Thursday, September 6, 2007

On lemons and gardens

Throughout my twenties, moving from house to house, the one thing that determined if a property was just right, was access to a lemon tree. Be it a branch, laden with fruit, hanging over the fence, a neighbourhood tree from which a little pilfering now and then in the dark would not be detected, or, better still, a tree of my own, this simple rule has kept me in good stead. I love lemons. Growing up in a typically Australian suburb on the (then) outskirts of Sydney, the lemon tree with its thick gnarled branches was the most useful plant in our otherwise very English cottage garden. The fruit was thick-skinned and the juice particularly sour. I used to mime to ABBA songs with a girl from next door who would eat the lemons straight from the tree, wincing, but soldiering on as if on some sort of mission. Good Lord. My lips still curl at the mere thought.

Lemons are simply indispensable in the kitchen. Cooking, indeed eating without them would be unthinkable. Anna Del Conte in Amaretto, Apple Cake & Artichokes says, ‘I feel totally lost when I discover I haven’t got a single lemon in the larder’. Might I add to that a lemon within short walking distance?

When we moved here a full twelve months ago, the giant, showy cumquat tree that swamps the front garden overshadowed the lemon, its dark leaves lurking in the far corner of the eye. What a lemon tree. One of the down sides of renting is that the garden, like the house itself, isn’t ever really yours to own. You cannot take a garden with you, nor can you make one, a real one, in the space of just a few years. I’ve had a few trees in my time, but this one, a Meyer as far as I can tell, is a corker. Thin-skinned, sweet of flesh and heaving with fruit, it’s a joy – just beware of the stabbing thorns, ever-ready to dig deep into wandering fingers. A Meyer, one equipped with a magnificent defense system, for sure.

Should we ever settle somewhere permanently, the first thing I will do is plant a Meyer lemon. Drought tolerant, useful, beautiful. You couldn’t ask for more.

What to do with all of that fruit? Salty preserved lemons. Once you’ve got the taste for this uniquely Moroccan specialty you’ll find yourself slipping a finely chopped chunk or two into almost anything. A tray of potatoes, roasted with wedges of red onion and a chopped red pepper or two then tossed with olive oil are lifted by a last minute addition of the lemons. Fresh coriander, smoked paprika and cumin, a downright addictive combination, even love that salt when tossed with fresh young broad beans (double-peeled) and tender chickpeas for a salad doused in grassy olive oil and fresh lemon juice.

Speedy preserved lemons
Adapted, only slightly, from Paula Wolfert’s recipe in Mediterranean Greens and Grains. Ready in seven days.

6 juicy, thin-skinned lemons, unsprayed and unwaxed
60g (2oz) of coarse sea salt (the big, grey chunks)
Olive oil

Cut 2 of the lemons into eighths and discard any obvious seeds. Pack the chunks into a clean glass jar.

Squeeze the juice from the remaining lemons until you have about 100ml. Add the sea salt and stir. Pour into the jar, secure the lid tightly and give it all a good shake.

Leave at room temperature with the lid on for 7 days. Shake the jar once or twice a day during this time.

After 7 days the lemons will be ready. Keep in the refrigerator and make sure the top of the jar covered with a thin layer of olive oil after opening. The oil becomes lemony and delicious and is perfect for dressing a salad when you’ve finished the lemons off.

To begin with, take one eighth, and very finely chop both skin and flesh adding to your chosen dish. Taste before deciding to add more (I always seem to add more). Many recipes tell you to discard the flesh and use only the skin, but I’ve never found that to be necessary.

Keeps, at the back of the fridge, for about 12 months. But don’t wait that long.

Here’s something well worth being the first thing you might make with those lemons.

For Christina, an excellent gardener.

Rainbow chard and feta filo pie – for 4
The only fancy bit of equipment you need here is a (very cheap) pastry brush. I also add the beetroot stalks, chopped and cooked with the chard stems when they are fresh and look snappy. The filling goes all pink and green – very pretty.

