Chicken with Preserved Lemons & Olives

This may look like a simple bottle of salt covered lemons, but in fact it’s a statement — an acceptance of the fact that we won’t be moving as soon as we had thought we would. Why? Because these preserved lemons won’t be ready for another 4 to 6 weeks, so . . . here we will be for the near future. So while I will continue to use up most of our pantry stock, I will also have to re-stock some of our most frequently used and beloved items, such as preserved lemons.

But what is a preserved lemon and why would anyone want them in their pantry? Because they are one of the most concentrated and divine lemon-delivery systems yet devised. And one of the easiest to make at home. All you need are lemons, salt, a bit of olive oil (to seal the jar), and time. There are different types of preserved lemons, some cured only in salt (no juice), others which are spiced with cinnamon and other flavors. Our favorite style is preserved in salt and lemon juice only. Our first taste of this exotica was a jar of juice-and-salt preserved lemons purchased 10 years ago in a Turkish dry goods shop in Germany. It was such a revelation and so versatile an ingredient, our pantry has been stocked with it ever since (between moves anyway). But that first jar was also our last purchased jar, because once I learned how easy they were to make it seemed a shame to to buy them. But before we go through the making of the lemons, let’s talk about one of the most popular uses for them.

These 2 photos were taken last year, though I used the last of that jar earlier this year to make our favorite Chicken with Preserved Lemons and Olives. You will find many versions of this dish all over the Internet, and with good reason. It’s easy on the cook, slightly exotic but with familiar flavors, and elegant enough to serve to company. In fact, if you find yourself entertaining a mixed group of palates — some willing to try the exotic, some more sedate — this dish will often satisfy both. (Sometimes I leave out the word “Preserved” when offering this to some of the shy-er palates because they can find the descriptive off-putting, although they are also usually the ones most taken with the intense lemon flavor.)

Once cured, the lemon becomes nearly translucent (photo at right) and very soft. Cookbooks and recipes will usually advise you to separate the rind from the pulp, and discard the pulp. If I were using the lemons for a cake or a drink, I would use only the rind; but for this casserole style dish, I do include the separated pulp in the cooking medium for the added flavor, but it is not eaten.

We’ve tried different variations of this Middle Eastern classic, and this recipe is devised from many of those so I’m not sure I can say it is Turkish or Middle Eastern. I can tell you it’s delicious, and is our current favorite recipe though we’re still open to taste-testing other versions. Even keeping the spice combination the same, the most striking flavor difference can be wrought by changing the type of olives used. You can certainly mix green and black varieties, or go with your favorite one. The absolute best version we’ve made with this particular recipe used grande Spanish green olives (with pits), so if you have those around, do try them here. We prefer to keep the pits in almost all our cooking with olives, even pizza, but you can pit your olives before adding them to the dish. If you opt to leave the pits in, be sure to tell your guests to prevent a cracked tooth!

We used the last of our stash to make this chicken dish for my dad when he was visiting earlier this year. With all the lemons and spices, I thought it would be okay for him on his low-purine diet (without the chicken skin, of course). He really liked it, so I’m including it in the GDC round-up in case he’s moved to try it at home sometime.

Make a hole through the olive oil seal to remove your lemon quarters, and reseal with additional oil if necessary. I’ve found the lemons will keep for up to a year in the fridge this way.

Please note that there is no salt specified in this recipe. That is because we use both the pulp and juice from the preserved lemons, which contain a lot of salt.

1 3-4 lb. (1.5-2kg) chicken, cut into serving size, or an equal weight of chicken thighs
1 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. coriander
1/2 tsp. sweet paprika
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Combine cumin, coriander, paprika and pepper. Rub spice mixture into chicken, especially under the skin and between the bone and breast meat, if using whole chicken. Set aside for at least 30 minutes, but as long as overnight in the fridge.

1 whole preserved lemon (method here)

Separate pulp and rinds. Cut rinds into thin slices, and place 3/4 of slices under the skin and between flesh of chicken. Pre-heat oven to 350F/180C.

2 TBL. olive oil
1 medium onion, sliced thinly lengthwise
3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
3-4 bay leaves
1 – 1 and 1/2 cup whole olives, unpitted (depends on type of olives used, and personal preference for olives)
1/2 cup (120ml) chicken broth
1/4 cup (60ml) dry white wine
2 TBL. juice from preserved lemons

Heat oil over medium-high in a large skillet. In batches, brown chicken and place in oven-proof casserole dish or dutch oven. Turn heat down to medium-low, and In same oil cook onions until translucent, about 8-10 minutes. Add garlic and continue cooking together until garlic is fragrant.

Meanwhile, scatter remaining 1/4 of the lemon rinds over the casserole, and tuck bay leaves between chicken pieces. Add lemon pulp (optional step) and olives to the dish, and evenly distribute the onions and garlic over the chicken. Add broth, wine and lemon juice. Cover and bake in pre-heated oven for 45 minutes.

Serve with couscous and a crisp green or tomato salad.

Other recipes with preserved lemons: Preserved Lemon & Almond Polenta Torta, and Lamb Shanks with Preserved lemons and Gremolata.