March 2020. I’m standing in my auntie’s orchard on a mild afternoon, the temperature about 18 C. In Canada, it’s deep winter, but here in California, the citrus trees have bloomed, and the fruit is ripe.
It’s a tough gig, being a grower on the Canadian prairies. We make jokes about the harsh weather – “But it’s a dry cold!” – but in reality some of us are pretty chuffed that we manage to grow anything at all.
Of course, we can’t grow everything. If I had my druthers, my little piece of prairie would be blessed with a kinder, gentler, more Mediterranean climate. I’d grow grapes, sweet cherries, olives, dates and figs, eggplant, all kinds of citrus. Lemons, grapefruit, limes and oranges fresh from the tree are an intoxicating thing. Just as intoxicating is the aroma of their blossoms before the tree produces fruit. O my.
Dozens of songs have been written about the lemon, from “Blind Lemon Blues” by Lead Belly to Prince’s “Lemon Crush”. In literature, too, lemons lead the citrus firmament – D.H. Lawrence waxed rhapsodic about lemons like innumerable stars in his 1921 travel book, Sea and Sardinia. But nothing but the doing of it captures the total coolness of strolling outside and twisting a fresh lemon free from the tree. As I said, the Mediterranean.
Citrus is an undeniably Arabic influence. Groves of bitter, or Seville, oranges, and other citrus were planted by Arabs carrying Islam into Europe. Flavours bequeathed by the Arabs to the cuisines of the Mediterranean include saffron, sweet-sour agrodolce sauce, brilliant on grilled fish, and preserved lemons. This is to fresh lemons as powdered and crystallized ginger is to a fresh hand of ginger – recognizably the same flavour, but not interchangeable. Fresh lemons are a brightener of flavours without equal – almost always, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice elevates a dish. But preserved lemons are transformed into condiment, losing their acidic rasp to the mellowing influence of salt.
So here it is – how to preserve lemons, then what to do with them. First we eat, then a glass of wine as we discuss the merits of moving to the Mediterranean.
- I flew home safely. Two weeks later, the borders closed, planes were grounded, and the pandemic closed in.
Preserved lemons are a classic Mediterranean condiment. They are wondrous added to prawns, grilled fish, stews or tagines, roasted potatoes, bowls of lentils or chickpeas, grain salad, vinaigrette. Makes 1 pint
2 Tbsp. kosher or pickling salt
4 bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick, broken
1 tsp. coriander seeds
¼ c. melted honey (optional)
Quarter washed lemons ¾ of the way down the fruit, leaving the quarters attached at the stem end. Stuff each with 1 tsp. salt. Pack into jar, peel side up, squishing well with a spoon to get the juices flowing. Sprinkle each layer with coriander seed, cinnamon sticks and bay leaves. Add honey, and if needed, extra lemon juice to cover. Cover and age in the fridge for a month before using.
Chicken with Olives and Preserved Lemons
Called a tagine in Morocco, a stew is a stew by any other name. You can swap the chicken for large cubes of lamb shoulder or cross-cut shanks; just extend the cooking time. For added complexity, add a pinch of saffron. Serves 6-10
6 chicken thighs and drums, bone in
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 head garlic, minced
1 Tbsp. chopped ginger (optional)
1 red pepper, chopped
1 tsp. anise seed, cracked
1 Tbsp. sweet paprika
1 Tbsp. ground cumin
2 Tbsp. ground coriander
½ cup chopped parsley
4 cups chicken stock
1 cup sliced green olives
1 stick cinnamon
2 Tbsp. pomegranate molasses or brown sugar
1/3 cup finely sliced preserved lemon, zest only
1 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1 bunch green onions, minced
salt and pepper to taste
Brown the legs, skin side down, in a heavy pan until most of the fat is rendered out. Set the meat aside. Add the onion, garlic, ginger, red pepper and spices. Sauté until tender. Add the parsley, stock, olives, cinnamon, pomegranate molasses or brown sugar and lemons. Bring to a boil, return the meat to the pan, reduce the heat and simmer, covered, until chicken is cooked and tender, about 90 minutes, longer as needed. Stir in the vinegar, salt and pepper. If the juices are too thin, bring to a boil uncovered, until sauce consistency. Garnish with green onions. Serve hot with roasted vegetables, cous cous, tabbouleh or mashed spuds.