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This pasta with spinach and preserved lemons has a light flavor. [Jack Hanrahan/Erie Times-News]

Jennie Geisler: Preserved lemons add zest

I get a kick out of cooking just about anything, but it’s been a while since I was as excited as I am about preserved lemons.

Lemons are workhorses in the kitchen. People who don’t cook probably wouldn’t believe how much they’d miss lemon juice hiding in marinades, dressings, sauces and dips, to say nothing of their zest in baked goods and fruit salads, cocktails, over veggies and fish. And then there’s lemon’s chemistry in creating ingredients such as buttermilk, and that doesn’t even touch its cleansing potential, or the fact that you could fill many volumes with recipes for the lemon desserts that I have tried and loved.

I was introduced to the concept of preserved lemons, however, not while I was cooking or perusing recipes, but a couple of years ago while I was reading (for pleasure) a novel set in occupied France. You apparently cannot write about France without talking about food, regardless of the plot, and this one “All The Light We Cannot See,” (a wonderfully told story, by the way) described in detail the family’s heartbreak and terror of watching their food stores dwindle. One memorable scene described the consumption of their last jar of preserved lemons, served to German soldiers over fish as the rest of the family starved.

As spring begins, at least nominally, this week, the lovely lemon leaped deftly to mind, and that scene emerged from the foggy recesses of my winter-weary soul. I was going to figure out what preserved lemons were and what they taste like.

Five things I learned:

1. Preserved lemons are nothing more than heavily salted fresh lemons packed in their own juices, with or without a few whole spices, depending on what cuisine they’re meant for. They’re commonly used across the Mediterranean, Middle East and North Africa. They can be packed into a sterile jar (about five will fit in a pint-sized Mason jar) and left on the counter. Turn the jar over once a day for a month to keep the flavors mixing, and then they’re ready to use. No refrigeration is necessary before or after opening.

2. If that sounds like too much hassle, you can buy them. I needed a jar to try the two recipes I included here, and I didn’t have a month to wait until my lemons were ready. I found them in the ethnic Indian section. They cost $5.99 for a 13-ounce jar, which included about six small lemons.

3. Unlike fresh lemons, you really only use the peel, pith and all, of preserved lemons. The pulp gets kind of a slimy texture and is usually discarded. In most cases, you want to rinse the lemon you’re using, halve it and cut into julienne, or thin strips, removing the flesh with your thumb.

The strips are added at the end of most recipes as they don’t need any cooking. They add a somewhat salty tart umame (or deep, almost meaty) note of flavor. You don’t need too much. When you get a bite of your dish with a strip in it, you’ll know what I mean. And you’ll want another.

4. If you make your own preserved lemons, you don’t have to put any spices at all into them if you don’t want. I just added some because the recipe sounded intriguing. But they’re all optional and flexible. I gave a jar to a friend and he suggested star anise.

5. One of the reasons I’m so excited about this project is that it introduced me to a top-shelf favorite-of-all-time instant Loaves classic recipe in Gemelli with Spinach and Preserved Lemon. I want to make it for everyone and make everyone try it while I watch and wait to see if they agree with me — which is really annoying, I know because my husband has told me a thousand times. It’s kind of like reading a great book or hearing a great song and you want everyone to read it or hear it so they can see how awesome it is, too.

It taught me that you don’t have to work three hours on a dish for it to be fantastic, and pasta doesn’t need a sauce to taste divine.

Chicken Tagine With Olives And Preserved Lemons

Total time: 1 hour; prep time: 15 minutes; marinating time: 3 to 4 hours; serves 4

5 cloves garlic, finely chopped

¼ teaspoon saffron threads, pulverized, optional

½ teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

½ teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon turmeric

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 chicken, cut in 8 to 10 pieces

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

3 medium onions, sliced thin

1 cinnamon stick

8 kalamata olives, pitted and halved

8 cracked green olives, pitted and halved

1 large or 3 small preserved lemons

1 cup chicken stock

Juice of ½ lemon

1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley

Mix garlic, saffron, ginger, paprika, cumin and turmeric together. If not using kosher chicken, add ½ teaspoon salt. Add pepper to taste. Rub chicken with mixture, cover, refrigerate and marinate 3 to 4 hours.

