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Shalada bil Matesha Basila w'l'Hamad m'Rakad
  Tomato, Onion, and Preserved Lemon Salad

If you want to try this month's recipe, you'll have to refer to the column that offered Djej Makalli (under "Chicken"), so you'll know how to make preserved lemons. (I figured that, if you didn't think one recipe that used preserved lemons was a good enough reason to go the trouble of making them, that two recipes might be just the motivation you needed to try this unusual, interesting, and vividly flavorful food item.)

When you think about it, the lemon is the only really important fruit that nobody actually eats. It's one of the most popular flavors in the world, but no one sits down and bites into a nice, juicy lemon.

Lemon is actually something of a mystery—at least it's origins are mysterious. Chroniclers of food over the centuries have attributed its origin to many places. Several have written that it started in China, yet it was not recorded in China before the 10th century, while it was known in Greece and Rome (introduced in about 185 BC), and appears in wall paintings in Pompeii. Also, the first reference to lemon in China was when two bottles of lemon juice were presented as gifts to the emperor, which would imply a certain degree of rarity. One authority says Malaysia, and a few suggest Persia. Interestingly, none of the places suggested as point of origin offers the kinds of conditions under which lemons grow best. Hence, the mystery remains.

It is interesting to note that the Romans believed that lemons were an antidote for poison. They thought that about salt, too. Says something about a culture, if they spend a lot of time looking for antidotes.

There was widespread growing of lemons in the Middle East by the first to second century AD, and Rome in the time of Trajan was importing them from Libya. During the eighth and ninth centuries, lemon trees were being planted in the Sahara by Arab invaders. The Moors then carried them into Spain. Northern Europe probably didn't get the lemon until about 1200, carried home by Crusaders returning from the Middle East. However, the word lemon didn't appear in the English language for another two hundred years. (Originally from the Arabic laymun, it went through Middle Latin, Middle French, and Middle English before turning into our current word.)

Interestingly, even the nature of the lemon is something of a mystery. Some botanists suggest that the lemon is an ancient hybrid. Carolus Linnaeaus considered it to be nothing more than a variety of citron, and he classified it as such: Citrus medica var. limonum. The lemon was later reclassified as Citrus limon, but the question remains, because cultivated varieties do not breed true from seed. That is, if you plant the seed, it is unlikely that what you'll grow will be exactly the same as the tree from which the seed came.

Lemons are now available and popular just about everywhere. In the U.S., lemon was one of the first flavorings for soda water (about 1845). It is a common flavor in desserts and sauces, or appears frequently as something to squeeze over or into things. In fact, in the U.S., lemon pretty much only appears in cooking as juice. There are countries that use a bit more of the lemon. Of course, there are Morocco's preserved lemons. In India, they preserve young, green lemons in mustard oil and spices. In England, lemons are pickled. But even in these cases, they are used as condiments, not as fruit.

The odd, mysterious, nearly inedible lemon is a real treasure, however, because it adds so much flavor, and is so versatile.

This delicious, refreshing salad is Moroccan. It's a great side dish for summer barbecues—it can't be beat with meat. But if I'm serving it alone, or with something less robust, I'll substitute a sweet onion for the more pungent red onion.

And don't forget—you need to start your preserved lemons a week before you need them. See the Speedy Preserved Lemons instructions included on the "Chicken with Preserved Lemons and Olives recipe. (Though they are now being marketed in the U.S. by Moroccan companies, so you may be able to find them in a good import shop.)


Shalada bil Matesha Basila w'l'Hamad m'Rakad
(Tomato, Onion, and Preserved Lemon Salad)

2 lb. firm, ripe tomatoes (plum tomatoes work well)

1 small red onion

½ preserved lemon

5 Tbs. olive oil

1 Tbs. lemon juice

1 clove garlic, crushed

3 Tbs. finely chopped fresh parsley

3 Tbs. finely chopped fresh cilantro

¼ tsp. ground cumin

¼ tsp. paprika

salt and freshly ground black pepper (to taste)

Cut the tomatoes into small cubes. Cut the onion in half, then slice the halves as thinly as possible and separate into half rings. Place the tomatoes and onion in a bowl.

Discard the pulp of the preserved lemon and rinse the peel well. Dry with paper towels, then cut into fine strips. Add to the tomatoes and onion rings. Add the chopped parsley and cilantro over the salad, and toss lightly.

Beat the olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, spices, salt and pepper in a small bowl or measuring cup. Pour over the salad, toss lightly to cover, and let stand for 30 minutes before serving.

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