In 1987, on a visit to what I call the Holy Land, I ate what is still the best salad of my life.
I was dining at a small outdoor restaurant in Bethlehem, Palestine, on the West Bank, at the far edge of the city’s main square, Manger Square (yes, that is the name), The salad that I had ordered arrived: no more than the largest flat-leaf parsley leaves I’d ever seen, simply dressed, with rings of shallot and slivers of lemon peel.
But not ordinary lemon peel. These were the yellow exclamation points of the thin peels of preserved lemons, something that I had not eaten before. They were terrifically delicious, slightly salty, very lemony, with all typical lemony tartness pickled away.
Preserved lemons are ubiquitous throughout the cooking of the Middle East and Northern Africa (especially Morocco and Tunisia). I am not sure why we have not taken to them; perhaps they remain too strange or exotic.
But preserving lemons is easy and they last a half year (or more), refrigerated. Their uses are legion and they add so much more to foods and cooking than the measure of the effort taken to preserve them.
They brighten a parsley salad (needless to say), but also any acid-and-oil salad dressing that might come to mind. Their meat and rind are the spine to chermoula, the marinade and relish (especially for fish dishes) that is the chimichurri or salsa verde of North Africa. But clearly, fish and lemon are destined for each other!
In their most recognized epiphany, preserved lemons are sine qua non for any chicken dish throughout much of those same Mediterranean and Levantine countries. You also will find them there in tabbouleh and other grain-based preparations, so they would migrate seamlessly to our cooked quinoa, prepared pasta or risotto.
In short, whenever you seek to add vibrancy, color, a bit of saltiness or the tang of acidity to a dish, see if some preserved lemon might do the trick. I tell you that it will.
Paula Wolfort’s Seven-Day Preserved Lemons
From epicurious.com; Wolfort is an American cookbook writer. Makes 32 wedges.
4 large (about 6 ounces each) lemons, preferably thin-skinned such as Meyer or “sweet” lemons, scrubbed
2/3 cup coarse salt
1 cup fresh lemon juice (from about 5 large lemons)
Dry lemons well and cut each into 8 wedges. In a bowl toss wedges with salt and transfer to a glass jar (about 6-cup capacity). Add lemon juice and cover jar with a tight-fitting glass lid or plastic-coated lid.
Let lemons stand at room temperature for 7 days, shaking jar each day to redistribute salt and juice. Add oil to cover lemons and store, covered and chilled, up to 6 months.
Parsley, Shallot and Preserved Lemon Salad
Serves 4 as a side salad. Use flat-leaf parsley with the largest leaves possible.
1 large or 2 medium bunches flat-leaf (“Italian”) parsley
1 large shallot (about the size of half a stick of butter)
6 wedges preserved lemon (about 3/4 whole lemon)
1 large clove garlic, minced
1/3 to 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper (black pepper OK)
Wash the parsley very well, dry it and separate the leaves from the stems, keeping them loose and dry. Peel and slice the shallot into rings as thin as possible (use a mandoline if you have one). In a bowl, submerge the rings in very cold water, let soak for 30 minutes, remove and pat dry with paper toweling. Toss them with the parsley leaves.
“Filet” the lemon wedges, separating the flesh from the peel and slice the peel into very thin slivers. Mince any peel not so slivered and add it to the minced garlic.
Make a vinaigrette of the minced garlic and peel, any juice squeezed from the lemon flesh, the olive oil and the ground pepper. If the vinaigrette needs more acid, add juice from the jar of preserved lemons or squeezes of fresh lemon juice. (You won’t need to add salt to the vinaigrette; enough comes by way of the preserved lemon juice.)
Dress, to the level of your liking, the parsley leaves and shallot rings in the vinaigrette and let sit for 30 minutes to blend the flavors, then serve.
Chermoula (using the juice from preserved lemons)
Makes 1 cup or slightly more; use as a marinade or relish for fish.
3/4 cup loosely packed flat-leaf parsley leaves
3/4 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed orange juice
1 tablespoon juice from preserved lemons
1 tablespoon preserved lemon flesh and rind, very finely chopped
1 teaspoon powdered cumin
1 teaspoon hot paprika powder
1/2 teaspoon coriander seed
1/8 teaspoon each: saffron, cinnamon, ground red pepper
Chop roughly (or process, but only roughly, in the bowl of a food processor) the greens, garlic and ginger. Add the remaining ingredients and blend well. You should have a rough but runny paste. Stores well, refrigerated, and is best made ahead so that the flavors blend and develop.
Reach Bill St. John at [email protected]