Daphne

It’s a cold rainy Monday morning in Melbourne and I’m sitting at my desk preparing my recipes for cooking class tomorrow.
Over the weekend, my lovely niece gave me quite a few sprigs of daphne from the bush by her front door and I am drinking in the exquisite scent of the small but strongly fragrant blooms.
A native of China and Japan, this bush, also known as winter flowering daphne,  grows well in cool climates which enables it to flourish and flower prolifically in Southern Australia. The most common varieties have pink and white flowers but there is also a white variety, often with yellow and green variegated leaves that has a more citrussy perfume…  If you can get your hands on a sprig of either variety, put it in a vase near your work space or next to your bed and enjoy it during its brief season…. definitely one of life’s little pleasures!

 


Moroccan Preserved Lemons

There are so many lemon trees thriving in the gardens of Melbourne and they are at their peak at the moment. Just last week, I took a wrong turn and as I wove my way through the back streets of Richmond to get to my destination I was amazed by the number of heavily laden boughs hanging over onto the footpaths… just begging to be picked. Two icons of the Melbourne back yard are the Hill’s Hoist and the prolific Eureka lemon tree that bears fruit all year round with the heaviest crop ripening in our winter season.  A friend brought me a huge bag containing about five kilos of the shiniest, most fragrant lemons last week and, as my supply of preserved lemons was dwindling, I set about making a new batch to see me through the next twelve months or so.

I admit that I can’t really be bothered sterilising jars so I use a glazed cylindrical container with a perforated lid that I have had for more than ten years.  It was designed to pickle olives and has proved the ideal container for my lemons. I pack them in really tightly, filling the container right up to the brim and then place the lid and my heaviest mortar and pestle on top to press down on the lemons until the juices run and the level goes down.  I then change the mortar for my smallest one until the level goes down some more and then replace it with a well washed building brick so that the lid keeps pressing down on the lemons and the juice starts to seep through the holes in the lid.
I then leave the container in a cool place for 2 or 3 months… or even longer.  The way to tell if the lemons are ready is to take one out and see that the lemon juice and salt have turned into a viscous salty “syrup” and the lemon flesh comes away from the peel easily.  If the lemons are not properly cured, they will have a bitter, “pithy” flavour.  I prefer using only lemons and salt… with no added extras like cinnamon or, perish the thought, bay leaves which completely denature the fragrance of this wonderful Moroccan ingredient.. irreplaceable in tagines and salads.. divine with sardines!

PRESERVED LEMONS

whole lemons
fine sea salt
coarse sea salt

Wash the lemons well and soak in a tub of cold water overnight.  If the lemons are very thick skinned, replace the water each day for 3 days.
Drain the lemons, remove any stems and cut into quarters, but not cutting right through, leaving the bases intact.
Pour a thin layer of fine salt into the bottom of your container or jar.  This will help to draw out the juice from the lemons.  Pack each cut lemon with coarse salt and pack into the container.
Continue this process until all the lemons are salted and packed tightly into the container.  Sprinkle with another thin layer of fine salt and weigh down with a heavy weight.
Store the container in a cool, dark place for 2 to 3 months when the lemons will be ready to use.  They can then be transferred to sterilised jars.

To use, rinse the lemons and remove the flesh, using the peel as a garnish in tajines or cut into tiny dice for use in salads.
A restaurateur I know uses the diced peel with chardonnay vinegar as a dressing for oysters… delicious!

Below are pictures of the thin skinned “Beldi” or local Moroccan lemons that are pickled whole

Harira Bidaouia

Just a short two weeks till the start of Ramadan!  Melbourne is not a bad place to be in August for those who are fasting this year… chilly short days…and for those who do not observe Ramadan… the perfect weather to cook and enjoy this delicious soup. A few years ago, I spent time in the Casablanca home of dear friends during this month of fasting.  Each day we would prepare the Harira and the other dishes that would be enjoyed by the family as part of the ftour or breaking of the fast.
As soon as the first star was spied in the sky, a siren would sound and people would gather to break the fast with a date or two and a glass of milk or juice. This was invariably followed by a bowl of Harira accompanied by dates, bread, hard boiled eggs and the famous Moroccan chebbakieh pastries, formed into rosette shapes,  fried in oil, drained and soaked in honey.
This meal was a prelude to an evening of chatting, snacking and enjoying each other’s company.
Here is the recipe and pictures of the ingredients for those who are unfamiliar with some of them.

Ingredients 1

HARIRA

1 small red onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup chickpeas, soaked and peeled
1/3 cup small red lentils
1 tbsp smen
1 tbsp vegetable  oil
1 bunch Asian celery (krafes) chopped very finely
250g stewing beef cut into small cubes
1 tsp pepper
1 tsp turmeric
2 small pieces cassia bark
2-3  l water
1 kg fresh peeled and chopped tomatoes, or 1 can Italian chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato concentrate
salt
2 tbsp flour
50g vermicelli (shaariyeh) noodles
1 bunch fresh coriander,  finely chopped

 
Put the chopped onion, chickpeas, lentils, smen, oil, chopped celery and beef into a deep pot and heat over a low flame until the onion is translucent.  Add the spices and water and simmer  for an hour or two or until the chickpeas and meat are tender.
In the meantime,  cook the tomatoes in a separate saucepan until all their liquid has evaporated and they have reduced to a thick puree. Add to the first pot together with the tomato concentrate and the salt.
Dissolve the flour in a little cold water and add to the simmering soup, stirring until the soup thickens and any foam that has risen to the top has dissipated.
Add the vermicelli and coriander and cook for a further 3 minutes.
Serve hot with lemon wedges, dates and figs and, if available, chebbakieh pastries.



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