Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Preserved Lemons

Hello, bright yellow orbs of amplified flavor.

The time-honored process of cutting and packing fresh lemons into a jar with salt and fresh lemon juice and letting them mellow is an ingenious technique perfected centuries ago.But I’ve found that a lot of people aren’t quite sure what to make of them. So, here are the basics:

A key ingredient and condiment in Indian and North African cooking for centuries, the intense flavor of preserved lemons lends itself to all kinds of dishes and drinks. Their texture is soft and pliable, with the taste of lemon heightened by the salt, yet softened by the gentle pickling process.

Mainly, the peel of a preserved lemon is the star, but the flesh and the brine are also good in various incarnations (dirty martinis, anyone?). Some people rinse them before using, some don’t. It depends on how much salt you like. I think it’s best to just take a small bite first. If you like it, leave it as is. If not, rinse and pat dry.

Since discovering these lovely morsels, I’ve always tried to make my own so I could call on them at a moment’s notice. But, I’ve been slacking and found myself searching for some commercially packed lemons to meet an immediate craving. Happily, it wasn’t that hard to track them down.

Les Moulins Mahjoub lemons beckoned from a display shelf the second I walked into Liberty Heights Fresh, a small but epic specialty foods store in Salt Lake City. They’re also available at Williams Sonoma and at any number of food outlets around the world. I liked the small size and the addition of a crimson pepper in this jar. The pepper didn’t affect the flavor all that much, but visually, it’s a great flourish.

You can do all kinds of things with preserved lemon peel:

  • Chop and sauté with broccoli raab or any vegetable you think could benefit from a bit of salty lemon – carrots to squash.  
  • Serve slivered peel alongside smoked salmon or trout and capers.
  • Chop and toss with cooked, chopped Swiss chard, orzo drizzled with olive oil, and freshly ground black pepper, all to taste.
  • Finely chop with parsley and shallot and blend into soft butter to melt atop cooked fish.
  • Stuff slivers under chicken skin with garlic, rosemary and thyme before roasting.
  • Season couscous, rice, soups and stews.
  • Chop fine and swirl into mayonnaise for dipping artichokes.
  • Drop a wedge into a Bloody Mary or a sliver with some brine into an icy martini. Drink, then gobble up the preserved lemon as you would an olive.
  • If you’re feeling adventurous, or if you already know the joys of a drizzle of olive oil and salt on vanilla gelato, try substituting a sprinkle of chopped preserved lemon. 
  • And don’t forget to eat some right out of the jar.

Preserved Lemons With Shallots and Garlic

Here’s a quick and easy recipe my friend Lesley shared by way of New York chef Tom Colicchio, a chef who seems to have a penchant for citrus and therefore, a chef after my own heart. If you have organic lemons, you can skip step one.

With the addition of shallots and garlic, this version of preserved lemons takes on a sort of ‘relish’ quality, which is delicious.

12        lemons
5          shallots, peeled and minced
6          garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
2/3      cup kosher salt
1/3      cup sugar
            Extra virgin olive oil

Plunge the lemons into boiling water to soften the outer layer of wax. Drain, rinse and wipe  off the waxy reside. Dry the lemons.

Slice lemons very thin; discard ends and seeds.

Combine the shallots with the garlic. Mix the salt with the sugar. Arrange a layer of lemon slices in the bottom of a medium ceramic or glass- lidded container. Sprinkle the lemons first with some of the shallot mixture, then with a little of the salt mixture. Repeat, until the final lemon slices are toped with the last of the salt and the shallot mixture. Cover the container and refrigerate for 3 days. Pack into jars, cover with olive oil and store in refrigerator for up to a month.  (And don’t forget to use that lemony olive oil in your favorite salad dressings.)

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