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 SuperLemon.
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, as we shall see. Some local restaurants offer them on pizzas.
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.
CHICKEN TAGINE WITH PRESERVED LEMON
Yield: 4 servings
1 teaspoon saffron threads
3 garlic cloves, minced
1- 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 (3 1/2-pound) chicken, cut into quarters
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium red onions, sliced lengthwise
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon lime juice
4 tablespoons chopped cilantro, divided
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 preserved lemons
1/2 cup purple Moroccan or Greek olives
1. Lightly toast saffron in a dry, small, heavy skillet over moderately low heat, shaking skillet, until just fragrant, about 1 minute. Transfer to a small dish, let cool, then crumble with fingers.
2. With a mortar and pestle, mash chopped garlic and 1/2 teaspoon salt to a paste.
3. In a large bowl, toss chicken with oil, onions, ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, lime juice, 3 tablespoons of the cilantro, the remaining 1 teaspoon of salt, pepper and reserved saffron.
4. Separate the chicken from the onions and spread the spiced onions across the bottom of a 12-inch tagine, 12-inch heavy, covered skillet or a shallow, covered casserole. Place the chicken on top. Cut the preserved lemons into quarters and scrape the pulp from the peel. Coarsely chop the pulp and sprinkle over the chicken. Cut the peel into 1/2-inch pieces, and reserve.
5. Add 3/4 cup water to tagine, skillet or casserole, cover and bring to a simmer. Cook 30 minutes, until chicken is almost cooked through. Check occasionally toward end of cooking time to be sure tagine is not dry, adding more water if necessary to keep meat from burning and sticking to pot. Add olives and simmer, covered, 10 minutes longer until chicken is cooked through. Just before serving, sprinkle with preserved lemon peel, remaining cilantro and salt to taste.
Per serving: 600 calories; 38g fat; 9g saturated fat; 165mg cholesterol; 55g protein; 10g carbohydrate; 3g sugar; 3g fiber; 1,155mg sodium; 80mg calcium.
-- Recipe from Gourmet magazine.
SHRIMP WITH PRESERVED LEMONS
Yield: 4 servings
1 preserved lemon
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 small tomato, cut into chunks
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/8 teaspoon (2 pinches) Old Bay or other seafood seasoning
1 bay leaf
Salt and peper
1 pound shrimp, shelled and deveined
1. Scrape pulp away from skin of preserved lemon and discard pulp. Chop skin into 1/4-inch squares and reserve.
2. Heat oil over medium-high heat in a large, heavy skillet. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute (toss occasionally to keep garlic from burning). Add tomato, wine, Old Bay, bay leaf and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer 3 to 5 minutes, occasionally pressing down on tomatoes with spoon or spatula to help soften them.
3. Add shrimp and reserved preserved lemon skin. Cook, stirring occasionally, until shrimp is fully cooked, about 3 minutes. Remove bay leaf and serve immediately.
Per serving: 165 calories; 5g fat; 1g saturated fat; 180mg cholesterol; 20g protein; 4g carbohydrate; 1g sugar; 1g fiber; 820mg sodium; 90mg calcium.
-- Recipe by Daniel Neman
Preserved Lemon Semifreddo with Basil Syrup
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
1 small preserved lemon
Zest of 1/2 lemon (not preserved)
1 cup granulated sugar, divided
3 egg whites
1-1/3 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil, about 10 leaves
1. Spray an 8- or 9-inch loaf pan with nonstick spray and line it with aluminum foil or 2 large pieces of plastic wrap, which hang over the sides of the pan.
2. Thoroughly rinse the preserved lemon and scrape the pulp away from the skin. If you want more of a lemon taste, extract the juice from the pulp by pushing it through a fine mesh sieve into a bowl. Discard the remaining pulp. Finely chop the skin.
3. Make a lemon simple syrup by placing the chopped skin, the extracted juice (if using), the lemon zest, 1/2 cup sugar and 1/4 cup water in a small saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat just until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is clear. Strain the syrup through a fine-mesh sieve to remove the lemon pieces; retain both the lemon pieces and the syrup.
4. Whip the cream until it forms soft peaks. Set aside in the refrigerator.
5. In a clean mixer bowl, mix the egg whites on high until they begin to hold a shape. Lower the speed to medium-low and slowly pour in the lemon syrup. Turn the speed back to high and beat until the whites are glossy and doubled in volume, about 5 or 6 minutes.
6. Carefully fold in the lemon pieces and then the whipped cream. Spoon the mixture into the prepared loaf pan and cover with the overhanging plastic wrap. Freeze at least 6 hours or overnight (it will keep in the freezer for up to 3 days).
7. While the semifreddo is freezing, make a basil syrup by placing the remaining 1/2 cup sugar, the basil and 1/3 cup water into a small saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat until sugar dissolves and the mixture is clear. Allow to come to room temperature, and blend in a blender until the syrup is flecked with green.
8. To serve, invert the semifreddo onto a serving platter and remove the plastic. Slice into thick planks and drizzle with the basil syrup.
Per serving: 195 calories; 12g fat; 7g saturated fat; 20mg cholesterol; 2g protein; 22g carbohydrate; 20g sugar; no fiber; 30mg sodium; 25mg calcium.
-- Recipe adapted from Kerry Saretsky in SeriousEats.com