¼ cup of currants
¼ cup of pine nuts
1 bunch of rainbow chard or silverbeet
Olive oil
2 onions, very thinly sliced
2 cloves of garlic, very finely chopped
2 huge handfuls of greens (beetroot, rocket, whatever you’ve got)
Sea salt
4 eggs
200g of feta (goat’s feta works best)
½ a preserved lemon, finely chopped (more if you like)
80g of unsalted butter, melted
1 packet of filo pastry

Soak the currants in freshly boiled water for 20 minutes. Drain when ready. Toast the pine nuts in a dry pan until golden, tossing all the time – they must not burn. Cool on a plate and set aside.

Separate the rainbow chard leaves from the stems. Trim the stems and cut into small dice. Wash the leaves, shake them dry and then roll up and slice thinly into ribbons.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a heavy-based frying or saucepan and sauté the onion until pale gold. Add the stems and garlic and cook over a medium heat, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Add the sliced chard leaves to the pan, followed by the beetroot or rocket leaves and trickle over 1 more tablespoon of oil. Cover the pan until the leaves have softened, then remove lid and stir well. Add currants, a pinch of salt and toasted pine nuts and cook, lifting and turning, until the stems are tender but the leaves are glossy and green.

Break the eggs into a large bowl, beat briefly with a fork and crumble in the feta. Add the preserved lemon and a good grinding of black pepper. Tip in the chard filling and gently mix.

Brush shallow ovenproof dish with a little of the melted butter. Unfurl the whole packet of the pastry on the bench and place a clean tea towel on top. Use 4 or 5 sheets of pastry to line the prepared dish, overlapping and letting the edges hang over the sides. Pour in the filling.

Crumple the overlapping edges of pastry on to the filing. Brush the remaining sheets of pastry liberally with the butter, crumple each sheet and arrange over the top, ensuring it is completely covered. Bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes until the filling is set and the pastry golden. Cool slightly before slicing.

There are many other ways to use a lemon too. Watch this space.


Susan said...

Meyer lemon, a lemon you CAN sink your teeth into without wincing. Tell me, Lucy, does your lip curl thinking of your brave lemon-eating friend, or the idea that you mimed ABBA? ; )

Did you use Meyer for the preserved lemons or the usual kind? I'd have a hard time not pinching them everyday to taste them as they mature.

Christina said...

Thank you thank you thank you and thank you again! When my chard comes of age this winter, this will be its first treatment. Oh, I'm so excited by this recipe and I know I'm going to love it! THANK YOU!

And as for those Meyer lemons, there is just nothing like them, is there? I have a little dwarf tree in a pot that gives me a few each year, but most of them I get from my friends' loaded trees. They are such a bounty, anyone who has a tree has far more than they need, so they give them to me, and I send them as presents to family and friends who have no access to such sunny-lemony-goodness. I use what I keep in just about every way possible. My favorite salad dressing: a Meyer, a clove of garlic, and coarse salt all smashed together, then strained and whisked with good olive oil. Yum. And preserved Meyer lemons are perfect--I find other varieties have skins that are too thick and never taste as wonderful.

Okay, I'm rambling on and on, I'm just so happy and grateful for the recipe and the nice thoughts. Have a lovely day!

Lucy said...

I wear my ABBA-loving past proudly Susan! Though it was kind of embarassing...especially the dressing up and hair-brush for a microphone moments...I did use the Meyer's from the front garden. I've been making so many lovely things with them and yet never seem to tire of that perfume.

Christina, I'm so pleased you like the recipe. Must say, it's something of which I'm extremely proud flavour-wise. Can't wait to see photos of your harvest - the colours are electric. We are both fortunate living in places well-suited to growing lemons. Lucky us, eh?!

shula said...

I feel exactly the same way about lemon trees. I've rented bad houses with great lemon trees.

And mine would be a Meyer, also.

Sophie said...

