Lemons With a Twist


Photo by achichi/Flickr CC

Two years ago, the only time I'd have eaten pickled (or preserved) lemons was if I was eating out at a Moroccan restaurant. But as I've come to enjoy and appreciate the beauty of these--one of the like 22 really great things we're getting from the Mahjoub family--I've started to use them with ever greater frequency to the point where they've actually evolved into a steady staple in my kitchen. They're just one of those things you can keep in the cabinet and add to all sorts of dishes whenever you want to contribute a little extra character to your meal.

If you're not already familiar with them, pickled lemons are a staple of North African cookery. People who've traveled to Morocco will certainly have had them there, and it turns out folks in Tunisia rely them on as well. The pickled lemons are the latest--after the harissa, couscous, wild orange marmalade, sauces, capers, olives, etc.--of their foods to catch my attention.

I want to say that the lemons are like a second sun to Tunisian cooking, coming up quietly, but actually really brightly, behind that spicy red, sun-dried harissa that I'm so hooked on. Majid Mahjoub says, "Preserved lemon and harissa are the principal protagonists of the Tunisian cuisine! Both of them have their roots deeply in our nation's heart and soul!" Either way, the point is that while harissa is clearly the lead, preserved lemons aren't exactly laying around waiting for life to happen to them. They're a pretty prominent piece of Tunisian cooking and their tart, terrific brightness brings a really unique bit of flavor to anything you add them to.

You can, of course, actually make these lemons at home too if you're up for it. Paula Wolfert has written extensively about them in Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco. The Mahjoubs pack these handpicked Tunisian lemons into barrels with sea salt, then leave the covered barrels in the sun for over six months for the lemons to cure. As with most all their products, this is the way the work has been done for centuries.

Personally I'm good with letting the Mahjoubs to do the work for me--given the quality of their work, all I have to do is buy a jar, take it home, open it, and then cut a lemon into cubes to use in salads, sauces, pastas, scallops, chicken, or really pretty much anything I like. Sliced and stuffed into, over, or under fresh fish of all sorts before roasting or broiling is excellent. They're great on the sandwich tunisienne--tuna, harissa, olive oil, olives, capers, and chopped up bits of the preserved lemon on a baguette. I'm tempted to try using them instead of fresh lemons in the Lex's Chicken Recipe that's in the Guide to Good Eating--if you beat me to the punch, let me know how it comes out.

The bottom line of these lemons is that they add a really great little bit of zip and zest to whatever you put 'em into. A couple of folks who write a lot about North African cooking have referred to them as their "secret ingredient." Which makes sense to me--as with the harissa, they've got a flavor that's familiar enough for me to be comfortable with it (chiles, olive oil, and spices in the harissa; lemons here), but the preparation is so amazingly unique--Tunisian twists on what seems like it should be "everyday eating" that I get to use at home to take my cooking into a really different, kind of familiar, but then again totally new, playing field.

I've eaten them a few times in the last couple weeks cut into small pieces then tossed with just cooked pasta (Rustichella fettucine and Martelli spaghetti are high on my list for this) with fish--swordfish, scallops, or even tinned sardines or anchovies if you're working in a pinch out of the pantry. The pickled lemons are also a great garnish for a Bloody Mary--add the Mahjoubs spicy, sun-dried harissa sauce to tomato juice, and then serve with a wedge of pickled lemon lying on top. Hard to go wrong if you like the lift that the lemons give.

Long story short, the lemons are one of the easiest ways I know to add a lot of life to your cooking for a really minimal amount of work, and this time of year in particular I'm always up for a little extra zest and brightness!