Moroccan food has been a huge favorite of mine ever since I spent a couple of weeks wandering that spectacular country in the spring of 1973. The dishes I tasted there were so surprising to my palate--somehow managing to be simultaneously subtle and rich with mysterious, unidentifiable flavors. Since that time, I've learned a bit about those unusual flavoring agents, and how they're used in Moroccan cuisine. Among the staples in that flavor pantry, preserved lemons stand out, with a unique sweet-sour-salty-bitter profile that can both punctuate a dish and influence the overall effect.
The process of making preserved lemons is quite simple, quick, and easy. First, select unblemished organic lemons (limes and tangerines will also work) and wash them well. Meyer lemons are ideal for this, but any small lemons with fairly thin rinds will produce good results. Here's the blow-by-blow:
|You'll need sterilized jars, coarse salt, a sharp knife, and a wooden spoon. Pretty simple. On this occasion, I decided to make a batch of preserved limes too. I hadn't tried that before, so I figured, why not?|
|Spread open the fruit and pack with salt. This is what preserves the lemons, so don't skimp on it; use about a tablespoon for each one.|
|Really jam it in, but don't tear the skin.|
Once all the lemons or limes are salted, pack them into the sterilized jars. (Sterilizing is just a matter of washing well, pouring some boiling water into them, and then draining and letting them air-dry. ) Use the wooden spoon to push the lemons down, squishing the juice out. It's important to fill the jar, so make sure you either have enough lemons, or else use a smaller jar. The jar probably won't fill up with juice right away, but don't worry. Just cover and set the jar (or jars, in this case) in a cool, dark place overnight.
The next day, open the jar and press down on the lemons to encourage more juice to seep out. Again, the jar may not fill up. Return the jar to its cool, dark spot and repeat the third day. At this point, if the lemons aren't covered with juice, add some freshly squeezed lemon juice (or lime juice for the limes) to top it off. The lemons need to be completely submerged. Cap the jar and leave in that cool, dark place for one month. I'm a little fidgety about this process, so I do come back during the first few days and shake the jar to make sure the salt has all dissolved. I also press the lemons down, to make sure they will stay submerged during the entire process. After the first few days, I feel confident to leave them alone.
I used Celtic salt for this batch, which is slow to dissolve, and turns the juice to a cloudy, fairly unattractive greyish brine. The end result is brilliant, though, and Celtic salt is packed with minerals, so I'm glad I did. I used to use kosher salt, but I've since read some discouraging remarks about it (apparently it's no better than regular manufactured table salt). I'm sold on Celtic salt!
When the month has passed, you're ready to use your preserved lemons. The picture at the top shows the finished product. They will have softened into amazingly tender, silky delicacies in their own right, and even the salty brine will be irresistibly tasty. Unfortunately for the limes, the acid in the lime juice turns their original bright green to a dull olive color. However, their taste is still terrific, and with the flavor they'll impart to your dishes, you won't be too worried about the color, believe me. Depending on the recipe, you may use the whole piece, or scrape off the pulp and use only the rind. Don't throw any part away, though, because you'll find other uses. The brine itself can be used to add salt and lemon flavor to stews, soups, sauces, and salad dressings. In my next post, I'll showcase my new batch of preserved lemons and limes in a few dishes.