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Cooking from the World Pantry: Chicken Salad Sandwiches with Preserved Lemon

Last week I received in the mail a gift of preserved lemons. They came in a squat glass jar, with a single fresh bay leaf tucked inside. They have made me enormously happy and will continue to do so over the next several months. 

I might add a spoonful of finely chopped preserved lemon to a rice pilaf one night. Maybe I'll stick one half of a lemon inside a chicken and roast it in a smoking hot oven on a cold Sunday afternoon. I'll try dropping a small wedge into the broth of a spicy soup. The point is this: a jar of preserved lemons will last you a long time because you only need to add a little bit to notice the bright pops of salty-zesty flavor. They keep practically forever and can be used to enhance a wide variety of dishes.

You'll often encounter preserved lemons in the ingredient list for a North African or Middle Eastern-inspired recipe, but there is no reason why you should limit them to supporting roles alongside sumac, za'atar, cumin, and the like. May I suggest you try adding preserved lemon to a French lentil salad or to sautéed bitter Italian greens? Leave out the salt that's called for in a recipe, sub in preserved lemon, then taste and adjust the seasoning to your liking. In most cases, the lemons will contribute nearly enough salt on their own.

If you live in Southern California, there's a good chance you know somebody with a lemon tree in the backyard. And there's probably a time during winter when that lemon tree is weighed down with an abundance of fruit. It'll take you no time at all to harvest those lemons and preserve them for the rest of the year. Emily Han has written an excellent tutorial here.

Of course, you can also look for jars of preserved lemons at well-stocked grocery stores, although be prepared to pay a little more than you might imagine lemons would cost. There should be only two ingredients listed on the label: lemon and salt. To cook with preserved lemons, first scoop out and discard the squishy insides, then use only the peel. You can rinse them if they taste too salty.

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Chicken Salad Sandwiches with Preserved Lemon

If you're rushed for time, skip the poaching step and buy a roasted chicken instead. You can use store-bought mayonnaise, but the homemade kind tastes much better.

Serves 2

2 boneless chicken breasts
Fine sea salt
1 preserved lemon, insides scraped out and discarded, finely chopped
3 sprigs cilantro or parsley, plus ¼ cup chopped cilantro or parsley leaves
1 sprig mint, plus 2 tablespoons chopped mint leaves
2 - 3 small garlic cloves, peeled
1 large egg yolk
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ lemon, for squeezing
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped dill (optional)
1 tablespoon chopped chives (optional)
4 thick slices of whole-grain bread
2 handfuls of sprouts

Chicken Salad

 

Season the chicken with salt on both sides. Fill a pot with several inches of water. Add about ¼ of the chopped preserved lemon, 3 sprigs of cilantro, and 1 sprig of mint. Bring to a gentle simmer. Lower the chicken into the water and poach, flipping once or twice, until just cooked through, 5 - 7 minutes.

Transfer the poached chicken to a plate, let cool slightly, then use two forks to shred the meat into bite-sized pieces.

Using a mortar and pestle, pound the garlic and ¼ teaspoon of salt. (Alternatively, you can use the back of a large knife to smash the mixture into a smooth paste.)

Crack the egg yolk into a small bowl. Whisk the yolk gently but constantly while pouring in a few drops of the olive oil. (To prevent the bowl from moving around while you whisk, place it on a folded kitchen towel.) As the oil and yolk emulsify, continue to whisk and to add more oil in a very thin stream, until you've added all the oil. The mixture will be thick. Thin it by stirring in a generous squeeze of lemon juice. Stir in the garlic paste, several grinds of pepper, and the remaining preserved lemon.

Gently toss together the poached chicken, lemony aioli, chopped parsley, chopped mint, dill, and chives. Taste and season with a little more salt, depending on how salty the preserved lemons are.

Spread the chicken salad mixture across two pieces of the bread. Top each with a big handful of sprouts, then place the other slice of bread over the sprouts. Slice the sandwiches in half and serve.

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