A long time ago, I made the green student traveler's mistake of visiting the Côte d'Azur in February. I thought I'd beat the crowds, save my precious pennies and still relish the sunshine and the swaying palms. Instead, I shivered through the Mistral winds and brooded in empty cafes while I watched through grimy windows as newspapers hurled around the desolate streets. Suffice it to say, my memories of that trip are all pretty grim. Except one.
Making my way along the coast I ended up in the small city of Menton. Emerging from the train station I was greeted with a riot of yellow, orange and green. There was music blasting from speakers suspended from the lampposts, gaggles of revelers dancing, drinking and singing in the streets. Everywhere I looked, signs stretched across building facades welcomed me to the Fête du Citron. I had stumbled on a month-long celebration of all things citrus, and in particular the lemon, the region’s chief export. What else was there to do but drop my backpack at the closest hotel and head back out to join the party?
After marveling at the Carnival-like parade that wound its way through the streets, showcasing floats and even costumes made entirely of citrus fruit, I was starting to feel a bit peckish. Always hungry and always short on cash, I couldn't believe my luck. There were free samples of food everywhere. Just in case, I gave a nod of thanks to the gargantuan lemon- and orange-studded sculpture of the Virgin Mary stretching her hands over the crowd at the top of the street. Then I started weaving through the stalls.
Lemon biscuits, lemon butter, lemon jelly, lemon meringues. I tasted it all and felt the pangs of hunger and the doldrums of my failed French Riviera foray recede as pure, undiluted sunshine took their place.
Now I sit in my apartment on another gray February day wishing for a bit of that sunshine I tasted all those years ago in Menton. I pull down a jar of preserved lemons from the shelf in my pantry and set it on my counter, admiring the deep yellow fruit packed tightly in the jar while I figure out what I feel like eating. I first tasted preserved lemons in Menton at a Moroccan stall dishing out tagine and I've been a convert ever since. In Paris, I used to buy jars of the stuff from the North African grocers that dot the city, but then I started to make my own once I moved into a place with enough shelf space to put up preserves. I use them whenever I can, in whatever dish I'm making; the juice and the pulp in sauces and over fish, the peel any time I want a real kick in the ass of citrus. Preserved lemons are lemons, only better. They're lemons times 10. They can be left in their brine for months and only get better with age.
I'm swinging solo today so I don't feel like fussing too much over a meal. Some roasted garlic squeezed out of its sleeve, a good dose of chopped preserved lemon peel, a bit of olive oil and some fresh fettuccine. A couple of parmesan shavings and a few pinches of fresh parsley. A twist or two of the pepper grinder. Sunshine on a plate. I take a bite and give thanks all over again, just in case.
Moroccan Preserved Lemons
- 6 lemons, preferably organic, washed and scrubbed
- ¼ cup kosher or gros sel-type salt, more as needed
- 1 bay leaf
- 5 each of cloves, black peppercorns and whole coriander seeds
- 1 cinnamon stick
- Freshly squeezed lemon juice, as needed
- A clean jar big enough to hold all of the lemons
- Start by almost quartering the lemons. To do this, slice off the very end of your lemon so that you have a flat surface to work with. Stand the lemon on its now flat bottom and cut vertically about three quarters of the way down. Don't cut all the way through!
- Now cut vertically again, this time at a square angle to your first cut, giving you a quartered lemon held together by its end.
- Stuff as much salt as you can into the center of each lemon and then squeeze it back together. Put a tablespoon of salt in the bottom of the jar along with the rest of the ingredients except the lemon juice and start packing your salty lemons in.
- Press down on the lemons as you go so their juice comes out, making it easier to pack every last one in. If the juice from the lemons doesn't completely cover them, top the jar up with your extra lemon juice. The lemons have to be completely covered, but you'll have to leave a bit of air space between the surface of the juice and the lid. Put the lid on and shake.
- Let the lemons sit in a warm corner of your kitchen and give the jar a shake whenever you pass by. Your preserved lemons will be ready to use in about a month. When using, be careful to use clean utensils (or fingers) to pull the lemon from the container to keep any bacteria from contaminating your jar of sunshine. Rinse the lemons thoroughly before using. Once ready, preserved lemons will keep, refrigerated, about six months.