Preserved Lemons: A Condiment Equivalent to that Perfect Little Black Dress
Venturing into the Unknown and Suspect
Around the same time, I came across a recipe for Moroccan chicken that called for preserved lemons as an ingredient. A vegan acquaintance raved about these lemons as a staple in her diet in salads, vinaigrettes, and anything else she felt needed some zing.
She made preserved lemons sound like the perfect little black dress, good dressed up or down, with a few different accessories. So I decided to try on some preserved lemons in my life. It marks the pursuit of something new, a shift in moving away from a Midwestern diet to other diets that are lighter or provide more interesting nutrients.
My Egyptian uncle-in-law once picked his California grown lemons off the tree in his yard and pickled them like his mother used to do. He let me try them, and I enjoyed the pleasantly explosion of sweetness vying with sourness in my mouth from one slice of that lemon. It perked me up almost in the same way a good espresso does. The pickling solution was familiar, and so those lemons fell within my comfort zone.
A fully brined lemon though, sounded overpowering and maybe in some ways unhealthy, like a high blood pressure producer. Despite this thought, I put aside that bias in order to learn something about authentic flavors in Moroccan cuisine. I wanted a new staple in my refrigerator ‘wardrobe’ that I could mix and match with more things and feel great about it.
I bought Meyer lemons for the preserved lemon experiment, because they are simply beautiful. I spent a month staring at a jar full of them, turning it over multiple times. I probably let them go a month longer than needed over the summer when I didn’t cook much at all, except for a couple dinner parties. By the end of August, they had become soft, almost supple on the interior, and their skins were pleasantly edible in small doses.
The beginning of fall signaled the beginning of an annual food rut, a routine of lemon-roasted chickens, steaks, pork chops, mac and cheese and occasional uncured hot dogs to please our toddler more often than we would like and plain quinoa. Sometimes for chefs, it’s harder to think of what to cook at home than in the restaurant or for classes.
Outfit #1 Dressing: A two step vinaigrette
Even though I used Meyer lemons which are typically sweeter than more common lemons, the sourness and the salt packed a punch, made my face pucker and eyes squint. I chopped up only one quarter of a lemon and just added extra virgin olive oil to it, no vinegar, no salt. The sour and salt were already there.
The dressing worked in a simple arugula salad with a little parmesan cheese. It was both perfect and convenient and a great-end-of summer, no hassle, no heat way to use the preserved lemons. It was also not at all intimidating. Sometimes it’s the low hanging fruit that makes us feel most successful.
If you start small with a new ingredient, you have a better idea of what to expect of it later.
Outfit #2 Casual Quinoa
I finally got to the place where I was bored of my quinoa and wondered whether those lemons lurking in my fridge could help. I had added tomatoes and avocado often and then eaten quinoa with lentils, ham, calamata olives, cucumbers, herbs, and almost everything else.
I had some pistachios that my family deemed too salty to eat handfuls of for snacks, but like any good Advanced Garde Manger instructor, I thought to myself, “What if I treated this salty pistachio like a dried, crunchy olive?”
Quinoa is bland on its own and needs salt, so I used up the pistachios and added color and zing with the preserved lemons. This dish works as a great, casual side dish to serve a crowd or just you. It’s also a quick and easy vegetarian meal of complementary proteins that is ready in approximately 16 minutes.
Ratio-wise, I will use approximately one cup of pistachios to two quarters of a preserved lemon when I use 1 cup of uncooked quinoa, cooked according to instructions, with Himalayan pink salt to taste.
Outift #3 The Dressed Bird
After I got more comfortable “trying on” the taste of preserved lemons, I tried a more advanced application that committed to the preserved lemon as an critical ingredient, a Moroccan chicken dish. In the notes of the author, there’s a warning not to try it with regular lemons, because it just won’t be the same. The Moroccan chicken recipe was the reason I made the preserved lemons in the first place, but, I was actually chicken myself and wasn’t sure I was going to like the cinnamon in it with the citrus.
I appreciated too, that this recipe made me use my mortar and pestle that I haven’t had a chance to use in over 18 years.
The interesting thing is that once the lemon is preserved, it carries more umami taste within it than the sour taste that you might expect. It gains depth from the experience of brining, like it has aged well.
I’m happy with this new condiment/ingredient and I’m ready to try it with fish, maybe on a pizza, maybe in a cream cheese spread, or a pie crust or something else. It’s a versatile ingredient and delivers the confidence and flexibility in your refrigerator repertoire as much as your wardrobe’s perfect little black dress.
