Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Is life to short to make your own preserved lemons, or is it too short not to? (Plus a recipe for Tunisian style Salade Nicoise)

This is one of life's eternal questions. Do you preserve your own lemons or not? I follow Paula Wolfert's method from Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco, and while to do so is in theory not that difficult (at least she doesn't think so), but in practice always seems to take hours, between sterilizing the jar (try sterilizing a gallon-sized jar), cleaning the lemons, packing them in, and squeezing the juice to cover. And it really stings if you have the slightest cut on your hand. And then you have to wait one month, turning it upside down every day, until it is done, so it sort of rules your life. And then you have to worry about whether you've done it right or not, or introduced some deadly microorganisms. (Whether it is rational or not, I have never felt comfortable using them raw in salads.) And, because it is such a pain to make, you tend to make both too much and to hoard them for special dishes like tagines with chicken, lamb or fish with preserved lemons and olives, and not "waste" them on simpler dishes. In Wolfert's later books, she has a shortcut method which only has to sit for a week but otherwise is not much easier. It certainly doesn't do much good when you want to make a tagine on the spur of the moment, like a day or two before.

So my life changed about two years ago when jarred North African style preserved lemons from France appeared in the markets, at least at Fairway, which carries three brands. I am sure they can be found elsewhere as well. Are they as good as the homemade? Well, no. They tend to be very small so they are a bit more difficult to clean out the pulp before cooking and you have to use two or three for each homemade one. Also, I find the taste a bit musty. But, in the great scheme of things, my answer to the great question of life is to use the preserved lemons out of the jars. Ease trumps authenticity in this case.

Using store-bought preserved lemons also opens us the possibility of using them in salads, since it doesn't seem like a waste not to save them for special dishes. So, for example, I have started making Tunisian-style Salade Nicoise. What is this dish? The inspiration comes from our cousins Leslie and Peter in Montreal, who bemoan the disappearance of Pan Bagnat from the menu at Benny's, an Israeli Kosher restaurant on Queen Mary in Montreal. Pan Bagnat literally means bathed bread, and it is a crusty baguette, hollowed out and stuffed with a salade nicoise -- because of the dressing, it can get messy, hence the bagnat. It is a pretty common street food in Paris. Leslie and Peter would go on about how wonderful Benny's version was, which he made with preserved lemon. So, based on this, I came up with this:

Salade Nicoise Tunisienne (to serve 4 for lunch, 2 with leftovers for dinner)

  1. Make a harissa and preserved lemon vinaigrette: Take 3 small jarred preserved lemons, (or one to one and a half homemade) quarter and scrape out the pulp. Shred the skin and reserve. Remove the pits from the pulp (this is the only thing in this recipe that is a real pain). Chop the put finely, and put it in a small dish. Mix in a teaspoon or so of harissa (North African hot pepper paste), depending on its strength and your taste. Whisk in a few tablespoons of good olive oil, and a tablespoon or so of red or white wine vinegar. (Not balsamic!!)
  2. Boil about 1/4 pound diced green beans in well salted boiled water until a shade or two more tender than crisp. It should take 3 or 4 minutes. Scoop out, run under cold water to set the color, and put in a bowl.
  3. Add about 1/4 to 1/2 cup finely chopped shallot or red onion, to taste.
  4. Boil a few red potatoes, with skin, in the same water, until just barely tender, about 5 to 7 minutes. Put in the bowl and toss with some of the harissa vinaigrette.
  5. Add the reserved shredded lemon peel, a handful of chopped parsley, about 2 tablespoons drained and rinsed capers, and a few pitted good green or black olives (use more olives if you like it salty).
  6. Drain two 7 oz. cans of olive-oil packed tuna very well, and add the tuna to the bowl. Add
  7. Toss, add more harissa vinaigrette if needed, and taste. Add salt and pepper to taste -- since there are lots of salty ingredients, it shouldn't need much salt. Taste and add more harissa vinaigrette, or plain olive oil or vinegar.
  8. Garnish with 2 or 3 quartered hard boiled eggs.

To make pan bagnat:

Leave out the hard boiled eggs. Halve a pretty wide crusty baguette or ciabbatta. Take out some of the center, and cut into serving size portions. Toast lightly if you like, and rub the bread with garlic if you want. Smear with harissa if you like it spicy. Mound the salad in the baguette, drizzle with more vinaigrette or oil if you want and top with sliced hard boiled eggs if you want before you top with the other half of the bread. It should be a little messy.

Note on harissa: There are some good jarred harissas on the market now that are tasty and garlicky, and better than the stuff that comes in a tube. They can knock you out when you open the jar. Some are even kosher for passover.

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