If you close your eyes, you can imagine you are wending your way through the crowded streets of the casbah, with the camels and the open-air markets and the heady aroma of tagines cooking over charcoal fires. A bite of preserved lemon can do that to you, transport you to a land you have never seen or perhaps back to a land you once called home. It is the secret ingredient to cooking throughout North Africa but is especially associated with Morocco. Along with couscous, it is one of the foods that define the entire region. Preserved lemons are one of those ingredients that, the first time you try it, you ask, “What is that taste?” It is definitely like a lemon, but it has been wonderfully intensified. It’s like a super lemon.
Preserved lemons are readily available at Middle Eastern groceries, international groceries and specialty stores, but why buy them when you can make them yourself? All it takes are lemons, salt and patience.
Patience, because it takes a month for the salt to work its magic on the lemons. But during those four weeks your anticipation builds. You think about the taste that will await you when the lemons are ready, you start planning how to use them. You may even start to think that you are building them up too much in your mind.
Don’t worry about it. Preserved lemons exceed your expectations.
Preserved lemons create strong pops of flavor anywhere they are added; they are the ultimate condiment in that they work as an accent in support of the main part of the dish.
They are also incredibly versatile. Their skin can be used to add zip to hummus (typically, only the skin is used; the pulp is usually discarded). They could add an unforeseen element to grilled vegetables or be included in a stunning vinaigrette. They can add zest, as it were, to a salad or even be used in dessert.
But if there is one dish to which preserved lemons are forever connected, it is chicken tagine from Morocco. Traditionally, tagine (the food) is cooked in a tagine, an earthenware pot shaped like an upside-down funnel. The tagine pot is said to produce the best flavor in a tagine, but they can be pricey and have few or no other uses.
In their place, you can use a heavy skillet with a lid or even a shallow casserole dish that is suitable for the top of a stove.
A chicken tagine is basically a stew, with the most tender and delicious meat. What makes it a tagine are the spices: garlic, ginger, cinnamon, turmeric and cilantro, all cooked over a bed of thinly sliced red onions. All it needs are a couple of elements to provide a profile-altering counterpoint. A couple of handfuls of purple olives add salt and visual appeal, while the preserved lemons yield delicious bursts of piquant lemon flavor.
Preserved lemons are also a natural accompaniment to many seafood dishes. If regular lemons go well with seafood, as we know they do, preserved lemons can only be better.
With that more or less logical idea in mind, I decided to create a dish that would bring out the best in shrimp as well as preserved lemons.
I turned to some old favorites that always help shrimp find its potential: garlic, of course, and white wine, with just a bit of tomato for depth. And then I brought out the big gun, but just a little of it – Old Bay (or any similar seafood seasoning) helps shrimp taste the way shrimp are supposed to taste. And then I added the preserved lemons.
It was seriously good, with a clean, unsullied taste.
For dessert, I was blown away by the idea of a food website’s astonishing idea. It used preserved lemons in a semifreddo and cooled down the tartness with a basil simple syrup.
A semifreddo is a soft but frozen dessert, sort of like a frozen mousse if the mousse were partly made of ice cream. Adding preserved lemons to it is genius.
To make a semifreddo, you make whipped cream (it’s essential that it’s homemade) and add it to whipped egg whites, and then you gently fold in a flavoring. In this case, the flavoring comes from a little lemon zest and a preserved lemon.
If you wanted a fuller flavor, you could use the juice from the pulp as well as the skin. I was looking for subtlety in my semifreddo, so I went with the skin alone.
It was like eating a lemony cloud.