Harissa and Preserved Lemon Grilled Shrimp

Perfect fare for hot summer grilling with friends.

Shrimp are often treated as the frozen boneless chicken breast of the sea. The natural sweet flavor of these tasty crustaceans are often masked in complex sauces and over seasoned breading, or worse to be lost completely as an overcooked and flavorless seafood in a poorly made fried rice. When grilling with friends in the summer, I all to often see the sad offering of over seasoned grilled shrimp skewers, it is a sad fate for the lowly shrimp to be reserved as an appetizer. “Bland” needn't be the last word on our lovely decapod friends, a simple marinade of Harissa and Preserved Lemons can change shrimp from the surf and turf sideline to an addicting grilled main coarse.

In this recipe, I'll be using Harissa and Preserved Lemons to create a simple marinade. These two lesser known products work great together for marinading seafood, poultry, pork, beef, or even lamb and goat. Both Harissa and Preserved Lemons are common ingredients used in Moroccan cuisine, often found seasoning meats or adding punch to tagines. Although these ingredients deserve a bit of explanation before we get to the recipe.

Harissa is a delightful chili spread from northern Africa, often found in Tunisian and Moroccan cuisine. Perfect in its simplicity, Harissa contains coarse ground chili peppers in olive oil with a little sun dried tomato and a few spices to finish. This spreadable sauce is great all on its own, often needing little more than a fresh baguette to compliment it's smokey and lightly spicy taste. Harissa can also be spread right onto meats for roasting, mixed in with rice or coucous for flavor, or stirred into stews to add a rich complexity. The uses of Harissa are plentiful, falling somewhere in flavor between rich Italian tomato sauces and hot spicy thai chili paste. Try experimenting with Harissa by substituting it for tomato paste,  adding a spicy North African flair to just about any recipe.

Preserved Lemons are two great things, sour and salty. Just as their name implies, Preserved Lemons are simply whole lemons pickled in a salty brine. The sour lemon brine can be used as a great salty base for a marinade, penetrating deeply into proteins. The lemons themselves, ripe with sunny citrus, the rind of these lemons pack most of the flavor. Some chefs use just the salty  zest of these lemons in place of salt, making a great pairing for edamame or asparagus. Although the heart of these lemon's flavor resides in the pith of the rind, where the salty sourness is most concentrated.

Mince preserved lemons whole, no need for peeling.

For this recipe, I've minced the whole lemons, rind and all. This is the kind of preparation used most often in Moroccan recipes, slicing the whole lemon without need for peeling. This also makes the removal of pesky seeds much easier, although a stray seed or two won't hurt the marinade.

A quick word on shrimp themselves. When buying uncooked shrimp, they should always be purchased as fresh as possible, avoiding frozen shrimp at all costs. That said, if you don't live next to a major body of water where fresh shrimp are readily available, like us here in Chicago, frozen shrimp can be your best friend. When purchasing frozen shrimp, head and shell on are the best bet. Most of shrimp's flavor are packed in the head and shells, keeping them intact will help preserve their sweet flavor. To prep frozen shell on shrimp, thaw in a bath of ice water and then clean by slicing the tail shells with a sharp pairing knife and deveining. Work as quickly as possible, time spent at room temperature is dangerous for raw shrimp, be sure to always place the raw shrimp on a bed of ice between these steps. After the shrimp are thawed and cleaned, I prefer to skewer my shrimp tail to head when working with head on shrimp, one shrimp per skewer. If working with headless shrimp, skewer the shrimp as crescents, with no more than three to a skewer for even cooking. After the shrimp are prepped, place in refrigeration and be sure to cook within 12 to 24 hours. Now to the marinade

This Harissa and Preserved Lemon marinade is as versatile and simplistic as the individual ingredients themselves. The only ingredients are a jar of Traditional Harissa, a jar of Preserved Lemons, one fresh lemon, a dash of champagne vinegar, and some olive oil. That's it. This marinade is perfect for shrimp but also fantastic for grilled or roasted chicken, pork chops or loin, fish, even steaks! I like to think of it as a slightly more gourmet version of the classically all-purpose italian dressing marinade. This marinade is just as easy to make, just as versatile, but twice as impressive. Here's the recipe:

Harissa and Preserved Lemon Marinade

To prepare, mince whole Preserved Lemons and combine with brine from jar in a medium bowl. Mix in Harissa, juice and zest of the fresh lemon, vinegar, and olive oil. Stir until well combined. Taste and adjust heat by adding Cayenne pepper if a hotter marinade is desired.
Pardon the shaky photography, I had to fight off hungry friends before these were all gone!

I marinaded two pounds of prepped U8 head on shrimp for about five hours with this recipe, although they shouldn't need more than two hours. Grill shrimp on medium low heat, turning skewers once, one to two minutes per side. Serve immediately, their best when their hot!


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