As a half-Moroccan household, you would think I would have embraced cooking with preserved lemon much sooner than I did. Truth be told, I was a bit intimidated by preserved lemon. I didn’t know how to make it and thought a fresh lemon slice would suffice just fine as a substitute. I was very, very wrong.
The first time I encountered preserved lemon (l’hamed marakad in Moroccan Arabic) was on my second trip to Morocco. (On the first trip, true to Moroccan hospitality, the family didn’t let me anywhere near the kitchen, as a guest should not be helping out in there!). That next trip, I finally weaseled my way into the kitchen to observe my mother- and sister-in-law cook. My sister-in-law pulled a beat-up glass jar out of the drawer and dropped something slimy-looking into the chicken and olive dish on the stove.
What was that? I asked. She told me the name in Arabic, which was lost on me, opening the lid for me to peer in. I was skeptical. It looked old and like it had potentially been sitting in the drawer too long. What the hell was that?
Some weeks after, I was googling Moroccan recipes and there it was: preserved lemon. Having none on hand and in a hurry, I figured a slice of lemon would do. And that momentary, hurried decision became my go-to repertoire for Morocco cooking. Oh, preserved lemon? I just threw in a slice of fresh lemon, as if that was somehow ok, as if I wasn’t butchering a world-renowned cuisine.
I ignorantly followed along my own blind path of Moroccan cooking, too intimidated to try to make preserved lemon. How would I know if the lemons went bad? How much salt? Did I have to sterilize the jar? Do I add water?
My Moroccan babysitter, who has been a Godsend to our family, came to my rescue. In her first week on the job, she noticed I had no preserved lemon in the spice cabinet and promptly rectified that. And thanks to her, I learned just how easy it was to make.
1. Sliver some lemons in eighths.
2. Pour salt over a plate. Fully coat each side of the lemon slice in salt.
3. Drop into a clean jar that has been sterilized with boiling water and wiped 100% dry, with no drops of water. Pack the lemons firmly in there, pressing down each layer as you fill the jar. Once all the lemons are in the jar, sprinkle some more salt liberally in there.
4. Put the top on and then put a layer of plastic wrap with an elastic band over the top to secure it, ensuring no air seeps in.
5. Leave the lemons for at least 2 weeks, preferably longer, before you can use them.
6. The lemons can be stored in a cabinet at room temperature and will keep for months. I have noticed many recipes advocate refrigerating them, but I never refrigerated mine and they did not go bad and none of the Moroccans I know refrigerate theirs. So take your pick!
Some people put spices in with their preserved lemons such as cinnamon stick, cloves, coriander seeds or black peppercorns. I have yet to experiment with anything beyond just lemons.
courtesy © flickr
The absolute joy of being able to make my own preserved lemon (from Meyer lemons grown in our yard, which is doubly exciting) is that I have discovered it is not just for Moroccan cooking. And it goes without saying that it makes Moroccan dishes taste that much better. As I was cooking up some diced chicken tonight in olive oil, after sprinkling in my usual cumin (I add this to almost everything) and a dash of salt, I decided to experiment with one slice of preserved lemon, chopped finely. And oh my, did that make my normal chicken taste amazing! We used it for our gluten-free, dairy-free, tomato-free pizza. Yes I know that sounds like a poor excuse of a pizza, but my oldest daughter can not eat any of those things at the moment and guess what? It was really good! (We topped our gluten free crust with sweet potato hash, bite-size lemon chicken and chopped olives).
I can’t wait to explore what else goes well with preserved lemon. Do you have any suggestions?