If I was stranded on a desert island and allowed just one ingredient, apart from chilled white wine that gushed out of a tap, I would definitely opt for an endless supply of lemons. Yes, lemons.
Along with the salt I would make by evaporating sea water in the sun, I'd have the magical seasoning duo that would instantly enhance the flavour of any fish, meat or vegetable that I managed to catch or find.
The lovely lemon is one of the most commonly used condiments in the world, and it's not surprising when you think of how, for so many cultures, it forms the backbone of their national dishes. Not many self-respecting North African tagines are served without a liberal scattering of preserved lemons (see my chickpea tagine recipe, opposite) or imagine how different the classic Greek salad would be without a generous squeeze of the superbly sour citrus fruit to balance the herbaceous oregano and golden olive oil. The Asians would also be lost without the lemon (or lime), for the sour element in their sweet, sour and salty 'holy trinity' of flavours.
For many people, the day starts with a slice of lemon in a glass of warm water - which is a great idea, as it helps to flush out toxins, while rehydrating you at the same time. Lemons are, of course, well known for being an excellent source of vitamin C, but they're also a free-radical scavenger and great for the immune system too, not to mention their brilliant anti-inflammatory properties.
The lemon's ability to heighten and enhance flavours is genius. A squeeze of lemon juice over some sweet strawberries, sliced melon or even a halved avacado is truly transformative, but it's probably the Italians who have lemons completely nailed. Lemons, mixed with alcohol and sugar, are allowed to sit and infuse, then sipped when very, very cold - this is limoncello at its best.
These are simple, sweet little lemon puddings that I love to flavour with sweet lemon-scented geranium. Leave out the geranium if you wish, or replace it with mint, lemon balm or lemon verbena. If you want to make these even more citrusy, finely grate the rind of one of the lemons and mix it with the lemon juice, to add into the boiled cream and caster sugar mixture. These possets are delicious served with the lemon shortbread biscuits, see the recipe below.
You will need:
500ml (18fl oz) cream
140g (5oz) caster sugar
6 sweet geranium leaves
Juice of 2 lemons
Put the cream, the caster sugar and the sweet geranium leaves into a saucepan, bring to the boil and boil, uncovered, for three minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat, whisk in the lemon juice and pour the liquid, through a sieve, into little cups, glasses or bowls. Chill for three hours to set.
You will need:
170g (6oz) flour
50g (2oz) caster sugar
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
110g (4oz) butter, cut into cubes
Icing sugar, to serve (optional)
Preheat the oven to 180°C, 350°F, Gas 4.
Put the flour in a bowl with the caster sugar and the finely grated lemon zest. Mix, then rub in the cubes of butter and squeeze the mixture in your hands to bring it together to form a dough. Alternatively, you could bring these ingredients together very briefly in a food processor.
Roll the dough out until it is 1cm (ªin) thick, keeping it in a square or a rectangle. Cut it into rounds, fingers, or any shape you prefer! Place the biscuits on a baking tray (there's no need to grease it or line it) and bake them for 6-8 minutes until they are a light golden colour. Take the tray out of the oven and let it stand for two minutes before transferring the biscuits to a wire rack to cool. Sprinkle them with a little icing sugar to serve, if you are using it.
You will need:
3 tablespoons sunflower oil
1 large onion, approximately 300g (10oz) in weight, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely grated
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ tablespoon paprika
½ tablespoon ground ginger
½ tablespoon ground turmeric
½ tablespoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons salt
2 x 400g (14oz) tins of cooked chickpeas, drained and rinsed
50g (2oz) dried apricots, halved
50g (2oz) dates, halved
50g (2oz) flaked almonds
Large pinch of saffron, soaked in 2 tablespoons hot water
2 x 400g (14oz) tins of chopped tomatoes
2 tablespoons honey
300ml (10fl oz) water
110g (4oz) baby spinach leaves
2 handfuls of coriander leaves
3 tablespoons chopped preserved lemons, see Rachel Recommends, below
Add the sunflower oil to a large casserole dish or a tagine dish, and place it over a medium heat. Add the finely chopped onions and the finely grated garlic, and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes until they are cooked through and translucent. Add the freshly ground black pepper, the paprika, the ground ginger, the ground turmeric, the ground cinnamon and the salt, stir and cook for a further two minutes. Next, add in the tinned cooked chickpeas, the halved dried apricots, the halved dates, the flaked almonds, the pre-soaked saffron and the two tablespoons of saffron soaking water, the tin of chopped tomatoes, the honey and the water.
Bring the tagine to a simmer, reduce the heat to low, cover with a lid and simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the lid and continue to cook, until the mixture is quite thick, for about 10-15 minutes. Next, stir in the baby spinach leaves and cover with the lid. Leave for one minute, then remove from the heat. Taste for seasoning, then scatter with the coriander leaves and the chopped preserved lemons.
For the cake, you will need:
75ml (3fl oz) sunflower oil, plus extra for greasing the tin
110ml (4fl oz) natural yoghurt
Finely grated zest and juice of 2 lemons
175g (6oz) plain flour
300g (10oz) caster sugar
175g (6oz) fine polenta
2 teaspoons baking powder
Pinch of salt
To make the icing, you will need:
250g (9oz) tub of mascarpone
Juice of 1 lemon
75g (3oz) icing sugar
Preheat the oven to 180°C, 350°F, Gas 4. Line the base of a 23cm (9in) springform tin and brush a little sunflower oil around the inside. Crack the eggs into a bowl along with the natural yoghurt, the sunflower oil and the lemon zest and the lemon juice. Whisk together to mix well, then stir in the plain flour, the caster sugar, the fine polenta, the baking powder and the pinch of salt.
Tip the mixture into the prepared tin and bake it for 35-40 minutes until a skewer inserted in to the centre comes out clean. Remove the cake from the oven and allow it to sit in the tin for 20 minutes before taking it out of the tin to finish cooling.
To make the icing, whisk the mascarpone, the lemon juice and the icing sugar in a bowl and set it aside until the cake is cool. When you're ready to ice the cake, use a long-bladed knife to split the cake in half. Place the bottom half on a plate or a cake stand - I find it handy to slide the base of the springform tin under the cake half to transport it. Spread out enough of the icing to cover the bottom half (as if you were generously buttering a piece of bread) then place the other half of the cake on top. Use the remainder of the icing to ice the top of the cake.
To get more juice from your lemon, especially if it’s hard, place it on the work surface under the palm of your hand and roll it back and forth a few times, leaning quite heavily on the lemon. Cut it in half, squeeze, et voila, lots of lovely lemon juice!
The intense flavour of preserved lemons is used in lots of different Moroccan dishes. If I have the time, I love to make a big jar of them. However, they take about six weeks before they're ready to use - not very helpful if you need some for a tagine right now! This is a useful way of preparing them, and only takes an hour or so. Add two tablespoons of salt to 200ml (7fl oz) of water and bring to the boil. Add two lemons that have been quartered and cook, uncovered, for 30-40 minutes or until the liquid is reduced by half and the rind is tender. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. To store, scrape away and discard the pulp. Store the peels in a jar, covered in olive oil, for up to a few months.
Sunday Indo Life Magazine