Egyptian Preserved Lemons with Nigella Seeds and Dried Safflower

Though the midEATS team was on a blogging hiatus for the holidays, we haven’t been on a cooking hiatus … well, at least not for the entire time. The Coptic Christmas celebration definitely spurred a string of culinary feats in my household that I’ll be sharing over the next few weeks!

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I finally made the preserved lemons I’d been craving …

A couple of days ago, I posted on the midEATS Facebook page that I was inspired to make preserved lemons. Several of our readers responded with excitement about the recipe, which compelled me to write this post today.

Since it’s lemon season in the States (well, in California, to be more specific), I was moved to buy a bag of organic lemons when I was at Whole Foods the other day. I had been dreaming about making preserved lemons to test a few Moroccan recipes I’ve been carefully saving in my bookmarks. As customary, I called my grandmother in Egypt, and she gave me a traditional Egyptian recipe instead; Egyptians preserve lemons to serve as a side dish, whereas Moroccans add the zesty fruit in many of their tagines and sauces. But there’s no rule that says Egyptian preserved lemons can’t be added into recipes too!

Egyptian_Preserved_Lemons_with_Nigella_Seeds_and_Safflower
Look at that beauty!

My grandma‘s recipe features dried safflower (‘osfor) and black Nigella seeds (‘el habba el soda’ – literally, ‘the black seed’ in Arabic or ‘sanouj‘ in Moroccan Arabic) – both ingredients I had never really seen before. The nigella seeds in particular are a really interesting ingredient: after some online research, I found that it has been mentioned in Islamic hadith as being a cure for many diseases!

Nigella_Black_Seeds_for_Preserved_Lemon_Recipe
Here’s a closeup of the nigella (black) seeds. This is my first time using them in a recipe!

The safflower is interchangeable with saffron (zaafaron in Arabic). In Iraqi, Moroccan, Persian and Indian traditions, saffron is used extensively in cooking. In Egyptian, Syrian and Palestinian cuisine, saffron doesn’t feature as heavily – probably because it’s not as widely available. Safflower is therefore used instead of saffron when it isn’t available; it’s also much cheaper than the latter! My grandma and my grandma’s mom (great-grandma) have always used safflower in their preserved lemon recipe. I chatted with Assia Othman of Assia’s Kitchen, who also wrote a post on preserved lemons recently, and she said she’s always used saffron for her recipe. So the moral of the story is that you can use either, especially since both have a very mild, very slightly sweet and hay-like flavor.  Or, if you have neither, you can simply leave out the reddish strands, and your recipe won’t suffer much!

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And here’s the dried safflower.

Thankfully, both the safflower and the nigella seeds were in my mother’s pantry, so I was able to use them in my recipe! If you can’t find either spice – don’t despair; there are countless other simple Moroccan-style preserved lemon recipes to follow (this one from Nourished Kitchen is a great one). The nigella seeds can be found online, but the dried safflower isn’t a very popular ingredient, so you may not easily find it. Not to worry though – omitting it won’t make a huge difference, since its flavor is very slight anyway. I was simply inspired to go with my grandma‘s recipe because it’s time-tested, but I’d be just as excited about making plain preserved lemons.

A little bit about lemons …

Fresh_Organic_Lemon2

Lemons had been brought to North Africa and the Mediterranean from Southeastern Asia sometime between 700 and 1000 AD. In Arabic, lemon is pronounced ‘laymoun‘, or ‘lamoun‘. Even though lemons are thought to have originated in India, and there are numerous Roman mosaics of North Africa that showcase the zesty fruit, the first literary description of lemons is in an Arabic treatise on farming by Qustus al-Rumi from the early 10th-century. Cool, huh?

Did you know that although lemons are known as citrus fruits, they are technically considered berries? They’re also super healthy, containing many phytonutirents and vitamins, the most well-known of which being Vitamin C, a potent antioxidant that neutralizes free radicals and boosts the immune system (WH Foods).

What are preserved lemons? 

Preserved lemons are lemons that have been seasoned and preserved in salted water or their own lemon juice and salt for a period of 10 days to two weeks, until they have fermented. The jar is then transferred to the fridge and can be kept in there for … well, I haven’t tested this, but some say it can last for over a year!

In Morocco, doqq or boussera lemons are favored for fermentation and preservation. In the U.S., Meyer, Lisbon or Eureka lemons are typically used for pickling, but there is no rule that says you can’t use any type of lemon! One thing to keep in mind though is that conventionally grown lemons are often heavily sprayed with toxic pesticides, which are difficult to remove even with adequate brushing and washing. Since preserved lemons are left to steep in their own acidic juices and are savored with their rind intact, it’s probably wise to opt for organic lemons when making this recipe.

How are preserved lemons served or used in cooking?  

Moroccans are the pioneers in using preserved lemons for cooking, which are used to flavor tagines and sauces. Seafood and poultry dishes are the main recipients of a slice of lemon pickle, but their zesty goodness can also be used for vegetable bakes and certain meat dishes. In Egypt, the lemons are eaten as a side by  themselves, or the rind is julienned and added to salads in the winter. You can even use them in – gasp – dessert!  Traditional rice pudding pairs wonderfully with lemon, a la Brenda’s citrus cardamom rice pudding recipe on midEATS, and I bet it would taste phenomenal in gingerbread or atop a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream.

Preserved Lemons with Nigella Seeds and Dried Safflower (Lamoun Mekhalil bil Habbah el Soda wil ‘Osfor)

by Heba Saleh

Prep Time: 30-45 minutes

Pickling Time: 10 days – 2wks

Keywords: pickle/ferment ingredient side snack gluten-free low-carb nut-free soy-free sugar-free vegan vegetarian lemon Egyptian winter

Ingredients

*One thing to keep in mind: the only necessary ingredients for making preserved lemons are the fruit (lemons), water/lemon juice and unrefined mineral salt. The other ingredients here are optional, but will enhance the flavor of the preserves.

