My first exposure to preserved lemons was when I worked at Café du Midi some 25 years ago. Café du Midi was a very special place to work, not just because of its amazing Mediterranean-influenced French food but because of the people who worked there. I worked in the restaurant industry for 17 years prior to opening The Chopping Block, and over those 17 years, I took a unique approach to picking my jobs. I didn’t go after high profile jobs but rather picked my jobs because of the people that worked there.
Café du Midi was filled with very special people starting with the owner, Francis LeRoux. Francis was not only a fantastic chef as well as a patron of the arts, and he had a knack for picking out the most creative and talented people to work there. Every single person who worked there was special, and I remain close to many. A few of our crew you might recognize:
- Kate Walsh from Grey's Anatomy actually met one of her co-stars from her breakout series, Private Practice at Café du Midi, Paul Adelstein.
- Our old friend Jay Harik has had a very successful acting career as well.
It was an amazing experience working there, as the music, food and fun were really off the charts. I learned so much there, and there was true culinary magic happening at Café du Midi. The caponata, the Armagnac-soaked prunes, the cassoulet, the Steak au Poivre, the duck, the Bouillabaisse… I could go on and on!
We made preserved lemons in bulk at Café du Midi and Francis showed me his tips and tricks, which I want to share with you. I’ve scaled down the size of the recipe and added peppercorns and bay leaves, thank you Paula Wolfert for that contribution. I also included a favorite recipe and of course, a few ideas on what to do with them.
Café du Midi crew with Owner Francis LeRoux
Scroll down for a printable version of this recipe
Yield: 3 to 5 preserved lemons
Active time: 15 minutes
Preserving time: 1 month
7 to 9 organic lemons, washed and dried
3 bay leaves
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
3 to 5 tablespoons kosher salt
*Lemons vary tremendously in size and juice content so you will need to rely on some intuition rather than following a recipe exactly.
Clean and sterilize a pint canning jar with lid. In this jar, you are going to shove as many lemons as you can get in there, likely 3 to 5. Cut the ends off the lemons and cut the lemon from the stem end to almost all the way to the bottom of the lemon but not all the way through. Turn the lemon and make another cut crosswise in the same fashion. The idea is to keep the lemon together in one piece but to open up the flesh so that we can add salt inside the lemon.
Take the first lemon you cut and put a tablespoon of kosher salt, preferably kosher sea salt, inside of the lemon. Add a bay leaf and a few peppercorns to the jar and then keep adding lemons pushing the lemons in with force. Add a little more salt as needed to the lemons once you put them in the jar just to make sure they are well coated.
You want to smash the lemons into the jar both so that you can fit as many lemons in the jar as you can but also to release the juice from the lemons. Continue adding lemons and alternating with bay leaves and peppercorns until you cannot fit any more lemons in the jar.
Take the remaining lemons and squeeze as much juice as needed to cover the lemons with juice and put the lid on the jar.
Let the lemons sit at room temperature for 1 month. After that time refrigerate the lemons and pullout sections of preserved lemons as you need them. Its helpful to date the jar so you don’t forget when you started them.
Now that you have these preserved lemons, what do you do with them? Preserved lemons seem so exotic and if you have never had a preserved lemon before, you may be perplexed as to what to do with them once you make them. I use preserved lemons much as I would capers, caper berries, olives and cornichons in cooking. You can use them anywhere you use these items or see them listed in a recipe. Since they all have a salty and a sour quality to them, they give a similar quality to your recipe. If you are not accustomed to using ingredients such as capers and preserved lemons, this is the perfect time of year to start shaking up your flavors. Small slices of the peel or minced pieces of pulp and peel together add a little excitement to not just exotic dishes but everyday recipes.
I love to use preserved lemons, capers, olives and cornichons as an element in appetizers. Just a slice or two of preserved lemon on top of your deviled eggs with a dollop of harissa is a perfect way to add a contemporary touch to your starter. Think about a slice of smoked salmon and cucumber on a cracker with a slice of preserved lemon or even a few pieces of preserved lemon included on your cheese tray. Making a cream cheese to schmear on a bagel? Try adding some preserved lemon to the cream cheese. A hint of chopped preserved lemon in a clam dip is delicious.
Preserved lemons come to us from the Mediterranean and go beautifully with any classic Mediterranean dishes such tagine, cous cous, grilled seafood and chicken but they work anywhere you might add lemon. I love preserved lemons in salads, especially green salads or in grain salads. I make a lot of rice salads in the summer, and I really like to pack tons of fresh veggies and herbs in them to add crunch and color. Try adding little pops of preserved lemons to take these salads over the edge!
A little preserved lemon pureed or minced and added to vinaigrettes is amazing. I especially love preserved lemon in tuna salad. I like to get creative with my tuna salad, and this version is inspired by my friend Suzanna who always makes the most amazing and interesting tuna salad.
Tuna Salad with Preserved Lemon
Yield: 4 cups
Active time: 15 to 20 minutes
2 cans white albacore tuna, drained
1 carrot, peeled and grated
3 green onions, sliced
1 cup cilantro leaves, chopped
1/4 cup golden raisins, chopped
3 tablespoons, preserved lemons, flesh and skin, minced
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon coriander seeds, toasted and crushed lightly
Pinch of sugar
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1 to 2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
Mix all ingredients together and serve on and open face sandwich or appetizer.
If you are looking for more ways to shake up weeknight meals and add new flavors and spices to your cooking, sign up for our upcoming virtual Flavor Dynamics class on Sunday, April 25 at 11am CST. We break down the difference between spices and herbs. You also learn about vinegar and oils and how to use them to maximum benefit. It is a longtime favorite and in our opinion, one of the most important classes we offer.
If you want to explore Mediterranean flavors we are featuring preserved lemons in our upcoming virtual Lemon Lovers class on Thursday, April 15 at 6pm CST. You'll learn how to make:
- Lemon and Black Pepper Salmon with Fried Lemon “Chips”
- Roasted Potatoes with Preserved Lemon-Feta Vinaigrette