I love the Moroccan dish called tagine. This is a stew that is traditionally cooked in a conical shaped vessel also called a tagine, thus the name of the dishes cooked in this fashion. The ingredient that transforms these stews for me is preserved lemons. They can be purchased in speciality food markets, but if you plan in advance, they are easy to make and more tasty if homemade. Meyer lemons are the best choice because they are sweeter and less acidic, so when I saw some at Weaver’s Way Co-op in Chestnut Hill this week, I grabbed them. The one cookbook my husband brought to our marriage was Paula Wolfert’s Coucous and Other Good Food in Morocco (1973, and out-of-print). Her chicken with preserved lemons is perfect for when you want to make chicken dish but need something a little different — and delicious.
Preserved lemons can be just the flavoring agent for adding to butter and herbs for a quick sauce for seafood, a viniagrette, mixing into vegetables, couscous, or even into hummus to punch up the flavor. Keep in mind that a little does go a long way and many recipes only call for a quarter of a lemon.
Please don’t use not having Meyer lemons as an excuse not to make this recipe. Regular lemons work well; just make sure they are organic and unwaxed. The resulting pickle is such a lovely way to make your food taste better. If you do not have 30 days, all is not lost. Mark Bittman, writing for the New York Times in 2010, gives a three hour pickle recipe that approximates the flavor you are going for.
Course sea salt
- Prepare a jar with a tight fitting lid large enough to hold the number of lemons you would like to preserve. If you use a pint jar it will hold 2 lemons, and a quart jar will accomodate 8 to 10 lemons. Boil the jar and it’s lid in submerged water for 15 minutes to sterilize.
- Scrub each lemon with a vegetable brush, as you will be eating the peel. Slice off the thickened stem and tip ends of each lemon. Starting at one end, cut the lemon into quarters leaving the pieces attached by about 1-inch at the bottom. You will have an “X” shape.
- Press as much salt as you can inside each lemon; about 1 tablespoon per fruit. Place 1/2-inch salt at the bottom of your sterilized jar and add the lemons, pressing down to release the juices. You will most likely need to squeeze the juice of a couple more lemons in order to cover the lemons completely. Leave 3/4-inch from the top of the jar.
- Add 2 more tablespoons of salt to the top and seal the jar.
- Cover and let stand at room temperature. For the next 3 days, turn the jar upside down and shake to redistribute the juice and salt around the lemons.
- After 30 days, the lemon peel will have softened and they are ready to use. They will keep in the refrigerator for up to six months.
- To use, remove a lemon with a clean fork and rinse to remove excess salt. Split open and scrape out the flesh. Thinly slice or the dice the peel and use as you wish.
I tend to keep my preserved lemons plain so that I can use them many different ways, but if you want you can add chilies, a cinnamon stick, bay leaves, coriander seeds, peppercorns, cloves and cardamom pods.