Mediterranean in Little Italy: Discovering Preserved Lemons in the Mahane Yehuda Market
Chef Olivia Hayo of Beautiful Food Inside + Out re-creates her culinary memories of the Mediterranean using inspiration, and local, seasonal ingredients, from her home in San Diego's Little Italy. This week, a pickled discovery in the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem opens up a world of seasonal flavors.
Dry mountain air burned my lungs as we walked up the steep grade of Yafo Street in central Jerusalem. My husband, Shay, grew up walking these streets and easily pulled me along by the hand. At the top of the hill was the entrance to Mahane Yehuda market; a destination for locals and travelers to shop and eat.
A long central pass cut through the middle of the market with alleys winding off into deeper twisting passageways. We turn down one such alleyway, scented with roasted nuts and seeds. A bright stall framed with bins of toasted pine nuts, almonds, and peanuts radiated warmth from its ovens. A shopkeeper inside, a cigarette pursed between his lips, sliced open a large burlap sack. From it, he poured watermelon seeds into a large tray, spreading them evenly with a paddle before sliding it into the oven to toast.
We turned a corner and found counters piled high with ripe fruit and vegetables and spice shops wafting notes of allspice, cardamom and clove. We stopped in front of a dozen barrels brimming with spiced olives and pickles. I nudged Shay and pointed to a container filled with deep yellow lemon wedges in brine. He asked a man sitting in the back of the stall for a taste.
As the vendor handed Shay a slice, he explained that it was lemon preserved in sea salt and spices.
“She’s the chef,” Shay said, winking at the vendor as he passed the sample onto me. “I’m just the final taste tester!”
I took a bite, bracing for intensely bitter, sour flavor. But, the salt had softened the tough rind to the point that it was almost translucent. The bitterness had likewise been tamed, leaving behind only the lemon’s floral notes and bright acidity.
Back home in San Diego I make my own preserved lemon, and when I need it fast, I buy it from one of the many wonderful international grocers around town. I use it often to infuse unique, Middle Eastern flavor into seasonal dishes.
On a recent trip to the farmers market I picked up bunches of young carrots and roasted them with local olive oil and baharat, a Middle Eastern spice blend with warm fragrant notes of coriander and black pepper. I serve these earthy roasted carrots on a bed of cool yogurt flecked with preserved lemon, a drizzle of sticky honey, and a scattering of toasted pine nuts and think of the treasures of the Mahane Yehuda market.