Syrian Cuisine: Preserved Lemon

 

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One of the most indispensible ingredients in Middle-Eastern cuisine is preserved lemon, a must-have for so many dishes like tajines, hummus, stews, salads, couscous, grilled lamb and chicken, the list goes on and on. So many dishes from Syria and the Levant are improved, enriched and brightened up with this fantastic condiment that once you get used to cooking with them, you’ll want to chop up a little preserved lemon in almost everything you make.
This means you’ll want to have a jar of preserved lemon handy, and lucky for us all, making and keeping preserved lemons is ridiculously quick and easy. Caveat: you have to wait a month before using them, so why not make a batch today and enjoy them in early June and for the rest of the summer!

 

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Preserved lemons are quite simply, whole lemons preserved in salt and their own juices. They can be stored at room temperature in the fridge, so whenever you need a hit of tangy, salty lemony goodness, just take out a quarter lemon or two from the jar and chop them up, pulp, rind and all. (well, almost all; discard the seeds)

To make a pint of preserved lemons, start by sterilizing a 20-ounce mason jar and its lid. Immerse these in a large bowl of boiling water for a few minutes, then drain the water. Avoid touching the inside of the jar and lid. (Note: when you boil the water, save about half a cup and set aside, you may want it later to top up your jar)
Scrub 5 or 6 lemons with a brush and cut off the nub -the twig end of the lemon, slicing down to the end of the lemon as if halving it, but do not go all the way; leave about half an inch at the end of the lemon to hold it together. Now rotate the lemon 90 degrees and repeat, as if you were going to quarter the lemon. Again, leave half an inch at the end to keep the lemon in one piece.

Spread open up the sections wide enough so you can pour a teaspoon of Kosher or sea salt in between the cut lemon. Invert the lemon and press it into the bottom of the jar. Don’t be shy, you want to squeeze out a lot of the juice. Sprinkle a little more salt over this lemon. Now repeat the process, jamming one lemon on top of/beside the others until you have used up your lemons and the jar is mostly full. The juice from all the lemons should cover the fruit. If not quite, you can add some of the boiled water you reserved; if you want, add some aromatics like a stick of cinnamon, bay leaf, maybe some coriander or fennel seed.
And there it is. Put your jar on the shelf, for a few days, turning it over every now and then, then move the jar to the fridge if you wish. Don’t worry about spoilage; there is enough acid and salt in there to preserve a horse. In about a month your preserved lemons will be ready to use in your favourite Middle Eastern recipe.
Most recipes call for about a quarter or half a lemon; rinse it well, depending on how much salt you want to add to the dish, and use according to the recipe.

To get you started, here’s a great and easy recipe for hummus with preserved lemon. We add lemon to hummus anyway, but using preserved lemon takes it to another level!

Hummus with Preserved lemon

1 15 ounce can of chickpeas, (about 1 ½ cups)
4 tbsp tahini
¼ preserved lemon
1 clove garlic
3-4 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp za’atar 

Drain and rinse chickpeas and place in food processor. Add tahini, olive oil, and salt. Coarsely chop garlic and add. Rinse preserved lemon, and chop. You may wish to rinse it well, or lightly, depending on how much extra salt and brine you want. Add chopped preserved lemon and process until smooth. Stop the processor a few times and taste, adding extra brine if you want a more intense flavour. Serve with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of za’atar. Beautiful with warmed pita and or fresh vegetables.

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