    • 10 medium organic lemons, washed well under running water but without any soap, and dried
    • 2 cups filtered, boiled water – wait for it to cool before adding
    • 1 teaspoon Himalayan pink salt, or other unrefined mineral salt – for mixing into water mixture (find it online here)
    • 3 tablespoons nigella seeds or black seeds (find it online here or here)
    • 3 tablespoons dried safflower (or saffron if you have that on hand)
    • 3 tablespoons Himalayan pink salt, or other unrefined mineral salt (find it online here)

You’ll need a 2-quart sized glass jar that is washed, rinsed with hot water and dried thoroughly.

Instructions

(1) Wash lemons: Using a vegetable brush, wash the organic lemons under running water. Even organic lemons usually have a glossing wax added for grocery store display. Do not use any kind of soap, as this can get absorbed into the rind and affect the preservation process or the resulting taste.

Fresh_Organic_Lemon
Make sure to wash thoroughly with a brush to remove the wax coating!

(2) Heat lemons: Add the lemons to a pot of filtered water, and heat on the stove. Right before the water starts to boil, remove lemons from stove and remove from pot to dry.

(3) Slice lemons: Slice the ends off first, and discard. Then, slice the lemons in quarters without cutting it all the way. In other words, quarter the lemons and still leave it connected at the base.

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Slice lemons into fourths *without* cutting it all the way!

(4)  Combine ingredients and stuff lemons: Combine the salt, dried safflower, and nigella seeds in a bowl and mix well. Using your hands, open each of the lemons and stuff with the mixture (roughly, about a 1/2 teaspoon of the mixture in each lemon).

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(5) Prepare the jar: Make sure the glass jar is washed, rinsed well and dried. Add 2 cups of filtered, boiled water (that has cooled), and dissolve a teaspoon of mineral salt in it.

Himalayan_Pink_Mineral_Salt

(6) Add the lemons: Add the lemons to the water, one after the other, packed as tightly as you can. Pack the lemons down with a spoon to make sure they’re submerged in the brine and their juice is starting to release a bit. Pack the lemons down below the liquid as much as possible.

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Pack the lemons down below the liquid as much as possible.

(7) Leave to ferment and use: Close the jar and leave it on your kitchen counter for 10 days to 2 weeks until it has begun pickling, then transfer to refrigerator.

Preserved_Lemons_in_a_Jar

Once they’ve fermented and you’ve placed the jar in the fridge, you can then take a quarter or two out of the jar at a time, give them a quick rinse and add them to delicious recipes like this one, or simply serve it as a condiment or side. As I’m waiting for my jar of lemons to pickle, I’ll be thinking of a few dishes where a little  yellow rind will nicely complement the other flavors, and I’ll be sure to share what I come up with on midEATS! In the meantime, let me know if you have any questions!

10 Comments

  1. We make these in neighboring Gaza too-I have jars and jars of them sitting by my windowsill 🙂 Beautiful pictures by the way. What camera are you using?

    • Hi Laila! Thanks for stopping by! Do you use the same spices? Also do you eat them as a pickled side dish, or do you add them to other dishes? 🙂 Thanks for the compliment about the pics. I use a Canon Rebel T1i with the lens it came with (18-55mm f/3.5-5.6).

  2. Hi Heba, Thanks for this mouth-watering recipe! I’ve a quick question though. My reflex when talking about preserves is generally to very carefully sterilize the jars and lids by boiling them some people go as far as to re-boil the preserve once finished and closed. Is this only useful for the types of preserves that one keeps for one season up to a year or is the difference not related, and just a preference thing?

    Sorry for asking about technicalities 🙂

    Thanks!

    T.

    • Hello there! Thanks for the question 🙂 I’m new at making ferments/preserves, but generally speaking, there are multiple ways to do it. For the lemons, some people add filtered water and salt (called a brine) and others use the lemon juice itself and no water (but either way making sure they’re all submerged under the liquid). Of course the jar has to be sterilized with boiling water before using (I should add that in the directions if I haven’t already -thanks!) Anyway, here’s a good resource that explains when/why the pickles/preserves jars should be sealed by boiling – the method you describe: http://pubs.ext.vt.edu/348/348-594/348-594.html As I get more comfortable with ferments and preserves, I’ll post more informative posts describing the dos and don’ts 🙂

  3. Hi Heba,

    I was preparing to write something for a newsletter about Roz-bilaban that my expat friends tasted at my house. As I was looking for pictures for the dessert on the web, I came across your website. I was really impressed by the ambience I found as I browsed through. I am also happy to see very authentic Egyptian recipes. Having lived abroad a lot, I am very Egyptian at heart. I try to make traditional dishes all the time for my family. My children love it and I care that they are given proper heritage as well.

    Keep it up and good luck!

    • Hi Lamia! Thanks so much for your kind comment. I’m so glad you stumbled upon midEATS. We love sharing traditional Middle Eastern recipes with the world … it’s really important to keep the traditions alive and pass them on to the next generation! Let us know if you have any favorite recipes that you’d like to see on midEATS. Of course you’re always welcome to also contribute a recipe – we love to feature bloggers, food writers and home cooks. Just shoot us an email at mideats at gmail dot com.

    • Thanks KerryAnn! Preserved lemons are so easy to make! I eat the whole thing … and I often slice it and use it in various dishes. My latest is to pair it with baked wild salmon – I’ll have to share it on here and share with you!

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