Saturday, July 26, 2008

If life gives you (lots of) lemons....

Last week I lucked upon a well-loved copy of Claudia Roden's hard-to-find Book of Middle Eastern Food which I planned to keep for myself, until a customer came in to the shop today desperate for a copy - so of course I gave her mine. Like many of my customers, I'm going through a Morrocan stage. My palate, which favours curries and spicy food, took a while to adjust to the more subtle flavourings of many Middle Eastern dishes, but now I love to cook a tagine and am starting to expand the repertoire. On the weekend I took advantage of our ancient lemon tree's huge bounty to make preserved lemons - which are a real signature flavour of Middle Eastern food. Although I don't have Claudia's original book I do have in the shop a copy of her Tamarind & Saffron - "a collection of new and updated recipes" according to the blurb.

Roden has three methods for making preserved lemons: in the traditional method lemons are quartered, stuffed with salt and then packed into a sterilised jar, topped up with lemon juice after 3-4 days and then left for at least a month; in another method the lemons are prepared in the same way but then topped up with brine. The third method is super-quick - Roden promises these will be ready in 4 days. The lemons are boiled for about 25 minutes in brine until soft, the flesh is scooped out and the skins are packed into a glass jar and covered with sunflower or light vegetable oil. Greg Malouf's fabulous book Arabesque also has a recipe for preserved lemons in which cinnamon sticks, coriander seeds and lemon or bay leaves are packed into the jar with the salt and also honey dissolved into the lemon juice which is poured over the lemons. In Malouf's method the jar, once sealed, is boiled for 6 minutes. Stephanie Alexander also has a great method in Cook's Companion ( I'm a traditionalist and swear by the first, orange, edition which a friend who works for Penguin gave me when it first came out).

I've done my usual thing of reading lots of recipes for a particular dish and then adapting them as I go. You can see some of the photos here, and they don't look too bad for a first attempt. I'm looking forward to using them in tagines and couscous, and in risottos and pasta dishes. I'm also planning on using Greg Malouf's recipe from Arabesque for Preserved Lemon Butter which combines the finely chopped lemons with garlic, thyme, parsley and sumac and softened butter - delicious with chicken and it can be kept in the freezer for several weeks .

I've also made a classic old-fashioned lemon cordial, from a recipe in my falling-apart copy of the PWMU cookbook (I'd love to get a better copy, but like Roden's Middle Eastern Food, there's always a customer whose need is greater than mine, so I never get to bring one home!). I'm sure everyone knows the recipe, but here it is anyway (this recipe makes around 3 litres). Of course the cordial is lovely as a refreshing drink (water down about 1 part to 6 with mineral water), but is even better with gin or vodka (although probably not in the same proportions!):

Lemon Cordial

2 kg sugar
grated rind and juice of 6 lemons
1 TBS tartaric acid
1 TBS epsom salts
2 TBS citric acid
6 cups boiling water

Put all the dry ingredients and lemon juice together in a basin, add boiling water, mix and dissolve, strain and bottle (in sterilised bottles if you intend keeping it, which it does well for several months).

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