Make Your Own Easy Preserved Lemons: Little Condiment, Big Flavor

Pickled lemons are popular in North Africa and South Asia. Try them with this wholesome kale and potato salad.

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Potato, soft-boiled egg, sardines and kale salad with preserved lemon aioli.
Potato, soft-boiled egg, sardines and kale salad with preserved lemon aioli. Credit: Vered Guttman
Vered Guttman
Vered Guttman

With spring just around the corner, it’s a good time to preserve lemons. It’s true we can find fresh lemons year round, but like other citrus, the fruit is at its peak during winter. 

Preserved lemons are common in North African and South Asian cuisines. The method for all is similar and simple, and all you need are lemons and salt for the basic recipe. Lemons are sliced and salted, then tightly inserted into a sterilized jar and covered with lemon juice. Indian recipes call for fenugreek, cumin and mustard seeds, as well as ginger, garlic and hot peppers to make a spicy seasoned version, while the Moroccan and Tunisian versions are purely lemon flavored. In Israel, there are many versions that include paprika and olive oil, or a mixture of filfil chuma, also called pilpel chuma – a paprika-garlic-oil condiment – that add an irresistible flavor to the lemons.

It’s hard to even begin describing why you should preserve lemons and how versatile and taste enhancing they are. Traditionally they’re used in tajines and stews, but pickled lemons work extremely well with grilled fish, as a salsa mixed with chopped cilantro and olive oil. Or try them chopped and mixed inside a basic tuna salad, in a nod to the famous Tunisian sandwich of tuna, hard-boiled egg, harissa and pickled lemon. They can be mixed into tabbuleh and couscous, or into aioli (over warm potatoes, there’s nothing better!) and you can try them also in this salad.

Although home-made preserved lemons truly taste best, thanks to their growing popularity, they can be bought ready-made not only in Middle Eastern markets but also at many branches of Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. However, you will notice that commercial lemons are preserved usually in vinegar and citric acid, not in lemon juice. Start with the store-bought variety if you don't want to wait a month for the lemons to pickle. Otherwise, follow the recipe below to make your own homemade pickled lemons. And try the recipe for fingerling potato, soft-boiled egg, kale and sardines in preserved lemon aioli below.

Pickled lemons

This quantity will fill a 1-quart glass jar. Sterilize the jar with boiling water.

5-6 lemons, preferably organic, scrubbed and washed 
3/4 cup kosher salt
2 tablespoons sugar
About 1 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (5-6 lemons)

1.    Choose one of the following two ways to pickle your lemons. It is extremely important to use lemons that are clean and completely dry, to avoid any mold.
2.    One option is to slice lemons into 1/4 inch thick slices, removing seeds as you go. Mix salt and sugar in a small bowl. Arrange lemons slices tightly in the jar, sprinkling with the salt and sugar after each slice. Make sure the jar is filled to the top.
3.    Alternately, quarter lemons almost all the way, leaving the wedges attached at the bottom. Mix salt and sugar in a small bowl. Fill each lemon with about 2 tablespoons of the salt and sugar, and arrange tightly in the jar. Add any leftover and salt and sugar to the jar.
4.    Let the jar stand in a dark place in the kitchen for 3 days, shaking the jar once a day. Lemons will release juice.
5.    After 3 days, top with enough lemon juice to cover the lemons completely. Close the jar and let stand for 3-4 weeks in a dark and cool place. Preserved lemons will keep for a few months, but move them to the fridge after opening the jar.

Potato, soft-boiled egg, sardines and kale salad with preserved lemon aioli

A full meal in a bowl, this is the perfect weeknight dinner.

The aioli recipe makes more than you would need for this dish. It keeps in the fridge in a sealed container for up to two days.

Riga Sprats are smoked preserved fish that are available at Russian supermarkets. Use sardines in olive oil if they’re easier to find.

Serves 4 as a main course.

1 1/2 lb. fingerling or baby potatoes, washed well
6-12 eggs (1-2 per person)
6 cups chopped kale, large stems removed
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1-2 cans Riga Sprats or sardines in olive oil
3 green onion, green parts only, sliced
1 cup cilantro leaves
1-2 serrano peppers, finely chopped (optional)

For the aioli:
2 egg yolks
3 tablespoons chopped preserved lemon
1 minced garlic clove
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup corn oil
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice

1.    Put potatoes in a large pot, cover with salted water and bring to boil over high heat. Cover pot, reduce heat to low and cook for 15-18 minutes, until just fork tender. Drain water, keep aside.
2.    To cook the eggs, bring salted water to a boil in a medium sauce pan over high heat. Using a slotted spoon, put eggs in boiling water, bring back to boil, then lower heat to gentle simmer and cook for 7 minutes. Drain water from pot and refill with cold water to stop the cooking process. 
3.    To prepare the aioli, put egg yolks in the bowl of a food processor with the preserved lemon, garlic and salt, and blend well. With the food processor running constantly, slowly add the two types of oil. It is essential to add the oil slowly at the beginning of the process to make sure the aioli does not separate. The second half of the oil can be added a little faster. Mix in lemon juice. If the aioli is too thick, you can add up to 3 tablespoons cold water and mix again.
4.    Put chopped kale in a bowl, add 1/2 teaspoon salt and massage kale with your hands for 20 seconds until it wilts a little. Divide between 4 salad bowls.
5.    Cut potatoes in half and arrange over kale. Using a chef’s knife, cut each egg in half and use a spoon to place the eggs on top of potatoes. Drizzle 2 tablespoons aioli over salad in each bowl, then top with sprats, green onion, cilantro and Serrano pepper. Serve immediately. 

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