Have you ever been traveling and marveled at some new food or product that you swear you’ve never seen at home? (A writer smarter than I called this phenomenon amnesic product recollection.) During our winter trip to Marrakech, and especially during the Moroccan cooking class that I took, I discovered preserved lemons. Their supersaltysourcitrus flavor was new to me, and a wonder. Imagine my surprise when I found them not only at our local Mediterranean market, but also on the shelves at Williams-Sonoma.
No matter. I’m totally hooked on preserved lemon. Finely minced, rind and all, preserved lemon adds a salty brightness to any dish. Our cooking school instructor in Marrakech showed us how to separate the flesh from the membranes and chop it finely; we added that to the marinade for the Chicken Tagine with Preserved Lemon and Olives. We reserved the rind and sliced it into strips to garnish the dish.
During the cooking class, we took a brief tour of the food stalls in the souk, or market, where we sniffed spices like Ras el Hanout (a 35-spice blend). I asked our guide where I might purchase a jar of preserved lemon, and he took me to a vendor where I traded 40 dihrams, about $5, for a jar of lemons in their watery brine. We’ve used them several times at home, but I find the Moroccan lemons to be a bit too bitter in a way that overwhelms other flavors in the dish. So I decided to make my own, which is ridiculously easy, using a technique from Paula Wolfert, said to be the Queen of Tagine; this comes from her 1973 book “Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco.”
What can you do with preserved lemon?
- Mince the flesh and rind and add to a garlicky marinade for shrimp or chicken
- Add minced preserved lemon peel to a rice pilaf, or to couscous
- Chop finely and use to season roast chicken, along with pressed garlic, salt & pepper (rub this mixture under the skin and inside the cavity)
- Chop preserved lemon peel and a large handful of parsley and a garlic clove for gremolata
- Use it in the classic Chicken Tagine (recipe to come—I promise!)
3 or 4 Meyer lemons (preferably organic) plus additional 1 or 2 for juice as needed
coarse or kosher salt
additional lemon juice as needed
Note: the original recipe calls for bay leaf and peppercorns, which I omitted, preferring the pure lemon taste)
Wash the lemons thoroughly; use a paring knife to slice them from end to end, stopping about 1/2 inch from the stem end (the lemons will resemble a cootie catcher!). Separate the slices gently, and liberally sprinkle each surface with salt; press the lemons back into shape.
Prepare a jar (I like to sterilize jars with a rinse of boiling water). Add a layer of salt at the bottom, then place a lemon in the jar and squish it down. Sprinkle with a layer of salt; repeat with the other lemons. Add more lemon juice to cover if needed. Cover jar and let sit on the counter at room temperature for 3 to 4 weeks, shaking gently every day. Then store in the refrigerator.
Note: Some recipes call for rinsing preserved lemon to mitigate the saltiness; taste yours to see if that’s needed. If you choose not to rinse the lemon, be careful adding salt to the dish you’re cooking—the fruit can be plenty salty.
The jar at far right is the one I brought back from the souk in Marrakech.