In the deep recesses of my pantry, large wire racks hold the cookware I don't use every day: three stacks of dim-sum size bamboo steamers, two orange mini coquettes, a plastic box of sushi-making gear, a handful of Bundt pans, three paella pans, one red cast iron karahi, and six conical-topped tagines.
Before the day I bought, on super-dooper sale, my first tagine in a tiny store that was going out of business, I knew nothing about Moroccan cooking. The shop owner included one of her favorite recipes for a traditional chicken and olive stew.
One of the ingredients listed was preserved lemons. I had no idea what they were and asked whether I could substitute fresh lemons instead.
No, no! she replied. The preserved lemons are absolutely essential.
One taste, and I knew just what she meant.
A fundamental ingredient in North African cooking, preserved lemons have a mild, pickled, caper-like flavor, not at all like raw lemons. They're sold loose in the markets in Morocco, where they are used in tagines of chicken, lamb, and vegetables.
Preserved lemons are super-easy to make, with lemons, lots of salt, a clean glass jar, and a bit of patience. Once you've made a jar or two, store them in the refrigerator. As long as the lemons are submerged in the salty lemon water, they'll keep for six months or more.
Experts differ on whether to use the flesh of the preserved lemons, or just the rind. I cook with the rind only. To prepare your preserved lemons for cooking, use a teaspoon to scrape out (and discard) the flesh and pith. Rinse the lemon rind under cold water. Dry, and chop or mince as your recipe directs.
You can substitute capers, in a pinch, but not fresh lemon. The shop owner was right: preserved lemons are absolutely essential.
Couscous salad with herbs
Serves 6 as a side dish.
1 cup orange juice
1 cup water
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1 10-oz box plain instant couscous
1/2 cup golden raisins
3 ripe tomatoes, diced
Rind of 1/4 of a preserved lemon, diced
3 Tbsp roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley
3 Tbsp roughly chopped fresh mint or basil (or some of each)
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper, to taste
Grated zest of one lemon
In a sauce pan, bring orange juice, water, cinnamon and coriander to a boil. Stir in the couscous, cover the pot, and remove from heat. Let stand, covered, for ten minutes.
In the meantime, combine raisins, tomatoes, preserved lemon, fresh herbs and olive oil in a mixing bowl. Fluff the couscous with a fork, and add to the bowl. Stir to combine, season with salt and pepper, and add the lemon zest. Let cool to room temperature and serve, or refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before serving.
More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:
Sweet couscous with pistachios
Couscous with orange and dried fruit
Fregula sarda with leeks and sausage
Sweet couscous for a crowd
Tagine of chicken with prunes and almonds
Tagine of chicken with preserved lemons and olives
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