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Originally published Saturday, February 25, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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Quick-preserved lemons brighten a chicken stir-fry

A Good Appetite: A quick citrus preserve adds a nuanced burst of flavor in one speedy step. Recipe: Sauteed Chicken with Meyer Lemon and Rosemary

The New York Times

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A jar of preserved lemons sitting in the fridge is a boon for the busy cook. Chopped up and tossed into salads, stews and sautes, they add a bright, nuanced burst of flavor in one speedy step — as long as you happen to have some on hand.

If you don't, you could whip up a batch and let it cure for a week. Or you could go out and buy a jar, which, unless you happen to live near a Middle Eastern grocery, could involve a subway, car or bus ride. Both options negate the quick and effortless part of the equation.

There is, however, another possibility that takes 10 minutes: making your own quick lemon preserve, or lemon pickle.

Instead of letting the age-old combination of salt and time tame the bitterness of lemon pith by themselves, heat and sugar speed the process along, pickling the citrus in minutes. Just blanch a thinly sliced lemon to remove some of its bite, then simmer it again in a pot of heavily sugared and salted water. You'll end up with lemon slivers that are at once salty, sweet, sour and bitter — and far more interesting than they should be given the amount of work that went into them. They get even better when you fry them in oil, letting their flavors caramelize and turn honeyed.

This technique works particularly well with Meyer lemons, which are sweeter and milder than regular lemons and generally contain less bitter pith beneath the rind. Regular lemons can work too, but blanch them in plain water twice before simmering them in the sugar-salt mixture.

You could use the quick-preserved lemon slices as the base of any soup or stew, as long as you let them get good and golden before adding any other ingredients to the pan (otherwise they might steam instead of caramelizing). Or try tossing them with vegetables before roasting.

For this stir-fry, I brown the slices, then mix them with nuggets of chicken, aromatic fresh rosemary and plenty of tender, melting leeks. It makes a hearty dish that takes well less than an hour to throw together — pickling time included.

SAUTEED CHICKEN

WITH MEYER LEMON AND ROSEMARY

Time: About 30 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

1 ½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs or breasts, cut into ½-inch strips

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons minced rosemary

Kosher salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

1 ½ Meyer lemons

2 tablespoons sugar

2 leeks, thinly sliced

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1. Toss the chicken with 1 tablespoon oil, rosemary, 1 teaspoon salt, and pepper.

2. Trim the ends from 1 lemon, quarter lengthwise and remove the seeds. Slice quarters crosswise into 1/8-inch slices.

3. Bring a small pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add the lemon slices, lower the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Drain under cold running water. Rinse out the pot and refill it with 1 cup water, the sugar and 1 tablespoon salt. Bring to a boil. Drop in the blanched lemon slices and simmer for 3 minutes. Drain under cold running water, pat dry.

4. Heat a skillet over high heat for 5 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons oil. It should start to shimmer immediately; add the lemon slices and stir-fry quickly until golden. Stir in the leeks and reduce heat to medium-high. Cook until leeks are soft and golden, about 3 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook 1 minute. Push the leek mixture to one side of the skillet; stir in the chicken mixture and sear, without moving, about 4 minutes. Mix in the leeks and continue cooking until the chicken is no longer pink, about 3 to 6 minutes more. Drizzle with juice from the remaining lemon half, to taste.

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