There are two reasons why preserved lemons seem like a good idea right now. One is that our two potted lemon trees have simultaneously decided to endow us with bounteous crops of lovely lemons, after both being unaccountably dormant for the last couple of years. And the other is that it’s officially winter, the season when our thoughts turn to slow cooked food, which tastes so much zingier with preserved lemon. That’s far more justification than I normally need for mucking around in the kitchen, so deciding to try my hand at this delicacy was a no brainer.
Usually when I’ve got an overabundance of lemons I start thinking of lemon curd, lemon meringue pie, lemon cheesecake, lemon delicious pudding, all of which are sublime but sweet. As I’m supposed to be cutting down on sugar, they didn’t seem like the wisest choice, although I have a feeling I’ll still get to them, especially while the lemon trees are in such a generous mood. But the other day someone suggested preserved lemon and like the little golden orbs themselves a light came on in my brain.
I love preserved lemon and especially love all those Moroccan and Middle Eastern inspired dishes that use it. (Were they the first cultures to cotton on to how brilliant the harmony is between fruit and meat?) Although traditional in those cuisines, it’s only become readily available in Australia in the last few years. In fact the first time I came across a recipe that called for it, I spent forever trawling the aisles of supermarkets and the shelves of gourmet food shops before I found some, only to be so horrified by the price I didn’t buy it in the end. (I quickly recovered from that uncharacteristic fit of frugality and the next time I saw some I did buy it.) It’s now much more readily available. Maggie Beer does a good one which is the basis for her Roast Barossa Chook with Preserved Lemon and Verjuice.
While preserved lemon is commonly added to tagines and other Moroccan style dishes, there are many other uses for it. It goes perfectly with chicken, its slightly sweet tartness adding just the right amount of acidity to really bring out the flavour of the chicken. It’s a good accompaniment to many soups, stews, casseroles, especially those based on lamb, and goes well in salads, with fish and in cocktails. Anywhere really where you’d use lemon. The preserving or pickling process results in a flavour that’s mellower while still retaining the intense lemon hit of the fresh fruit.
The recipe is ridiculously easy, and you end up with a very pretty result, which unfortunately you must defer sampling for several weeks while it does its fermenting, pickling thing (a fascinating process in itself which if you’re interested you can find out about in great detail from Michael Pollan’s book “Cooked”).
Once mine has served its time and is good to use, I’m hoping to use it first in a lamb tagine, an ideal mid-winter warmer. I’ll be reporting on that here in due course. In the meantime and as I have to wait, and as I have another of those cute jars I feel a need to whip up some lemon curd, so stay tuned for that as well.
- 5-6 lemons (preferably Meyer)
- Juice of 2-3 lemons
- 1 cup good quality rock salt (I used Maldon)
- 4 or 5 bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon peppercorns
- 4 or 5 whole cloves
- Half teaspoon coriander or mustard seeds
- Sterilise a two cup capacity sealable glass jar in boiling water for approx. 15 minutes
- Wash the lemons thoroughly to remove all traces of dirt, wax etc.
- Slice off the stem and tip of each lemon
- Cut the lemons into quarters but stop about half an inch from the bottom so the quarters are left joined
- Hold the lemons open and coat the inside surfaces with about a tablespoon of salt
- Try and get as much salt as you can into the lemons
- Add about a tablespoon of salt to the bottom of the jar
- Place each lemon in the jar, pushing down hard to release the juices
- When the jar is about half full add the bay leaves and other spices
- Finish filling the jar almost to the top with lemons, pushing down as hard as possible to release any air bubbles
- Top up with extra lemon juice
- The lemons should be completely submerged in lemon juice
- Add two more tablespoons of salt to the top
- Seal the jar
- Place the jar somewhere cool and dark for at least three weeks
- Every couple of days upend the jar to redistribute the salt
- If the lemons become exposed, top up the jar with extra lemon juice
- After this time the peel should be soft and ready to use
- Store the jar in the fridge - the contents should be good for up to about a year
- When using, rinse the lemon thoroughly to remove salt, discard any seeds
- It's mainly the rind that will give the intense flavour - using the pulp is a matter of preference, so try it first
by Anne Green