In the four years we've been cooking together, the friends who make up the #1 Cooking Group have learned a great deal about each other. We know who tells great jokes, who dances to the music, who prefers red wine to white, who was a wild kid in college, who likes to wash dishes, who loves their job, who hates raw onions.
Like any family, we've also settled into some patterns in the kitchen. Lucia makes the biscuits, Mary minces the garlic, and Jessica is our go-to girl for salad dressings, hot sauce, kimchee, and preserved lemons. This month, we're pairing a few of her favorite recipes using preserved lemons with my collection of tagines, the conical cooking and serving pots of Morocco. For fun, we'll try at least one of the recipes in a regular Dutch oven or stockpot, to see whether the tagine really makes a difference. Jennifer's the only other group member who uses a tagine for cooking, as far as I know, so we'll be able to draw on her experience as well.
My idea is that when we get together to cook, we'll begin by looking at and tasting three batches of preserved lemons: Jessica's, which have been marinating for a month or more; a batch I started earlier today in a quart-size jar, that will have two weeks to pickle (but won't be ready to use in time for our cooking); and a third batch, of Paula Wolfert's Five-Day Preserved Lemons from Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco. Then we'll each make a jar of preserved lemons to take home.
There's really no substitute for preserved lemons, though some recipes suggest you can use fresh lemon juice or even lemon zest, but why substitute, when the real thing is so easy to make?
JESSICA'S PRESERVED LEMONS
Adapted from Paula Wolfert.
4 large lemons (preferably fairly thin-skinned), scrubbed (about 6 oz. each)
2/3 cup kosher salt
1 cup fresh lemon juice (from 5 large lemons)
Dry lemons well and cut each into 8 wedges. In a bowl toss wedges with salt, and pack them into a sterilized glass wide-mouth canning jar (with a plastic replacement lid, available in the grocery or hardware store where you buy canning jars). Once the jar is full, add enough lemon juice to cover the lemons (don't use bottled lemon juice, or water). Make sure the rim is free of salt or juice, and that the lid closes tightly. Let lemons stand at room temperature for seven days, shaking the jar each day to redistribute the salt and lemon juice. Add oil to cover lemons and store in the refrigerator, covered. The lemons will ripen in 30 days and can be stored up to six months.
Jessica adds: "No surprise — I have never weighed my lemons or measured the salt and lemon juice... I just toss a bunch of lemon chunks in the salt and start packing them into a pint jar. Once the jar is full, I fill with enough lemon juice to cover. The plastic tops for wide-mouth canning jars are excellent. They are much less likely to corrode from all the salt and acid."
According to Paula Wolfert, you can keep the juice after you've used the lemons, and start a new batch of lemons in the same jar. The pickling juice can be used two or three times over the course of a year, and then should be discarded.
You might see a kind of lacy white substance in the jar as the lemons mature. This is harmless and should be rinsed off for aesthetic reasons before you use the lemons. You'll be rinsing the lemons anyway, to remove the loose salt.
Experts differ on whether to use the flesh of the preserved lemons, or just the rind. Paula Wolfert says you can eat the flesh as well as the rind, but Tess Mallos, in Cooking Moroccan, explains that the flesh can be bitter so should be used sparingly, if at all.
One of my cookbooks, The New Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden, suggests making preserved limes in exactly the same way. We'll have to try that.