Category Archives: Middle Eastern

Winter (Summer) Solstice in a Jar: Preserving Lemons

The finished product

As promised, a follow-up to the Mujaddara posting on how to make preserved lemons.  I actually wrote this several months ago, but it has been languishing in my draft box.  The posting is slightly updated, keeping the late winter theme.  I really liked lemons symbolizing the return of the sun and the promise of longer, warmer days to come.  If it seems untimely, try inserting  summer imagery for Winter as you read the article.

Winter Solstice, the day with the fewest hours of daylight, also celebrates the return of the sun.  I thought it was a fitting title since winter is the season for citrus, most notably the bright, sweet, aromatic Meyer lemon.  As the hours of sunlight increase, so do the number and variety of citrus fruits available.  A jar a brightly colored lemons always reminds me of  the bounty of the spring crops that are just around the corner.

Preserving lemons in salt has been done for centuries throughout Asia, the Mediterranean and the Middle East.  Perhaps the most well-known version is the Moroccan-style preserved lemon.  All you need is sea salt, small Meyer lemons and a large, non-reactive, non-corrosive container with a tight fitting lid.

Meyer lemons are closest to the varieties you would find in Morocco, but you can also make a batch with Eureka, Sorrento  or other thicker skinned varieties.  Other varieties may need a few weeks longer to mature into the jelly-like, gooey goodness that is the preserved lemon.  Recently, we identified our lemon tree as a Sorrento…yes, the limoncello lemon.  I am going to experiment by making a batch of preserved lemons with the Sorrentos and some limoncello.

A few weeks ago, this season’s first batch of preserved lemons finished maturing and was placed securely in my refrigerator.  Below is a picture of that jar made with Meyers.  [Note: The lemons have been stored in the refrigerator and the lemon juice becomes  a little cloudier].

solstice in a jar

Jar of Meyer Preserved Lemons.

The recipe for the lemons is pretty basic and inspired by recipes from Kitty Morse**:

  • 6-12 organic or non-sprayed lemons (Meyer is preferred, but any lemon will do)
  • 1/2-3/4 c sea salt (coarse or finely ground, must be iodine and additive free)
  • 1 large (quart) Mason jar or Pickl-It jar (with the plug not the airlock)
  • 1 Label for the jar–write the list the ingredients, processing method (fermentation) and date (end of fermentation period)

The mason jar or other container should be thoroughly washed in hot, soapy water or the dishwasher and allowed to air dry. (Some recipes call for sterilization, but I haven’t read any scientific studies on why this is safer in the case of fermentation–but REMEMBER TO ALWAYS sterilize jars that will be water bath processed for less than 10 minutes).

Wash the lemons under running water and dry completely.  Cut the lemon into quarters leaving the bottom 1/4 of the lemon attached (this will make a pocket to stuff with salt and allow for a more appealing presentation in the jar).  Next, pack each lemon with salt, hold quarters together and gently place into the jar—press down lightly to release the juice.  Continue stuffing and packing the lemons into the jar until it is almost filled, leaving enough space so the lemons do not touch the lid).  Now you have two choices to completely submerge all of the lemons in the jar:

  1. Squeeze fresh lemon juice until you have enough to completely cover the lemons, or
  2. Allow the lemons to sit on the counter for 24 hours and see if enough juice is released.  [If not, follow step one.]

Place the jar on your counter or in a sunny window (either way will work): 4-6 weeks (thin-skinned lemons) or 6-8 weeks (thick-skinned lemons).  Shake the contents once or twice a day to evenly distribute the salt and juice.*  Some recipes suggest refrigerating the contents after fermentation, others recommend leaving the jar on the counter.  I usually place my jars in the refrigerator since I don’t use the lemons in a short period of time.  It is a personal preference, so go with the choice that makes you feel comfortable.  Also, if you store the lemons outside the refrigerator, use within 1 year.


In terms of safety, each year more studies show fermentation to be one of the safest forms of food preservation.  I have not heard about or read any studies or cases of individuals being poisoned by high-salt fermentation products (outside of an individual eating something that was obviously spoiled–foul smelling, moldy or a product not submerged in the brine) .  Most preserved lemons sold commercially are not truly fermented and are processed by pickling and canning.

