When life gives us lemons, we should make lemonade. But what if those lemons have been salted?
Preserved lemons have become a relatively common sight in British cupboards and fridges as our exposure to and interest in north African food has increased. Let’s call it the Roden-Henry-Ottolenghi-Ghayour effect. That said, I bet for many of us the common sight is of a mostly full jar, untouched for several months since being unsealed for a specific recipe, and another unopened jar in the cupboard, purchased because you forgot about the open one in the fridge.
This ingredient is exactly what the name says: the result of a centuries-old process of preserving lemons through salting, for the dual benefit of avoiding the wastage of a glut and harnessing a flavour until long after the harvest is over.
They’re not simply salty, though. For the first two to three weeks after being packed into a jar, the salted lemons will have been left somewhere warm to gently ferment. In addition to making the fruit less hospitable to spoiling bacteria, this process breaks down the sugars, starches and citric acid, which is why the resulting flavour characteristics are floral and, well, lemony, as opposed to being intensely acidic and sweetly tart as fresh lemons are. Over time they also seem to develop umami—‘the fifth taste’—which is why preserved lemons are often described as adding ‘depth’ to recipes.
Many recipes for making preserved lemons will call for the fruits to be cut into wedges or slices, or for slits to be made and those openings to be packed with salt. For me, when the flesh has been exposed, the end product is too salty, too soapy, and some of the supposed ‘lemony flavour’ is obscured. I wonder if this particular method was developed in response to the specific fruits used, European lemons being particularly large with a thick layer of pith. I think the more interesting and indeed more palatable preserved lemons are still whole, made from fairly small and thin-skinned fruit. The Moroccan variety stocked by Fitz Fine Foods is a good example, and Arabica’s baby Egyptian lemons are even cuter (as the name suggests).
Anyway, back to how to use them. It hardly needs to be said that preserved lemons are a vital flavouring in many north African and Middle Eastern-inspired tagines, stews and tray bakes. Perhaps the main thing worth noting in this context is that the lemons can be used in different ways to different effect—try, for example, seasoning a dish by just popping a lemon in whole (as you might a stick of cinnamon or bay leaf), rather than slicing or dicing. If you’ve also got a rogue bunch of coriander to hand, consider harnessing the two bold flavours, along with garlic and chilli, to create a marinade known as chermoula. It’s particularly good with fish. Again, though, perhaps this north African relish was the reason you bought that underused jar to begin with.
For more spontaneous moments, you can use preserved lemons in many of the situations that you might consider adding a little fresh zest and juice. Scrape out the flesh and chop up the pith before stirring the lemons into lentils, couscous, barley, spelt or wheatberries; add dices or slices to mixes of minced lamb or spinach and feta and stuff into a filo-shrouded parcel or pie; use as the aromatic base for a herby sauce or salsa to embellish chicken, beef, white fish or fresh cheeses like burrata, soft goat’s cheese and baked ricotta.
Preserved lemon immediately transports familiar accompaniments to an exotic place. That said, I actually think that the best results come when the preserved lemons supplement rather than replace fresh lemons—the flavour profile that you get by using both is most alluring.
One final thing: consider making Vietnamese chanh muôiI. Add a wedge of salted lemon to a glass, muddle with a spoon and top with soda water and ice. Ladies and gentlemen, when life gives you preserved lemons, make preserved lemon lemonade.
Cod and courgette fries with a preserved lemon salsa
An alternative take on fish and chips, emboldened by an aromatic and floral preserved lemon salsa.
- 4 x 140-160g fillet cod (10 mins at 180C fan)
- 80-100g preserved lemons
- 1 large garlic clove
- 150ml extra virgin live oil
- Leaves picked from 10 stems flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
- Leaves picked 10 sprigs mint, finely chopped
- 40g kalamata olives, stoned and roughly chopped
- tablespoon of capers, roughly chopped
- 1 teaspoon caster sugar
- Zest and juice half a lemon
- For the courgette fries
- 700g medium-large courgettes (2-3)
- 100g plain flour
- 400ml sunflower oil
- Sea salt and black pepper
Rinse and then quarter the preserved lemons. Scoop out the flesh and set the peel to one side. Roughly chop the flesh then scrape it, with any juices, into bowl. Add 60ml of the extra virgin olive oil plus the minced garlic and stir well. Massage half of this paste over the cod fillets and place them in the fridge for at least 30 minutes while you prepare the rest of the meal, or up to two hours if you’re doing this in advance of eating.
Finish making the preserved lemon salsa by finely dicing the preserved lemon peel and adding this to the flesh and oil paste, along with the remaining 90ml of extra virgin olive oil, plus the chopped herbs, olives, capers, sugar and the fresh lemon zest and juice. The salsa should be relatively loose, so pour in more olive oil if required. Taste and add a pinch more sugar or lemon juice if you think it needs it.
Use a julienne peeler or spiraliser to create a tangled mound of courgettes. Place them in a colander, add a pinch of salt, toss and leave sat on a plate for 20 minutes, during which time a little moisture should be drawn out. Pat out further moisture using a clean tea towel.
When ready to cook, heat the oven to 180C fan, 200C, gas mark 6. Pour the sunflower oil into a wok and set over a high heat.
Spread the flour over a small tray or large plate, season with salt and pepper, then toss the courgettes through it, ensuring the strands are well covered and don’t clump together. When the oil is 160-170C, or a courgette strand bubbles and browns when dropped in, add a sizeable tong-ful of courgettes to the wok. Separate the strands in the oil, again to prevent clumping. You will need to do this in 2-3 batches to avoid lowering the oil’s temperature too much. It will take around 4 minutes to achieve crisp courgette fries which are just beginning to turn golden at the edges. Remove and place on a sheet of kitchen paper to absorb a little oil. Season while repeating with a second and possibly third batch.
When the first batch of courgettes are frying, place the cod fillets on a baking tray and bake for 9-10 minutes, removing to rest for 2 minutes while the final batch of courgettes are fried. (If the first batches of fries seem to be cooling too much at this point, place them on a baking sheet and in the bottom of the oven as the cod rests).
When the last batch of courgettes are fried and seasoned, peel the skin off the cod fillets and serve them with a tangled heap of courgette fries, and a heavy spoonful of the preserved lemon salsa.