One of the favourite presents I have received was a huge canister of preserved lemons, presented as a gift for hosting a dinner party. Thought of mainly as a staple of Moroccan and Middle Eastern cuisine, preserved lemons have remarkable versatility, striking good looks, and a sublime flavour. Lemons pickled in lemon juice provide a citrus-on-steroids taste and aroma.
When given the canister, I asked my friend—also named Peter—what it pairs well with. “Everything!” he said. Lemons add flavour to countless dishes. It’s telling that Martha Stewart said she missed fresh lemons most during her state-funded sequestration.
With perpetual thanks to Peter Troyer, here is a recipe to make preserved lemon and a few recommendations for use.
The process is easy enough. One starts with a large sterilized jar or glass canister (I put the jars into a low oven after a thorough washing). Into the vessel, place a large stick of cinnamon, some bay leaves, whole cloves, and peppercorns. Next prepare the lemons by first cutting off any stems. Splice each as though cutting into quarters, but leaving the fruit intact at the base. Now, rub kosher salt into the slits and finish by putting the whole lemon into the prepared jar. Be aggressive stuffing the lemons into the jar to extract juice. When no more lemons can be added, add fresh lemon juice to the jar until the lemons are fully covered. Finally, add a couple tablespoons more kosher salt.
Next, some patience is required. The lemons must pickle themselves for at least a few weeks, although they are best after more than a month. Every couple of days, the canister should be carefully moved upside-down a few times to make sure that the salt and juice combine to make a nice brine. The lemons are done when they are soft and will keep for six months in the refrigerator. [Editor’s note: keep in refrigerator while fermenting as well.]
Now the rewards. One of the easiest uses is simply to place a whole lemon inside a chicken while roasting. It’s a perfect pairing with herbes de provence since lemon and lavender bring out the best in each other. The acidity makes poultry tender and juicy, and the flavour permeates wonderfully. If you’re the type to use pan juices, these will have a tangy flavour.
In most cases, the inside pulp of the lemon is discarded and only the peel is used. Diced, it can be added to risotto, couscous, seafood chowder, and countless other dishes. It is the secret behind my favourite recipe for homemade hummus.
Eventually the uses pile up: steaming mussels or fresh vegetables, savoury scones, and salad dressings. I’ve even tossed some into fruitcake. My uncle cuts cross-hatches into raw chicken breasts and then rubs them with diced preserved lemon. After marinating, he discards the lemon and coats the meat in Shake n’ Bake for a Moroccan meets American comfort food combination.
One last use. For the indecisive martini drinker, preserved lemon provides a cross between garnishing with an olive and a twist. Of course, preserved lemon also has no fat, allowing the weight-conscious tippler to make good on Kingsley Amis’s admonition about dieting: “The first, indeed the only, requirement of a diet is that it should lose you weight without reducing your alcoholic intake by the smallest degree.”