Here are a few final tips to any interested newcomers to preserved lemons:
A little goes a long way/less is more
Generally speaking, mincing or fine dicing the preserved lemons and incorporating them into a final dish will allow the lemon flavor to enhance it. It may be that the Garde Manger class of students prepared the preserved lemons perfectly. But, if they imagined that they were going to eat a well-balanced, pickled lemon, they would have rightly spit it out.
The whole is better than the sum of its parts
By contrast, in preparation, the whole is better than the sum of its parts. By this, I mean that photos of preserved lemons are often shown sliced thinly, but so many of the recipes for preserved lemons require that the lemons are almost fully quartered lengthwise, except that they are attached at the bottom end to hold the salt that is subsequently packed in between the four quarters. Thinly sliced preserved lemons might tend to disproportionately higher amounts of salt.
Patience and Planning for Preserved Lemons
Plan to use your preserved lemons, and plan to wait to use them. You need to plan to have the Moroccan chicken meal four weeks before you are going to make it, so that the lemons can cure. I prefer to use Meyer lemons or organic lemons since the peels are typically eaten.
As for the Moroccan Chicken, I’ve modified the recipe below to make it easier to manage. This recipe is great to serve for a family meal and can also be used when you are inviting people who appreciate depth of flavor in foods.
I think the browning step is worth addition, though maybe it’s not authentically Moroccan this way. The original recipe calls for a whole chicken which is always so nice (My whole family loved it.), but the breast meat is always a little drier than the dark meat. Instead, I’ve substituted chicken thighs and drumsticks for the whole chicken below.
- 9 meyer lemons, almost quartered lengthwise, but still attached on one end, seeds removed
- 8 Tablespoons plus 2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 quart of boiling water
- 1 quart glass canning jar, sterilized in boiling water with lids as per directions from manufacturer
- Place 2 teaspoons of salt in the bottom of the sterilized canning jar.
- Pack one tablespoon into each cross section of each of the 8 meyer lemons.
- Close the open ends tightly to encase the salt.
- Pack each lemon into the jar tightly.
- Press each layer of lemons down hard until jar is full.
- Squeeze remaining lemon over all the lemons.
- Sprinkle 1/2 teaspoon of salt on top.
- Fill jar with boiling water.
- Close the jar tightly and keep at room temperature for one full day, then refrigerate for at least one month.
- I left out the lemons out at room temperature for most of a full day. Although traditionally these lemons are left out to ferment for at least three weeks, I refrigerate them at the end of that first day. The breakdown of the lemons takes longer, a full month or more, but it still happens.
- I found it difficult to prevent the last lemon from floating upward and creating some space within the jar. I refrained from cramming another one in that might be above the water line and did turn the jar upside down at one point during the first full day. I then shook up the water periodically over the next month without opening the jar.
- 3-4 Tablespoons olive oil
- 1 yellow onion, finely diced
- 3 large garlic cloves
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- large pinch of saffron threads
- 5 chicken drumsticks
- 5 thighs
- 3 cups chicken stock
- 3/4 cups calamata olives, briefly rinsed with water
- 1 preserved lemon, rinsed and finely diced
- large bunch of cilantro, finely chopped
- large bunch parsley (optional)
- salt and pepper to taste
- Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and in a small, oven proof dish, toast the saffron threads for approximately 7 minutes until aroma can be detected.
- Increase heat of oven to 350 degrees.
- Season the chicken with salt and pepper to your preferences.
- In a large braising pan over high heat, sear the chicken in 3 Tablespoons of oil to brown the skin. Remove chicken with tongs and set aside.
- Add onions to the oil and add remaining tablespoon of oil as needed.
- Sauté onions until translucent.
- Stir in all spices and garlic to the onions and cook for an additional three minutes.
- Remove onion mixture and reserve in a bowl.
- Add chicken stock and chicken to braising pan.
- Spread onion mixture over the chicken.
- Cover the braising pan and place it in the preheated oven.
- Braise in oven for 1 hour and 15 minutes, turning chicken pieces over three times during cooking.
- Remove pan from oven and quickly add in calamata olives and diced preserved lemon.
- Return the pan to the oven to cook the chicken for another 15 minutes.
- Remove chicken from braising pan to platter and keep warm.
- Reduce braising liquid in pan almost to a glaze like consistency.
- Pour braising liquid over chicken.
- Sprinkle with cilantro and parsley to garnish.
- Serve warm.
- Note, we only used cilantro and found that this was a great dish to use up ingredients like calamata olives, and cilantro that we had in our refrigerator after making a tapenade one night and having enchilada night on a different night. This dish would also be good with artichoke hearts, for a fusion spin.