January 16, 2016

Preserved Lemon

We spent last Christmas in Marrakech, and returned with a reignited love of North African flavours. The single most notable ingredient in Moroccan cooking, from my perspective, is the generous use of preserved lemon that occurs in everything from tagines to tangia, couscous to zaalouk. It is a key component of many of the signature dishes of the region.

I've talked about the wonderful depth of flavour one can get with preserved lemon in my Lemon Risotto recipe. Historically, I've made an Indian version of preserved lemon, namely a modified Nimbu Ka Achar (not the sweet version), which has the additional flavourings of a smidge of cayenne and turmeric, giving the finished condiment a deeply burnished yellow appearance, and a lightly spicy fragrance from the additional seasonings.

Today, I decided to make a more classic version, because I've planned a lot of Moroccan recipes in the next few months. The lemons will take about a month to cure before I can use them, and will continue to get better and better after that.

Preserved Lemon

1 sealable 500 ml canning jar with a clean new seal

4 organic, unwaxed lemons
3 tablespoons coarse salt

Wash the lemons really well. If you have the misfortune to have access to waxed lemons only, you can clean them thusly: In a colander, pour boiling water over them to heat/loosen the wax. Immediately place them in a cool vinegar water bath. One lemon at a time, rub the wax off using a scrub made of baking soda and coarse salt on a damp, clean kitchen cloth. Rub and scrub and rinse under cool water, until the skin squeaks (like tupperware) when you rub it. Dry well and set aside. Or, you can google for a different wax removal system that suits you.

Fill your clean canning jar with boiling water, and let it stand. Let some of the water run over the inside of the lid, too, so it's best to do this in a clean basin or handy kitchen pan.

On a clean cutting board, slice three of the lemons lengthwise into eighths. Traditionalists leave the lemons joined at one end, that is to say, not cutting the whole way through, but I find it's quite hard to fit them all into the jar that way. So, I do one the traditional way, and the others I just slice into eighths. Discard any seeds.

Empty the boiled water from your jar. Sprinkle a little of the coarse in the bottom, and start layering your lemon wedges and salt into the jar, using all of the salt. If you are doing traditional lemons, connected at one end, pack some of the salt between the slices and into the middle. The lemons should just nicely fill up a 500 ml jar. Finally, take your last lemon, and squeeze the juice out. Discard the empty husks, and pour the juice over the salted lemon slices, and seal the jar. The juice will not cover the lemons, but rather will fill about half-way, depending on how juicy your lemons are.

That's pretty much all the work. Put the jar on a counter where you will see it every day, and once per day turn it upside down and back again, to make sure all the lemon gets bathed in the juice. After about four weeks, you can move it to the fridge, and you don't have to turn it anymore. Over time, the lemons will start to break down a bit, releasing more juice into the jar, and dissolving some of the pulp.

To use, unseal the jar and use a clean fork to extract however many segments you need. Re-seal the jar, and return to the fridge. I've kept one as long as a year and a half, with no signs of deterioration. The combination of salt and the extremely acidic environment seem to keep it from growing mould or unfriendly bacteria. That being said, food safety, folks. If something does go wrong with yours, and it starts growing something or smelling funky (in a bad way, because it does smell a bit funky in a good way already), use your judgment. I've never had one go bad on me, but I'm not ruling it out.

29 days to go...

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