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Saturday, February 4, 2012
Every little Mom and Pop provisions shop around Tunis carries a few staples that a mother could send her 11 year old to fetch as she’s making dinner and realizes she’s missing a key ingredient. There will always be canned tomatoes, tuna, a big variety of pasta and couscous for a little store, eggs, butter, and a few cheeses, olive oil, a variety of cured olives, and preserved lemons. When I moved here, I intended to be all about using preserved lemon, but, as with the olives, while the store-bought ones are nicely flavored, I wonder how they have been prepared and handled. How many times has the brine been reused? Thinking about that puts me off a little. Preserving my own olives turned out to not be so hard. Preserving lemons takes just a few minutes to get started and about a month till you’re in the gold.
My teaching partner and I have a shared hobby around the study and discovery of salt. It began when we developed a unit to teach our students about the impact of salt on the entire history of the world, an ambitious unit. In the process of our study, we both became energized on the subject. Richard gave me one of the most beautiful gifts I think I’ve ever received: a copy of Mark Bitterman’s impassioned “manifesto” (his subtitle) on the subject of salt, titled Salted, along with a small collection of about 16 of the earth’s rarest salts. Becoming educated about salt is going to be an ongoing pursuit and Richard and I are going to meet up in Portland this summer to visit Mark’s specialty shop, rather his temple to salt, to continue that process.
8 large lemons, scrubbed clean
About 3 cups rock sea salt (This is my modification. Mark calls for sel gris and maybe after I visit his store next summer I will be able to indulge in such a quantity of specialty salt, but for today, it will be nice-enough Tunisian sea salt.)
8 juniper berries (optional)
Fresh lemon juice, as needed
Cut the tips off the ends of the lemons. Cut each lemon into quarters lengthwise leaving them attached at one end. Pack the lemons with a much salt as they will hold. Insert one juniper berry into each lemon.
Put the lemons in a sterilized wide-mouth quart-size jar, packing them in as tightly as possible. As you push the lemons into the jar, some juice will be squeezed from them. When the jar is full, the juice should cover the lemons; if it doesn’t, add fresh lemon juice.
Seal the jar and set aside for 3-4 weeks, until the lemon rinds become soft, shaking the jar every day to keep the salt well distributed. The lemons should be covered with juice at all times; add more as needed. Rinse the lemons before using.
What the heck do you use preserved lemons for?
Fair question. I have to say that this is a condiment you have to just try and discover the quality it gives to dishes. It is not brightly lemony. It does taste deeply of lemon, but without the tart edge. It bears a saltiness, but you rinse it before use so the salt is in good balance. Once you try it in a few dishes, I wager you will start to crave the flavor depth it can provide. Here are some suggestions from my favorite food magazine, Cuisine, which is published in New Zealand.
● In small quantities, preserved lemons add a little zing to tapenades as well as a refreshing flavor to couscous, lentil or quinoa salads. The liquid from the jar can also be used in dressings.
● Preserved lemons transform yoghurt or mayonnaise to be used as a dressing and, finely chopped, add flavor to a tomato and cilantro salsa to accompany fish.
● Add a dressing of extra virgin olive oil and finely chopped preserved lemon peel to cooked, warmed lentils or beans along with plenty of watercress or arugula. Serve with crumbled feta or as an accompaniment for grilled lamb.
● Make a flavored butter by adding finely chopped preserved lemon, garlic and chives to softened butter. Spread under a chicken skin before roasting or serve atop a piece of fried fish.
● Finish a seafood risotto with finely chopped preserved lemon or add to a gremolata, along with finely chopped parsley and garlic, to finish a braise of beef or lamb.
● Add slivers of preserved lemons to vegetables before roasting. Or blanch and sauté broccoli or cauliflower in olive oil with garlic then add slivers of preserved lemon and some pitted olives.
