I clearly remember, when helping us pack up our apartment 2 years ago, my mother-in-law pulled a jar of preserved lemons from the fridge and said “this can get tossed, it looks bad”. And for someone not familiar, I wholeheartedly agree that a jar of preserved lemons looks like a project gone wrong.
Yet there are a few things that I try to always have in my fridge, one of them being a jar of preserved lemons. Commonly called for in Middle Eastern cuisine, I consider them to be a “secret ingredient”- they add depth and bright flavor with no extra preparation other than just being. The flavor of a preserved lemon is mellow yet intensely lemony, with none of the mouth puckering tartness of fresh lemon.
Preserving lemons is quite possibly the easiest way of preserving, the hardest part is the waiting. This is an item to make, then stash away in the fridge to use at a later date. Putting away a jar or two marks the start of Winter just as much as the solstice, and is a practice I look forward to each year. They take about a month to get to the usable stage, but will then keep for at least a year, if that last that long in your house.
To make, wash your lemons and put out a bowl of salt. Working over a bowl, to capture any juice that might escape, carefully cut the lemon in quarters, but leaving one end intact. Then, pack salt in the cuts, then shove the lemon in a clean jar. Continue packing in as many lemons will fit. Then, put in the fridge and let sit for a week or so. If you remember, give them a little swirl and shake. By then, its likely that enough juice will have been extracted to cover the fruit, but if not, fill the jar with lemon juice to cover the fruit. After a month or so of the lemons marinating in salt and their own juice, they are ready to use, but they get better as time goes on.
To use, fish a lemon out of the jar and scrape out the flesh. I can usually just push it away with my finger, but a spoon edge does a great job as well. The peel is the part of this that you use, and it has turned into something soft, satiny and almost translucent. If you are concerned about salt, you could rinse the lemon off, or you might want to wait until adding additional salt to your dish until tasting with the lemon. Chop, and add to your dish for instant deliciousness!
I keep these jars in the door of the fridge, with a square of parchment paper under the ring. As hard as I try to keep the rim clean, the combo of salt and acid inevitably gets to the metal and can make opening it a really pain in the ass.
My last lemon from last year’s jar went into dinner last night: bulgar mixed with mint, parsley, pomegranate seeds, roasted cauliflower, preserved lemons and a simple dressing of lemon juice and olive oil. For other ways to use them, look to the dishes that are North African, Moroccan or Israeli inspired. Anything that has olives, pomegranates or mint is usually a safe place to include them.
As always, I love to hear from you: do you use preserved lemons? What are some of your favorite ways to include them?