Though the process of pickling and fermenting has become increasingly trendy in both the US and the UK, the process was originally done as a means of frugality, using up as much of a resource as possible in as many ways. I cannot think of a culture or region of the world that doesn’t use some form of pickling, fermentation or preservation within their cuisine. Our palates were meant to enjoy and crave some of that salty, briny, bitter flavour in our diets, so it makes sense from both a biological as well as economical perspective to stick some sort of produce in salt and see what happens. And that’s kind of what I did here.
Prevalent in both North African and Middle Eastern cuisine and used in a variety of ways from soups to tagines to even medicinally, preserved lemons add a unique element of bitterness along with their sour element to a dish. Generally speaking bitter flavours are ones that often take some time to train our palates to enjoy, from bitter leaves like endive and kale, citrus peeks or even the pulp itself such as grapefruit, horseradish or wasabi that include both heat with a bitter taste, or certain hops in beers, it seems to me that an appreciation for bitter is likely to come with both age and exposure.
A bit over a month ago a friend and I (one I mentioned in an earlier post here) on one of our adventures came across the most intoxicating new-to-us restaurant, serving flavourful, thoughtful “Modern Day Jerusalem” food with influences from Southern Spain, North Africa and The Levant (Eastern Mediteranian). We both fell so in love with their version of a preserved lemons that I couldn’t help but ask one of their chefs how they made it. As if we were guests at a dinner party, one of the chefs sweetly talked me through what she did to create the best version of preserved lemons that I have had to date. Through out the rest of dinner, and on the train ride home I kept repeating her directions as a mantra; over and over in my head. When I woke up the next morning it was the first thing I thought about, and by the end of the day I had a covered glass jar of lemons, salt and olive oil sitting in my fridge. I’m not sure I’ve gotten it exactly as they do at Palomar, but this comes close to the bitter lemon nirvana I experienced there, and is enough to see me through until I get the chance to visit once again.
Preserved Lemon Purée
1 sterilised glass jar with seal tight lid
1-2 unwaxed lemons, sliced
2-3 teaspoons sea salt
enough olive oil to cover the tops of the lemons completely
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon cumin (ground or if using whole seeds toast first then crush in a mortar and pestle)
*If your jar fits more lemons, great! Just make sure to adjust the salt and seasoning accordingly.
Steralise your jar (I ran mine through the dishwasher and dried it completely)
Slice your lemons and alternating laying, followed with a sprinkle of salt until your jar is full and your lemons have been evenly coated. Then, fill the jar with olive oil until the lemons are completely covered. Replace your seal-tight lid, place in the back of the refrigerator and forget about it for a month or so.
When you absolutely cannot wait any longer, tip the contents of the jar into a food processor (you could also just do the lemons and reserve the oil for a thicker paste), add your paprika and cumin and blitz until fully combined and fairly smooth.
You can store this back in the jar in your refrigerator for a few weeks at least, just make sure there is always a layer of oil over the top to keep it from moulding. Play around with what you can add this too- I think this might be one of those staples that only becomes more interesting the longer you keep it around. Avocado toast, rice, hummus, artichokes, courgettes (both raw in a salad and cooked) chicken, lamb and fish have been some of our iterations with the stuff… but I’ve only just gotten started experimenting!