Preserved Lemons: Older, wiser and full of flavor
On the other hand, they keep practically forever. So if you can just make up your mind one afternoon to spend the 15 minutes it takes to cut, salt and jar them, afterward you can pretty much forget about them for as long as you like, or until you happen to think about Mediterranean citruses again.
Once, the reason for preserving lemons was the usual one: It was a way of continuing to enjoy the fruit after its season had passed. But the flavor of a preserved lemon needs no justification. It's mellow yet intensely lemony, with none of the nose-tickling bright, high notes of the fresh lemon. The peel — which is the part you use, usually — is soft to the touch and satiny in the mouth. It's translucent, with a muted yellow luster when you hold it to the light, which I like to do just for fun after pulling out the pulp and rinsing off the salt. Sometimes, if the peel happens to be particularly thick, I laterally slice off another quarter-inch layer of pith from the inside, the better to taste and smell that shining cortex.
These days, of course, you can get adorable young lemons pretty much any time you want. (You can even get organic ones by the bag.) They're firm, fresh and tart, and sometimes there really is nothing you want more. But give me my old lemons, mild and mellowed, a little soft and salty, making everything around them seem a little sweeter. They're not the only ones, I hope, that grow more tender as they age.
4 tablespoons sea salt
Juice of 4 additional lemons, or more to taste
Wash and scrub the lemons. The classic Moroccan way is to cut each lemon in quarters but not right through, so that the pieces are still attached at the stem end, and to stuff each with a tablespoon of salt and squeeze it closed. Put them in a sterilized preserving jar, pressing them down so that they are squashed together, and close the jar.
Leave for 3 to 4 days, by which time the lemons will have disgorged some of their juices and the skins will have softened a little. Open the jar and press the lemons down as much as you can, then add fresh lemon juice to cover them entirely.
Close the jar and leave in a cool place for at least a month. The longer they are left, the better the flavor. (If a piece of lemon is not covered, it develops a white mold that is harmless and just needs to be washed off.)
Before using, scoop out and discard the pulp, and rinse the lemon peel under the tap to get rid of the salt.
BECOME A HOMEGROWN COLLECTIVE MEMBER NOW
Recipe: Root Vegetable Couscous
with Preserved Lemon
By Plenty, Yotam Ottolenghi
2 medium parsnips, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch chunks
8 shallots, peeled
2 cinnamon sticks
4 star anise
3 bay leaves
5 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon hot paprika
1/4 teaspoon chili flakes
2 1/2 cups cubed pumpkin or butternut squash (from a 10-ounce squash)
1/2 cup dried apricots, roughly chopped
1 cup chickpeas (canned or freshly cooked)
1 1/2 cups chickpea cooking liquid and/or water
1 cup couscous
Large pinch saffron
1 cup boiling vegetable stock
3 tablespoons butter, broken into pieces
2 tablespoons red pepper paste
1 ounce preserved lemon, finely chopped
2 cups cilantro leaves
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Place the carrots, parsnips and shallots in a large ovenproof dish. Add the cinnamon sticks, star anise, bay leaves, 4 tablespoons of the oil, 3/4 teaspoon of salt and all the other spices and mix well. Place in the oven and cook for 15 minutes.
Add the pumpkin, stir and return to the oven. Continue cooking for about 35 minutes, by which time the vegetables should have softened while retaining a bite. Now add the dried apricots and the chickpeas with their cooking liquid and/or water. Return to the oven and cook for another 10 minutes, or until hot.
About 15 minutes before the vegetables are ready, put the couscous in a large heatproof bowl with the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil, the saffron and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Pour the boiling stock over the couscous. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave for about 10 minutes. Then add the butter and fluff up the couscous with a fork until the butter melts in. Cover again and leave somewhere warm.
To serve, spoon couscous into a deep plate or bowl. Stir the red pepper paste and preserved lemon into the vegetables; taste and add salt if needed. Spoon the vegetables onto the center of the couscous. Finish with plenty of cilantro leaves.
Preserved Lemon Vinaigrette
1/4 of a whole preserved lemon peel
1 teaspoon very finely minced or grated shallot
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives
2 tablespoons finely chopped thyme
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup lemon juice
If the lemon peel is thin, simply mince it as finely as you can. If it's thick, divide the lemon peel quarter lengthwise and set each half peel-side down on the cutting board. Steadying the peel by flattening it with the tips of your fingertips, carefully make a lateral slice between the pith and peel and work your way across until you've removed a layer of soft pith. Repeat with the other half, and then you can mince the peels with ease.
Combine the preserved lemon with the other ingredients and give them a good whisk. You may not need to salt at all, given the saltiness of the lemon peel. Use at room temperature.