Nice post and photos Lucy. Preserved lemons are a great ingredient, though I think some of my enthusiasm is because they keep in the fridge for so long. I'm always sneaking them into couscous and rice then being told off (my other half doesn't like them all that much)

Sylvia said...

When I was a child my grandmum has ,she had, a lemon tree and I took the fruit and ate.I do this until now in your garden.I love the citrus flavour.Lovely post Lucy and wonderful recipes

Wendy said...

I love that Anna Del Conte book. It's a bit like Mary Poppins' handbag in that new recipes seem to magically appear in it every time I pick it up.
Your lemon tree sounds wonderful. Doubt very much we could grow them here. May just try anyway though. :)
Wonderful post.

winedeb said...

All of us and our fruit trees! I know what you mean about their defense system! I had a photo on my post the other day of my lime tree and new blossoms on the tree. I would assume the aroma on a newly blossomed lemon tree is as heavenly as the lime. I also have sour orange trees on our property that will ripen soon. I will have to investigate growing a Meyer lemon tree as I cannot find that type of lemon here. I have always wanted to try preserved lemons, but have not so far. Lemons are such a good pick me up. Wakes up the palate in so many dishes. I could not live without lemons here as we get fresh fish always and I adore butter and lemon with my freshly grilled fish.
Lemons do rule! Lovely photos Lucy:)

Anh said...

Lucy, I am so envious with your garden! Hopefully I can settle down one day and have a house with my own garden... :)

Cynthia said...

Lucy, I love me some ABBA, I think I'm gonna put on my greatest hits a little later :)

I love lemons, can't get enough.

Anonymous said...

Lucy, like you, I can't do without lemons. Each week I fill a basket with about a dozen that sits on my kitchen counter..and I use them all.

Susan said...

You are so right, Lucy. Lemons are always in my fridge, and I use them in everything from teas to dressings. The last apartment we live in had a beautiful lemon tree outside our bedroom window. When the sun shone on the blossoms, the fragrance was divine. How I miss it!

Casey said...

My first attempt at preserving lemons was less than a smashing success. This recipe looks far easier.
I adore Meyers. I often just cut one or two into small wedges and throw them into the pan with any meat/ poultry I'm roasting. More interesting than roast potatoes or carrots.

Lucy said...

Shula, I tell ya, I've lived in some dumps too...but always in close reach of lemons!

Thanks Sophie. I love sneaking things in...luckily I don't get found out too often...

Thank you Sylvia. I'm glad you had access to your grandmother's lemon tree - citrus trees are so very cheering!

There must be some kind of lemon that would work in your Scottish home Wendy - will see what I can come up with from this end. LOVE Anna - excellent analogy with the Poppins carpetbag!

Deb you'd love a Meyer lemon. You can even eat them from the tree (though still, I draw the line at a WHOLE lemon). I saw your thorny lime - beautiful, fragrant blossoms.

Anh, I should express a parcel to you - I've got o many to get through!

Cynthia, you are a woman after my own heart. Love me some ABBA too - favourite song? S.O.S. Yours?

Maryann, they are incredibly cheerful in a bowl, aren't they? Though, obviously, you too can't get enough!

Susan, love, what a divine way to wake each morning! Hope you managed to stretch out a lazy, sleepy arm and pull a few inside.

It's a lot easier Casey and speedier to boot - worth the (very little) effort. I roasted some veg last night and added a few chunks of fresh lemon - glorious stuff.

Figs Olives Wine said...

Lucy, how heavenly. You have no idea how exotic it seems to me to have lemons growing in your garden. When I'm on holiday or traveling for work, I take photos of every fruiting citrus tree I see - they are so beautiful. This last visit to Florence I went to the Boboli gardens twice to see the Limonaia with all the different oranges and lemons growing.
So sun warm meyers whenever you need them (with plenty to spare for preserving too) sounds like Eden itself! I hadn't guessed there were preserved lemons in that pie - what a brilliant idea. Thank you for such a fabulous post and all these glorious photos - what a great start to my day!

Figs Olives Wine said...