I use a glass weight to ensure the lemons remain completely submerged during fermentation and storage.  Pickl-It sells glass weights that fit in their jars and will fit in some wide-mouth mason jars.   Pickle Perfect sells weights that fit in  pint and quart jars canning jars.

* If using glass or stone weights, gently shake the jar to avoid cracking the jar or weight.

**If you are not familiar with Kitty or her cookbooks, she is the leading expert on all things Moroccan, especially food.  Kitty’s new book, Mint Tea and Minarets will be out soon.  I recommend following her on her facebook page and her blog, Kitty Morse Moroccan Cuisine.  I was fortunate enough to meet her in-person during our winter vacation.  She was a gracious host, serving us mint tea (of course) and giving us a tour of her Moroccan-style home—including her kitchen.

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Mujaddara—-an inspiration for one-pot meals

Mujadara with a twist

Staple recipes become new again by switching a few ingredients.

Mujaddara and similar lentil/rice dishes, cooked in one pot, are a standard meal in many middle eastern homes.  Mujaddara is commonly topped with crispy, fried onions and served with yogurt, salads and flat breads.  I have been making this dish for over 15 years, using basic recipes from Lebanon, Cyprus, Syria, Greece and Egypt with minor changes to spices and toppings.  At home, I caramelize the onions and avoid frying them for a healthier meal.  When dining out we splurge on the delicious, crispy, fried bits.

The basic recipe is also a great base to experiment with and create new dishes to compliment almost any cuisine:

  • substituting different rice and grains  (brown, black or red rice; bulgur; barley, etc…)
  • changing lentils and beans (black lentils or fresh shell beans)
  • changing the flavor profile to match other cuisines.

One of our new favorite twist– Black Lentil Basmati Rice with Preserved Lemon.  It is simple, but extremely flavorful.  Serve as a main meal or side dish.  Neri recommends eating it with homemade or Greek yogurt and sautéed greens with mushrooms.

Preserved lemons add extra umami to many dishes.

Preserved Lemons—a small amount imparts a great deal of flavor to any dish.

Black Lentil Basmati Rice with Preserved Lemon

  • 1 cup black lentils
  • 1 cup white basmati rice
  • 1 large shallot, finely diced
  • 2 medium cloves of garlic, finely minced
  • 1-2 T extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 preserved lemon**, lightly rinsed and minced (remove any seeds, use both the rind and pulp)
  • pepper to taste ( do not add salt, the preserved lemon will provide more than enough)
  • 5 1/1 c water

Pick through and rinse the lentils and rice.  Heat the oil and add the shallots. Saute until the shallots lightly brown, add garlic and saute for 2 more minutes.  Add the lentils and preserved lemon and toss with the mixture.  Add water.  Bring to a boil and lower temperature.  Cover pot and cook for 10 minutes.  Remove lid, bring mixture back to a gentle boil and then add rice.  Grind in black pepper, mix and cover.  Lower heat and cook for 15-20 minutes.  When water has been completely absorbed, lightly toss lentil/rice mixture and cover to let it steam out for 5-10 minutes.  [Newbie Note: The dish will be moist, not dry and fluffy.]

This recipe makes about 5-6 cups and will feed 4-7 people.  You may cut the recipe in half, but use the same amount of garlic and shallots.  Makes a wonderful lunch or leftover dinner.  This flavor combination pairs well with Moroccan, Spanish and North African foods served with a medium sweet Riesling or Sake.

Three important rules to follow when cooking one-pot grain/legume dishes:

  1. Total amount of water added at the beginning of the recipe should equal the amount required to cook each component separately:  White basmati rice 1 : 1.5 ratio  and Black lentils  1 : 4 ratio  [solid to water] Total water = 5 1/2 cups
  2. Start the product with the longest cooking time first :  Black Lentils 25-35 minutes  White Basmati Rice 10-15 minutes   25 minutes – 15 minutes = 10 minutes (after which time add second main ingredient)
  3. Sturdy grains and legumes should be used for this recipe.  Red lentils, quinoa and amaranth are best when cooked separately, then combined.

Once you are familiar with a particular combination of ingredients, cooking times and the final product you may want to use more or less water.  If you add any vegetables to the pot, this will also affect the amount of water needed to thoroughly cook the grains and legumes. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try new flavors.

**Preserved lemons are easy to make at home, but may be purchased on-line or at specialty stores.  The next blog posting will show you how to make preserved lemons.

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