When you are waiting for things to warm up…
One of my favourite restaurants is Lemonia in Primrose Hill. It has been in its current premises for as long as I have lived in the area, and is very close to my heart on account of it being the first restaurant I brought Junior 1 to when he was around three months old. At the time I simply plopped the baby carrier on the table, checked that the little darling was asleep, and proceeded to have some pita bread and hummus.
Nothing has changed in 26 years except that, of course, baby is now 26 years old. He has a job and even paid for the meal the last time we dined there.
Having seen off one generation of waiters who have now retired, it it amusing to have a new batch of young waiters tell us that the meze consists of many, many dishes and that we had better be careful to pace ourselves. I just do not have the heart to tell them we have been customers for a quarter of a century, because hospitality is what Lemonia does best. It’s like that line in the Cheers where everybody knows your name.
Recently I have been re-reading my Ottolenghi cookbooks, in a bid to ward off the feeling of cold that is still around despite it being well into Spring. The cherry blossoms have bloomed and then faded, its hundreds and thousands of pale pink and white petals no more than a fading memory.
One of the key ingredients in Middle Eastern cooking is preserved lemons. Disappointed with the bottled preserved lemons I picked up at the supermarket I decided to make some at home.
That was the first step to slight bewilderment as all four cookbooks I consulted gave differing recipes based around lemons, salt and oil.
Ottolenghi The Cookbook: 6 unwaxed lemons, 6 tablespoons sea salt, 2 sprigs of rosemary, 1 large red chilli, juice of 6 lemons, olive oil. Cut a deep cross from the top to the bottom of each lemon, leaving a bit uncut at the base. Stuff each lemon with 1 tablespoon of salt and place as many as you can into a large sterilised bottle. Leave for a week then press the lemons to squeeze out the juice. Add the rosemary, chilli and lemon juice. Finally, cover with a layer of olive oil and leave in a cool place for a month. Remove the flesh before using the skin only in cooking.
The Food of Morocco by Paula Wolfert is a treasure trove of authentic and well-researched recipes. 5 unwaxed lemons, 5 tablespoons sea salt, 120 ml fresh lemon juice. Cut a deep cross from the top to the bottom of each lemon, leaving a bit uncut at the base. Stuff each lemon with 1 tablespoon of salt and place as many as you can into a large sterilised bottle. Add the lemon juice and leave in a cool place for a month. Turn the jar upside down every few days to distribute the salt and juice. Remove the flesh before using the skin only in cooking.
Honey and Co has a recipe for preserved lemon slices: 4 unwaxed lemons, 3 tablespoons sea salt, 1 teaspoon chilli flakes, olive oil. Halve the lemons and slice thinly. Place the lemon slices in a bowl along with the salt and chilli flakes. Leave for 30 minutes then mix everything up before layering the lemon slices in a sterilised jar. Cover with olive oil and store for at least a day before using the whole slices as it is.
The Palomar Cookbook has a recipe for cured lemons: 10 unwaxed lemons, 60 g Maldon sea salt flakes, 200 ml rapeseed oil and 175 ml olive oil. Slice the lemons into 5 mm pieces. Arrange one layer of lemon in a sterilised jar followed by a layer of salt. Repeat until all the lemon slices are used up. Fill the jar with the oil and seal, then store out of the sun. The lemon slices will be ready after 3 days. This is turned into cured lemon paste: strain the cured lemons, reserving the oil. Blend the lemons with 1 tablespoon sweet paprika, ½ teaspoon chilli flakes, 1 teaspoon toasted and ground cumin seeds and enough oil to make into a smooth paste. Store the paste in a sterilised jar, covering with a layer of oil.
In the end I decided to make up my own recipe using a combination of all I have read. There is a bit of impatience thrown in, as I have invited friends round for dinner next week and want to use the preserved lemons then.
For the Lemons:
6 unwaxed lemons,
4 tablespoons Maldon sea salt flakes
Juice of a further 6 lemons
You will also need some sterilised jars.
How to Make:
Wash and dry the lemons. Slice thinly, discarding the thick end bits and removing the pips as you go along.
Layer the lemon slices with the sea salt in a large mixing bowl. Leave for half an hour.
Place the lemon slices into the jar and pour in any leftover juice.
Squeeze the juice from the other lemons and add to the jar.
Finally top up with some olive oil.
Leave the lemons for a few days, in a cool and dark place. Use as required.
Lemonia Restaurant is at 89 Regent’s Park Road, Primrose Hill, London NW1 8UY. Telephone 020 7586 7454.