Sunday, 2 May 2010

A classical education with zest

The first time I saw lemon trees, I was a sixth form schoolgirl on a Latin class expedition to Italy. Under the gimlet eye of fearsome, flame-haired Miss Mansfield, our chattering group travelled by train through France and Switzerland, emerging from the St Bernhardt Pass at dawn, stopping overnight in Milan and finally arriving in Rome. And there they were, the lemon trees, their brilliant fruits glowing amongst glossy green leaves and fragrant white blossom, as magical to me as the myths of ancient Rome and the wonders of Pompeii.

And then the revelation of Italian lemon ice cream, an explosion of sweet and sour sunshine served by street vendors as the anarchic Romans hurtled past on Lambrettas or drove their masseratis with one hand on the wheel, the other combing their hair and both eyes on the women. Or limone pressi, lemon juice freshly squeezed in an art deco contraption (dream on, Philippe Starck) on to rough sugar crystals in tall glasses, swizzled with long spoons by street vendors in crowded, odorous, ebullient Naples.

So that trip to Italy, my first abroad, opened my eyes to the wondrous power of lemons. Until then the high point of my culinary enjoyment of this fruit had been limited to lemon curd from the Womens' Institute and the Sunday treat of lemon meringue pie conjured, as in so many households in the early 60s, from a Green’s packet, the lemon essence dissolved in a strange gelatine capsule. I loved the citrus smell and to capture the fragrance, I kept lemon-shaped guest soaps produced by Bronnley - seen then as the height of sophistication - amongst briefs and blouses in my chest of drawers.

I have yet to achieve my dream of living in a house with a lemon grove, but I am now seriously considering a single tree in a terracotta tub for my south facing London patio as a more realistic alternative. In the meantime, I am never without lemons in the fridge - or in a large glass jar packed with rock salt and spices - ready to transform a simple dish into a memorable one.

Orange and lemon juice stall in Pompeii, photograph by Alison Avery.

Preserved lemons
Cut unwaxed lemons into quarters, without going all the way through, then pack the cuts with sea salt. Squash into a preserving jar, seal and leave for a couple of days, so the salt draws out the juice. Top up with fresh lemon juice from the remaining lemons, to cover the fruit (add if you don't have enough juice), with spices too if you like (I put in a cinnamon stick, bay leaf and star anise or black mustard seeds) then leave for at least a month. Use only the well rinsed skin of the lemons, scraping off and discarding the pulp.

Moroccan chicken with preserved lemon, olives and coriander

This is a delicious recipe from one of my favourite cookery writers, Claudia Roden. It is very good tempered, and I often cook it on a low heat in the oven whilst at the theatre or cinema, adding the lemon and olives on return whilst preparing the cous cous and tossing the salad.

I sometimes also take all the meat off the bone in large chunks and return to the pan, rather than carving the whole bird at the table with the sauce separately. It reheats well too, but again, leave adding the lemon peel and olives until just before serving, to get the full fragrance.

Serves 4- 6 depending on size of chicken

Whole chicken, including the liver if possible
½ teaspoon ginger
1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon
large pinch saffron powder
salt and pepper 3 tablespoons oil (sunflower or olive)
2-3 garlic cloves,
crushed 1 large onion, finely chopped
large bunch of parsley, finely chopped
large bunch of coriander, finely chopped
peel only of 1 preserved lemon, rinsed well and cut into small pieces
50g pinky green or brown olives, soaked in two changes of water for 1 hour

Clean the chicken, removing the lumps of fat often found in the cavity. Put ginger, cinnamon, saffon, pinch of salt and pepper into a large pan or iron casserole with about 700ml of water and the oil. Stir well and then add the chicken with its liver and the remaining ingredients except the lemon peel and olives. Cook, covered for 45 minutes, turning chicken over occasionally and adding more water if necessary.
Add the lemon peel and the drained and rinsed olives. Cook for a further 15 minutes or so until the chicken is so tender that the flesh comes easily from the bone. Remove the liver, mash it and return it to the pan to thicken the sauce, which should be greatly reduced but not too dry.

Fruity lamb casserole with apricots and preserved lemon

2-inch piece of ginger, cut into fine julienne sticks
5 cloves garlic
4 shallots
12 apricots (the natural, brown dried ones if possible)
750g lamb neck fillets, cut into cubes
1 tsp harissa (optional)
½ a preserved lemon, peel only
1 litre cider (or stock)
1 sprig rosemary
1 tbsp flour
Fresh oregano to garnish (or coriander)
Olive oil

Serves 4
Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan and brown the lamb over high heat. Set aside. Reduce heat under pan and add shallots (with a little more oil if necessary) When the shallots are beginning to take on some colour, add the sliced garlic, the ginger, the lamb, the diced skin of the half-lemon (reserve the flesh) and the apricots to the pan. Cook, stirring well, for another five minutes, then add the flour to the pan, stirring to make sure the flour is coating everything.

Pour the cider or stock over the lamb, the rosemary and the harissa (if used) to the mixture. Bring to a gentle simmer, cover and leave to simmer for two hours until sauce is fruity and lamb tender. Taste the sauce and adjust seasoning if necessary. Garnish the dish with oregano.

1 comment:

  1. What a coincidence that I get your lovely lemony blog the day after I buy a citrus tree! Mine is a lime and already sports three fruit, lovely fragrant blossom and succulent leaves. I tried one leaf cut into julienne strips to flavour a marinade for scallops yesterday.
    If you are interested in buying a tree I got mine from The Citrus Centre in Pulborough. Nice people - nice trees.