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

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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.



Bessara

One of the most comforting and easy to prepare soups for the winter months is Moroccan Bessara.  I first came across this delicious dish on my first trip to Morocco. I traversed the country with a young driver called Abdel ‘adim who was an expert in street food and Moroccan music… the best introduction to the simple dishes of the country as well as a stunning collection of tunes.

I still love eating bessara in the Medina of Fes el Bali with a fresh loaf from the neighbourhood bakery and mint tea made by one of the experts of the medina. Can’t think of anything better on a cold day!  If you can’t find ready peeled and split beans, you will have to soak and skin the whole beans (an extremely tedious business).

Bessara

500 g dried small peeled broad (fava) beans
6 cloves garlic, peeled
salt
extra virgin olive oil
ground cumin
hot paprika

Pick over and rinse the broad beans.
Put them  in a saucepan with the garlic, cover with fresh water and bring to the boil. Do not salt at this stage!
Skim any scum that rises to the surface and simmer for an hour or until the broad beans are soft and starting to fall apart.
Stir well with a wooden spoon, scraping the bottom of the pot to make sure that they do not stick and burn and mash them against the sides of the pot until a thick soup is obtained. (or puree with a mixing wand).
Stir in 1/4 cup of olive oil, salt to taste and 1 tbsp cumin and cook for a further five minutes.

Serve in small soup bowls. Pour another tablespoon of oil onto the surface of each bowl of bessara, sprinkle with extra ground cumin and serve with hot pepper or chilli on the side.

Fresh bread and fried eggs make this a filling and satisfying meal.

NB Fresh cumin is of the utmost importance as is the quality of the extra virgin olive oil.

Violet Ice-cream

After quite a bit of thought and fiddling around, I finally came up with a violet ice-cream recipe.  Not too much colour… very subtle flavour, most of it coming as an after-taste, like most perfumes  (think truffle, jasmine… an ethereal waft that floats between the nostrils and the tip of your tongue).

Violet Ice-cream

4 egg yolks
135g sugar
400 ml full cream milk
100 ml heavy cream, chilled
1 tbsp Monin violet syrup
1 tbsp violet liqueur (Creme de Violettes)
2 drops pink food colouring
2 drops blue food colouring

Heat the milk with half the sugar taking care not to let it boil.
Beat the yolks with the remaining sugar until the mixture is thick and white.
Slowly pour the heated milk over the yolk mixture, beating well.
Return the mixture to the saucepan and simmer, whisking continuously, until the mixture thickens slightly and coats the back of a spoon.
Make sure it doesn’t boil.  If you have a candy thermometer, the temperature of the mixture should reach 85°C.  Remove from the heat immediately. Stir well and add the chilled cream. Flavour with the violet syrup and liqueur and tint with the food colouring.
Cool completely and churn in an ice-cream churn.
Garnish with fresh or crystallised violets.

Imperial Mandarins

Winter is officially here… the weather in Melbourne has been crisp but deliciously sunny – the leaves are still falling and the air is misty.   Couldn’t resist buying a bunch of the first white jonquils to appear and am loving their heady perfume. Piles of shiny mandarins are in all the fruit shops and markets, golden, fragrant and juicy.  Time to make the first Mandarin Sorbet of the season. My take on sorbets is that they should taste more like the fruit than the fruit itself… with that third dimension that  I like to call the IMAX effect… !  Adding an alcohol made from the same fruit used to make the sorbet gives it a depth and smooth texture that is otherwise hard to achieve without adding too much sugar and making it oversweet.
An ice cream churn is a must to get the smooth, ice free texture that makes your sorbet so perfect – I’ve had my trusty Simac Il Gelataio for nearly 30 years.  (It’s a huge monster but I wouldn’t be without it… the results are perfect every time and it has only needed a service twice since I’ve owned it.) It lives on a shelf in my pantry and never comes out except for spring cleaning.

Several types of mandarins appear as the season progresses but only the Imperial variety is fragrant enough for making sorbet with a flavour to make you swoon.

