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Fresh lemons are a workhorse in my kitchen, finding their way into everything from ice cream and tarts, to bitters and homemade cheese, to my go-to household cleaner. In fact, I thought I'd pretty much exhausted my uses for lemons—that is, until a fall afternoon in 2006, when I met a friend for lunch at the then new-to-me Cafe Mogador in New York's East Village. She knowingly ordered us matching chicken tagines without even glancing at the menu. The dish was unlike anything I had ever tasted: intensely lemony, with a depth I couldn't place. It was so much more than the lemon chicken it appeared to be on the plate. I later learned that its unique flavor came from preserved lemons, which added an irresistible complexity to an otherwise straightforward chicken.
Boston chef Ana Sortun has a name for that: lemon umami. "Preserved lemons add a fermented quality that a regular lemon would not," she says. Sortun, who first encountered preserved lemons when she worked for the Tunisian-born chef Moncef Medeb some 22 years ago, was so taken with the condiment, and Eastern Mediterranean cooking in general, that she opened her own restaurant, Oleana, to honor the cuisine. Chef Michael Solomonov, best known for his landmark Philadelphia restaurant Zahav, agrees: "Sometimes it just doesn't cut it to squeeze a lemon on top of a dish, and that's when preserved lemons come into play. They add a big punch of flavor: heavy citrus, heavy floral notes from the oils in the peel, and ultimately heavy umami. It's that extra something in the background of a dish that piques your curiosity."
Israeli-born chef Einat Admony, of the Middle Eastern restaurant Balaboosta, in New York, is similarly effusive in her praise. For her, preserved lemons are, simply, "insane." So much so that she "literally uses them in everything."
So what is this lemon that is not quite a lemon—that is more than a lemon? Let's take a look.
Once Upon a Lemon
Originally, lemons were preserved for the same reason all things are preserved—to store and eat them past their season. Mary Ellen Snodgrass, author of the Encyclopedia of Kitchen History, traces their earliest reference to an 11th-century account of Arab Mediterranean cuisine (that is, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco). An actual recipe surfaces in the 12th-century Egyptian treatise, On Lemon, It's Drinking and Use, by the Arabic-speaking court physician Ibn Jumay. Jumay's recipe, now some nine centuries old, is—almost exactly—the recipe of today. According to Toby Sonneman's Lemon: A Global History, the recipe called for "slitting the fruit and filling the gashes with salt, then pressing them into a jar, covering with lemon juice and letting them ferment for weeks."
Over the past thousand years, these salt-cured lemons have made a meandering journey north and west, joining the cuisines of Israel, Iran, Turkey, and India. But it wasn't until far more recently that they began to appear in English-language cookbooks. Though there are cursory mentions in 18th century texts, like The Experienced English Housekeeper, preserved lemons were most likely introduced to American audiences in the mid 1970s, through Paula Wolfert's James Beard Hall of Fame cookbook, Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco, and Claudia Roden's subsequent A Book of Middle Eastern Food.
And yet, despite making their way into some American pantries forty-odd years ago, they have retained their aura of exoticism in the United States. Admony laughs as she tells the story of how, when she moved to New York in 1999 to work at Tabla, she showed her Tunisian-cum-Israeli style of preserved lemons to the restaurant's celebrated chef Floyd Cardoz—in her estimation, a master of spices—and his kitchen staff "had no clue; they had never seen them before."
While you're most likely to find preserved lemons in traditional preparations—Algerian couscous dishes fragrant with olives and raisins, Indian curries, Tunisian chickpea stews, and, yes, the Moroccan chicken tagine—they're a worthy addition to a wide spectrum of meals.
Salt and Patience
Depending on your neighborhood, or how far you're willing to travel, you can likely buy a jar of preserved lemons ready to eat. It's just as easy, however, to make them yourself. The simplest and most delicious method calls for nothing more than lemons, salt, and patience. (Our own take adds a touch of sugar for sweetness.) It goes like this: start with a handful of lemons. Cut each fruit into quarters lengthwise without slicing through the base and transfer them to a large bowl, tossing them with salt (and sugar, if adding), before covering and refrigerating them overnight. The next day, the lemons will have released quite a bit of liquid and you can transfer the entire contents of the bowl to a canning jar, pressing the lemons down firmly until they're completely submerged. Seal the jar tightly and store it in a cool place for a month or longer—this is one of those things that gets even better with age. The result is a lemon whose "texture is soft and flavor is deep," says Sortun, with a velvety peel and an intense yet mellow lemony character.
From there, the options are manifold. In On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee suggests that a solution of five to 10% salt is needed to achieve a good North African-style preserved lemon (as a reference, olives call for the same percentage). A proper Indian pickled lemon calls for double that amount, as well as turmeric, fenugreek seeds, and chili powder. Or take a tip from Sortun, who encourages you to make a batch with fragrant, sweet meyer lemons when they're season. You can also add cloves, mustard seed, or mace—just a few of the spices popularized by the British in the 19th century. Meanwhile, Admony uses a 70% salt to 30% sugar mix, and adds chili and paprika, for a smoky spicy twist, and turmeric, for color. She also lets her lemons ferment for a full three months. But if you're in a hurry, Paula Wolfert has a five-day pickled method. Admony notes that she's "even seen some chefs make a sous vide version in twelve hours" (which, she laughs, isn't as good as the real thing, but certainly works in a pinch).
Three months—or even one—may seem like quite the time investment, but being, well, preserved, the cured lemons will last in the back of your fridge for up to a year. And a little goes a very long way to adding that touch of umami and an alluring depth to your cooking.
You don't need to become an expert at couscous or find room in your kitchen for a stoneware tagine to make use of preserved lemons. Pluck one from the jar, rinse it off, and add it to everything that calls for lemon—and everything that doesn't. (As Paula Wolfert notes in her headnote on preserved lemons, "fresh lemons are never an adequate substitute" in recipes that call for the preserved variety, though preserved lemons are a fine—perhaps better!—substitute in recipes calling for fresh.)
Swap out regular lemons for preserved ones in your go-to recipes for roast chicken and fish, or grilled meats—you can start with this recipe for preserved lemon chicken with chervil gremolata. For an easy weeknight meal, toss pasta with some good olive oil, a little garlic, and chopped preserved lemon peel. Impress your friends at brunch by mixing a little of the zesty preserving liquid into Bloody Marys and swirling chopped peel into yogurt with a little honey. And impress them again at dinner by adding a twist to the peel to your martini. Use preserved lemons to liven up potato or grain salads, like this farro and white bean one, or to enhance your salad dressing, hummus, or even, Admony suggests, guacamole. Solomonov even likes to freeze his, and then grate the peel for granita. (He also adds a pro tip: don't toss the leftover preserving liquid: instead, "sprinkle it on vegetables or fish before baking. It ups the ante and brings out all of its surrounding flavors.") Or follow North African tradition and simply put a bowlful out on the dinner table—it might just become your newest favorite condiment.