● Make a tagine of lamb or chicken by browning the meat then adding chopped onions, garlic, slivers of preserved lemons, cumin seeds, a few chopped tomatoes, fresh cilantro and a little stock or water. Preserved lemons will also enliven all kinds of other casseroles.
Thursday, February 2, 2012
I went to our large produce market last weekend not because I needed anything different from what my corner produce stand has, but because I wanted the convenience of fish and produce in the same location. Remember last weekend’s fish fest? I was perfectly happy striving along with my fennel, potatoes, peppers, artichokes, lemons and herbs. There is so much more I need to do with just these selections. But, I went to the big market and look what they had: vine ripened, and some cute and tart unripened, tomatoes, Romanesco broccoli, which on its own could be a reason to move to Italy, and Narcissus, which are such a spring harbinger, but boy do they stink up the house. I’m finally ready to admit that.
We have had a dribble of strawberries already, but being a seasoned Tunisian resident, I’ve lived here over a whole year now, I didn’t bite on the first buzz-bomb strawberry that caught my eye. No, I know we will still have some strawberries in May and I remember making strawberry jam in March last year, so I was waiting. I come from a strawberry-fulfilled county in Washington State. I know, however, that the first strawberries you see in June are from California and taste like sheetrock. You have to wait until the local berries are almost spoiled before you can get the really good ones. Don’t get me started on the year my county was practically dumping strawberries into dumpsters they had such a bumper crop and our local Trader Joe’s had a pyramid of California strawberries in their store. I didn't go in that store for about two years after that.
We live by local harvests here. Can you imagine something so pure and wonderful? When you see strawberries in the market, you can buy them and they will be sweet and full of the tastes of earth and sunshine. I still can’t believe it.
I am a big-time strawberry shortcake devotee, but only if every ingredient is homemade and real. For these gentle, hand-raised strawberries, I made a special, but wholesome, pavlova, bearing the warm flavor of brown sugar. The pavlova layers were a little crisp and chewy on the outside and marshmallowy on the inside. Piled with layers of whipped crème fraiche, and strawberries, it was a winter delight, especially as it was pouring rain outside.
Brown Sugar Pavlova with Strawberries
adapted from Gourmet Grilling, 2011
Confectioners' sugar for dusting
1 cup superfine granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 1/2 Tbsp cornstarch
1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 tsp. distilled white vinegar
3/4 cup egg whites (5-6 large eggs) at room temperature for 30 minutes
2 1/2 lb strawberries, trimmed and quartered
2 Tbsp granulated sugar
1 1/3 cup creme fraiche
Preheat oven to 275 degrees F, rack in middle. Lightly butter 3 (8-inch) round cake pans and line with rounds of parchment paper. Dust sides of pans with confectioners' sugar, knocking out excess.
Pulse superfine sugar, brown sugar, and cornstarch in a food processor until well combined.
Stir together vanilla and vinegar in a small bowl.
Beat egg whites with a pinch of salt , using an electric mixer at medium speed until they hold soft peaks. Increase speed to medium-high and add sugar mixture 1 tablespoon at a time. After all sugar has been added, beat 1 minute more. Add vinegar mixture, then beat at high speed until meringue is glossy and holds stiff peaks, about 5 minutes. Spoon meringue into pans (about 2 1/2 cups per pan) and smooth tops.
Bake until meringues have a crisp crust and feel dry to the touch, about 1 hour (insides will still be moist and marshmallow-like).
Turn oven off and prop door open slightly, using a wooden spoon if necessary. Cool meringues in oven 1 hour.
Run knife along sides of cake pans and carefully turn meringues out of pans. Carefully peel off parchment (meringues will be fragile and may crack further). Carefully turn right side up.
Toss berries with sugar and let stand at room temperature until ready to use (up to 1 hour).
Beat creme fraiche using an electric mixer until it just holds soft peaks. Put 1 meringue on a serving plate and spread 1/3 of whipped cream over it. Spoon 1/3 of fruit (with juice) over top. Repeat layering with remaining meringues, cream, and fruit.