Heat oil in heavy skillet. Add chicken, and brown on all sides. Remove to platter. Add onions to skillet, and cook over medium-low heat about 15 minutes, until lightly browned. Transfer to tagine, if you are using one, or leave in skillet. Add cinnamon stick.

Put chicken on onions. Scatter with olives. Quarter the lemons, remove pulp and cut skin in strips. Scatter over chicken. Mix stock and lemon juice. Pour over chicken.

Cover tagine or skillet. Place over low heat, and cook about 30 minutes, until chicken is done. Scatter parsley on top, and serve.

— New York Times

Nutrition information per serving: 518 calories; 35 g fat (3.4 g saturated); 55 mg cholesterol; 1,160 mg sodium; 19 g carbohydrate; 1.6 g fiber; 4.5 g sugar; 32 g protein

Gemelli with Spinach and Preserved Lemon

Total time: 30 minutes; prep time: 10 minutes; 4 servings

1 stick unsalted butter, divided

1 garlic clove, crushed

½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, divided

¾ cup panko

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

12 ounces dried pasta

2 bunches flat-leaf spinach, trimmed, large leaves torn in half (about 8 cups), divided

1 tablespoon (or more) fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon (or more) thinly sliced preserved lemon peel

2 tablespoons olive oil

Heat oil and 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium heat until butter is foaming. Add garlic and ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes; cook, stirring often, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add panko and cook, stirring often, until panko is golden brown, about 2 minutes. Mix in lemon zest and transfer panko to a paper towel–lined plate; season with salt and pepper. Let cool; set aside. Wipe out skillet.

Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until al dente. Drain.

Meanwhile, heat remaining 6 tablespoons butter in same skillet over medium heat. Cook, swirling skillet occasionally, until butter is brown, about 3 minutes. Add 1 bunch spinach; cook, tossing, until wilted, about 1 minute.

Add pasta to skillet and toss to coat. Add lemon juice, preserved lemon peel, and remaining ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes and toss to combine; season with salt, pepper, and more lemon juice and preserved lemon peel, if desired. Add remaining spinach and toss until slightly wilted, about 1 minute.

Serve pasta topped with reserved panko.

— www.bonappetit.com

Preserved Lemons

Total time: 30 days; active time: 10 minutes; makes about 1 pint

5 lemons

¼ cup salt, more if desired

Optional mixture:

1 cinnamon stick

3 cloves

5 to 6 coriander seeds

3 to 4 black peppercorns

1 bay leaf

Freshly squeezed lemon juice, if necessary

Sterile 1-pint Mason jar

If you wish to soften the peel, soak the lemons in lukewarm water for 3 days, changing the water daily.

Quarter the lemons from the top to within ½ inch of the bottom, sprinkle salt on the exposed flesh, then reshape the fruit.

Place 1 tablespoon salt on the bottom of the mason jar. Pack in the lemons and push them down, adding more salt, and the optional spices between layers. Press the lemons down to release their juices and to make room for the remaining lemons. (If the juice released from the squashed fruit does not cover them, add freshly squeezed lemon juice — not chemically produced lemon juice and not water.) Leave some air space before sealing the jar.

Let the lemons ripen in a warm place, shaking the jar each day to distribute the salt and juice. Let ripen for 30 days. To use, rinse the lemons, as needed, under running water, removing and discarding the pulp, if desired — and there is no need to refrigerate after opening. Preserved lemons will keep up to a year, and the pickling juice can be used two or three times over the course of a year.

— www.epicurious.com

More tips and more information about making preserved lemons are available at http://bit.ly/2FGaeDC.

— Jennie Geisler can be reached on Twitter: @ETNGeisler.

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