PS. Miming Abba is a damn good time. I'm not above a few rounds of Take a Chance on Me to this day ; )

Truffle said...

Lucy- you have my mouth watering. I absolutely love preserved lemons and that pie sounds gorgeous! What a fabulous recipe.

Lucy said...

Amanda, those Florentine wonder you photograph citrus trees! One of the things I love about them is that they are tough as old boots. There's an orange tree that a neighbour of ours has hanging over the fence line and it's been butchered from time to time over the years yet still manages to produce fruit. Thanks for your kind words and might I add you have excellent taste in classic ABBA!

Thanks Truffle - I was told the other day that preserved lemons are 'so nineties'. Surely hundreds of years of Moroccan cookery cannot be dismissed as being a mere fad! Glad you're a fan too.

John said...

Hi Lucy, what an excellent site you have, great photos and writing. I'm looking forward to learning more. I don't seem to be able to get Rainbow Chard up here, as for my lemon/lime tree, well better no go there. Regards John

Lucy said...

Thank you John, and welcome. Shame about the lack of lemon and lime trees in your parts - luckily they're easy to find in grocers seemingly everywhere. If you can't find Rainbow chard, silverbeet or spinach leaves work admirably well too.

Rosa said...

What a beautiful post, Lucy! I have just come home with a jar of preserved lemons in olive oil from Jacqueline Bellino, the same person who taught me how to make good tapenade. I can't wait to use them in your amazing recipe!

Lucy said...

Thank you Rosa. In oil! No doubt they'll be so much more delicious and moreish. God, how lovely. I do love a good dousing of that grassy green stuff. Probably too much, but I think it's good for my hair...

kathryn said...

Lucky you having a cumquat tree as well. A friend of mine used to have a cumquat tree and each year she'd give me the fruit - it makes one of the most wonderful marmalades I've ever eaten.

tippitappi said...

hey I love the colours of your photos...

Mevrouw Cupcake said...

Nice pie recipe, I've been dreaming of a spinach number with golden raisins and pine nuts...we must be on the same wavelength.

Lucky you that you live in lemon growing country. Feel free to ship some over to this cold and rainy northern European locale!

Lucy said...

It's huge Kathryn. So big and heavy with fruit that last year I picked it clean and gave 3 buckets-worth to the grocer next door to sell... marmalade would be lovely.

Thanks tippitappi! Sometimes the light is just right at just the right time.

Hi Mevrouw Cupcake, I think we must be. Anything with pine nuts is okay by me. You know I really do have way too many to know what to do with myself!

kathryn said...

I just made the marmalade from Stephanie Alexander's book. It's easy-peasy too - you don't have to faff about juicing and peeling the fruit. Just cut them up and start making the marmalade. I'm green with envy.

Pam said...

Hi Lucy, I preserved some Meyer lemons only last weekend. I have my own tree (albeit a tiny one newly planted) but my parents tree is nearly 40 years old, and it yields bucket loads of lemons. Funnily enough, Dad prunes it more like a bonsai than a citrus tree, but the fruit is so sweet, people often mistake them as oranges to look at. I think the bees have been doing some cross pollinating. I also love the fact that you hide your jars at the back of the that a female trait?

Lucy said...

Kathryn, I cannot believe how uncomplicated that recipe is. Stephanie is a bloody wonder really. Thanks for directing me to it - now I have a plan...

Hi Pam, I think it must be a female trait! The three boys here tend to look only at the top shelf and only at the front. It's like a kind of blindness...Your dad's lemon sounds fantastic. What will you do with your lemons?

Miss Eagle said...

Oh, Lucy, weeks ago at the beginning of my illness I harvested a wonderful crop of lemons and was going to preserve them. I had them on an absolutely huge white cane tray for a beautiful photo opportunity but soon became too ill to even click the camera. The lemons got devoured in lots of home made lemonade - which was very cheering and made a healthier break from the Pepsi Max.

Having said that I'm glad someone has done the right thing by their lemons.

Blessings and bliss