When the universe conspires to teach you about something, you have to learn to ... well, learn.
That's what happened with preserved lemons, which are now a permanent fixture in my pantry.
I can't remember which came first: Bob's desire to create some tagines in his pottery studio, or Jessica volunteering to teach The #1 Cooking Group how to make preserved lemons, or the going-out-of-business sale at a small Moroccan shop down the street from our house.
No matter. I bought three clay tagines at the sale, brought them to Bob's studio where we designed new tagines based on traditional forms, and took Jessica up on her offer to teach us to make our own preserved lemons and to use them in some interesting recipes.
A fundamental ingredient in North African cooking, preserved lemons have a mild, pickled, almost caper-like flavor, not at all like raw lemons. They're sold loose in the markets in Morocco, where they are used in tagines (stews) of chicken, lamb, and vegetables. Don't substitute fresh lemons for preserved; the taste and texture are completely different, and preserved lemons are super-easy to make. All you need is patience, a clean glass jar, and lots of salt.
If you're not the patient type, try Paula Wolfert's five-day preserved lemons. Not quite the same as the long-cured ones, and they won't keep, but they'll get you through any recipe.
You can keep the juice after you've used the lemons, and start a new batch of lemons in the same jar, or just toss in leftover chunks of lemon as I've done here. The pickling juice can be used two or three times over the course of a year, and then should be discarded. You might see a kind of lacy white substance in the jar as the lemons mature. This is harmless and should be rinsed off for aesthetic reasons before you use the lemons. You'll be rinsing the lemons anyway, to remove the loose salt.
Experts differ on whether to use the flesh of the preserved lemons, or just the rind. I cook with the rind only.
JESSICA'S PRESERVED LEMONS
These take just 10 minutes to make, and last for six months or more. Adapted from Paula Wolfert. Use a plastic jar lid, so you can mark the date on it.
4 large lemons (preferably fairly thin-skinned), scrubbed (about 6 oz each)
2/3 cup kosher salt
1 cup fresh lemon juice (from 5 large lemons)
Dry lemons well and cut each into 8 wedges. In a bowl toss wedges with salt (it will seem like a lot of salt), and pack them into a sterilized glass wide-mouth canning jar (with a plastic replacement lid, available in the grocery or hardware store where you buy canning jars). Once the jar is full, add enough lemon juice to cover the lemons (don't use bottled lemon juice, or water). Make sure the rim is free of salt or juice, and that the lid closes tightly. Let lemons stand at room temperature for seven days, shaking the jar each day to redistribute the salt and lemon juice. Then, add oil to cover lemons and store in the refrigerator, covered. The lemons will ripen in 30 days and can be stored up to six months.
Jessica adds: "No surprise — I have never weighed my lemons or measured the salt and lemon juice... I just toss a bunch of lemon chunks in the salt and start packing them into a pint jar. Once the jar is full, I fill with enough fresh lemon juice to cover. The plastic tops for wide-mouth canning jars are excellent. They are much less likely to corrode from all the salt and acid."
Use a wooden spoon to remove lemons from the jar.
Lentils with spinach and preserved lemon
My adaptation of Jessica’s adaptation of a recipe from Paula Wolfert’s Mediterranean Cooking. Serves 6.
1 turkey kielbasa
1/2 lb brown or black lentils
1 cup sliced onion
1/4 cup olive oil
3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh coriander or parsley
10 oz frozen spinach leaves, completely thawed and roughly chopped (or fresh baby spinach)
2 medium Yukon Gold or red-skinned potatoes, peeled and sliced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/4 cup chopped rind of preserved lemons
In a frying pan, brown the kielbasa until very brown. Set aside.
Wash and pick over the lentils. Place in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to the boil. Cook, covered, about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, brown the onion in oil in a large casserole or Dutch oven. Stir in the garlic and coriander/parsley. Add the spinach and sauté 5-6 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the potatoes, lentils, and enough cooking liquid to cover. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to the boil, lower the heat, and cook at the simmer for 1 hour, or until thick and soupy, about 20 minutes. Stir in the chopped preserved lemons and the sausage. Serve hot, lukewarm, or cold.
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