MANDARIN SORBET

500 ml mandarin juice
250 ml simple syrup (1:1 sugar/water)
juice of 1 lemon
1 tsp finely grated mandarin zest (use fine microplane)
2 tbsp Mandarin Napoleon liqueur

Combine all the ingredients in a jug and chill.
Taste for sugar and acidity adding more syrup or lemon juice if needed.
Churn until smooth.  Transfer to a container and freeze for a few hours to let the flavours develop.

A little salad of fresh mandarin segments tossed in a tbsp sugar syrup and a tsp Mandarin Napoleon is a lovely accompaniment.

Violet Time

Violet products

I was visiting friends in the country last week. It was a grey day and the autumn colours were rendered even more brilliant for having been washed by the rain. The rain let up just before I arrived and a quick tour of the garden before lunch had me lusting after the huge crop of violets peeking out from under heart shaped dark leaves.
Melancholy, cool days with the pigeon-breast skies and falling leaves that herald the arrival of winter winter have me  feeling like changing my summer fig perfume for Penhaligon’s Violetta and snuggle on the couch under a soft woolen throw with a good book and relaxing music. A little vase of fresh violets always makes me smile too.  It is a shame they have such a short vase life although I have found that, if they are sprayed with a light mist of water several times a day, they can last up to four or five days.
I keep a little tin of Violette flavoured “Les Anis de Flavigny” pastilles on the side table or in my handbag. These are violet flavoured sugar drops concealing a grain of  real aniseed… a wonderful pick me up and mouth freshener. (I prefer Orange Blossom and Rose flavours the rest of the year)

If a friend comes to visit, we may have an Aviation Cocktail made with Creme de Violette liqueur or, if that is too much trouble, a glass of sparkling white wine  or even plain water with a splash of Monin Violet syrup to set the mood.   This season, with all these wonderful violet products as well as a fresh supply of crystallised violets in the pantry, I may just try to make some violet icecream…. shall keep you posted.

Purim

Today is the Jewish festival of Purim commemorating the salvation from annihilation of the Jewish community of Persia thanks to their Jewish queen, Esther, around the 4th century BCE.
The above link gives full details of the festival as well as the customs and foods associated with its celebration.
It is a joyous time, especially  for children who dress up  and are allowed to make lots of noise in the synagogue to drown out the name of Haman, the villain of the piece, each time it is mentioned during the reading of the Book of Esther. It is traditional to send gifts of food and drink to one’s family and friends and to make charitable donations to the needy.  It is a festival where drinking to excess is not only permitted, but encouraged!
My sister, cousins and I dressed up for Purim in the mid 1950s

The traditional pastry baked on the occasion of Purim is known in Hebrew as Oznei Haman (Haman’s ears), a triangular pastry filled with poppy seeds or fruit preserves and, these days, other more modern fillings containing chocolate.  My favourite recipe is adapted from Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish food.

OZNEI HAMAN

For the dough:
250g flour
pinch salt
2 tbsp sugar
2 drops vanilla extract
150g unsalted butter
1 egg yolk
2-3 tsp milk
I egg, lightly beaten with 1 tsp milk to glaze

Poppy seed filling:
150g ground poppy seeds
175ml milk
2 tbsp honey
4 tbsp sugar
4 tbsp sultanas
grated zest of 1 lemon
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 1/2 tbsp unsalted butter.

To make the dough, process the flour, salt and sugar in a food processor.  Add the butter, cut into small pieces and process until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs then add the vanilla extract, egg and milk and process until the dough forms a ball.  Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 mins.
To make the filling, simmer the poppyseed and milk in a small saucepan for 5 minutes or so allowing the milk to be absorbed.  Add the sugar,  honey and sultanas and simmer for a few more minutes.  Off the heat,  stir in the lemon zest and juice, mixing well.  Set aside to cool.

Preheat the oven to 190°C.
Divide the dough into 4 parts.  Roll out one quarter of the dough to a thickness of 3mm (keeping the rest of the dough chilled in the refrigerator).
Using a 7.5cm fluted cutter, cut out rounds.  Place a heaped tsp of filling in the centre of each round and pinch the sides up to form triangular pastries.
Brush with the egg wash and bake of 10-15 minutes until golden.

Allow to cool before CAREFULLY transferring them to a serving dish.  They are quite fragile.

If you have the time, you can make half sized pastries to serve as petits fours… more fiddly to make but very elegant!

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