Preserved lemons

Preserved lemons

I think I first heard about preserved lemons watching Jamie Oliver cook a tagine on the rooftop in Marrakesh. Nici Wickes talked about them at the Food Show last year.  So I decided as part of my month of citrus madness, I'd bottle some.

It's super easy and you can do it too

Sterilise the jars just like you would when making jam or preserving fruit. Clean and cut the lemons, but not all the way through. What you want is to be able to shove course salt into the lemon, but for the lemon to hold together. I used about 8 tablespoons of course salt. Once the lemons were salted, I added another tablespoon of salt to the sterilised jar before pushing as many salted lemons as I could into the jar. I pressed the lemons in hard as I could and so they lost their lemon shape. It was about this time I thought I should've put more consideration the type of jar I was using. Turns out I was fine with the old pasta jars I used. As the preserved lemons end up being sliced for use in cooking, it's okay if they're all squished and deformed in the jar.  As I squished the lemons in I also added bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, and peppercorns. By the time I had shoved the last lemon into the jar, it was about half full of the lemon juice. I topped the jar up with cool, boiled water until it was overflowing, then screwed on the sterilised lids to seal. I've stored them in my cool, dark pantry, turning upside down/right side up every couple of days. The level of liquid dropped inside the jar, I suppose because the lemons absorbed the liquid. Store the preserved lemons at least  3 weeks before using, and keep in the fridge once opened. Apparently they're good for a couple of months after opening if kept in the fridge.

Now we have preserved lemons, what to do with them?

I used the preserved lemons in a tagine recently and really noticed an improvement in my usual tagine flavours. I don't have a traditional tagine dish, so use a heavy cast iron casserole that has a well fitting lid. My tagine recipe can be used with any meat, but with this one I used chicken. If you are lucky enough to have any saffron, drop a pinch to half a cup of boiling water and set aside to steep. It's not essential to the dish but, like the preserved lemons, it's going to add depth of flavour. Add 2 roughly chopped large onions into the pan on the stove, along with several crushed cloves of garlic, several glugs of olive oil, and stir over the heat until the onions are soft. Snuggle half a dozen chicken thighs onto the bed of onions. I buy the chicken thighs that still have their bones to add extra yummy flavour to the tagine.

Grab one of your preserved lemons and give it a rinse under the tap to get rid of the extra salt. Slice thinly and add to the pan along with a tablespoon of ginger, and a couple of tablespoons of cinnamon, saffron that has been sitting in the hot water, and a good cup of chicken stock, and a handful of freshly chopped coriander and parsley.

Pop the lid on the pot and turn the heat right down if you're going to continue to cook on the stove top, or pop into a slow oven (160 degrees Celsius) for about an hour. After an hour or so, add a hand full  of prunes and then cook for another half an hour. What you're doing is cooking long and slow, causing the steam to rise, condensate on the lid, and drip back down into the stew. This means the meat will stay moist and the tasty juices will all stay in the sauce.

Keep your nose peeled - if you can smell the dish starting to caramelise add some more water or stock liquid until the dish has finished cooking. It's way better to eat with liquid sauce or gravy otherwise it's a bit thick and tastes a bit strong. So yeh, keep an eye on the liquid level. Tagines are an exotic twist on stews, and is delicious and comforting to eat with couscous and some nicely steamed beans or broccoli and a sprinkle of fresh coriander and parsley.

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