Everyone loves the idea of preserved lemon: that funky, salty, unique flavor so essential to Moroccan and Middle Eastern cuisine. Preservers love the ultra-simple recipe: lemons, salt, and time. And yet, every time I post a recipe using preserved lemon, I get at least a dozen people saying, “I want to love preserved lemons, but what do you do with them?” Or, “I made a big jar years ago: most of it is still sitting in my fridge taking up space. Help!”" Sean Timberlake - The Spruce Eats

And I am guilty of having that large jar in my pantry. Limes too.

So I had a look online for things that were a bit different. Many will tell you to just use it when you would otherwise use lemon, and I guess that's a useful starting point, but:

"telling home cooks to toss it into “everything” isn’t all that helpful" Sean Timberlake - The Spruce Eats

The Spruce Eats article What to do with preserved lemon actually had links to a multitude of recipes - and you could start there, although most of them were not that unusual.

So I looked elsewhere. Rosie Birkett of The Guardian was a good starting point as she said:

"The distinctively fragrant dimension it adds can become quite addictive when you start playing around, and works particularly well with fish, seafood, poultry and roasted vegetables." Rosie Birkett - The Guardian

And two of her recipes were sort of tempting, but, I confess, not overwhelmingly so: Kale, toasted pumpkin seed and preserved lemon pesto and Orechiette with roasted cauliflower, preserved lemon and hazelnuts. No picture of the pesto I'm afraid - but well it just looks like pesto.

Then I came across a website I had not encountered before called Mid-life Croissant whose author had three quite interesting suggestions, although disappointingly she didn't really say what kind of salad her Roasted sun gold vinaigrette with preserved lemon would be best with - but I guess that would be spoon-feeding wouldn't it? She also had a very interesting compound butter Preserved lemon compound butter and Preserved lemon and roasted garlic hummus too.

What is interesting is the Italian nature of many of the recipes that I saw, there were quite a few for pasta, so my final offerings are also Italian but from Greg Malouf Preserved lemon risotto and Risotto with zucchini, prawns and preserved lemon which both looked very delicious and which I guess are of the substitute preserved lemons for lemons variety.


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