Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Loads of Lemons

Lemons, lemons everywhere (with some strawberries thrown in for good measure...)

In addition to the lemons we “rescued” from our absent neighbors’ tree a few weeks ago (see blog post of Feb 21) and a few times since (irresponsible to let them rot), another neighbor, Jeanette, took a week of holiday and left us a huge basket of lemons from her father’s tree.

I love all things lemon, but even to me, the pile was quite daunting. Nothing to do but get on my lemony way.

First I made a double batch of Nigel Slater’s Demerera Lemon Cake with Thick Yogurt. The recipe name alone sounds good enough to eat. I have fond memories of demerera sugar from childhood when Lex and I would mush the crunchy golden crystals into softened butter and eat the mixture by the spoonful. I loved how you caramelize the lemons for the top and the cake had beautiful texture from the ground blanched almonds (you can buy them already ground in the supermarket here – not in Vermont I don’t think?). He also uses the time-honored technique of poking the oven-hot cake with a skewer and drenching it in citrus syrup. Salivating yet? Recipe below.

[Major aside: Have I mentioned already how much I love Nigel Slater? I owe the Wanganui library for 10 days of overdueness on his stream of food consciousness, slightly-more-robust-than-twitter-but-not-overly-verbose daily eating and cooking journal, The Kitchen Diaries, which I pored over every night in bed for about a month until Mark said, “How can you just read recipes like that night after night?” (We’ve only been together for 25 years and this is not a new habit.) Other recipes of Nigel’s – lemony and not – that we have recently tried and loved include Chicken Patties with Rosemary and Pancetta (a great easy weeknight supper and huge hit with all three boyz who begged that I not just make it once in their lives and move on as I tend to do), Pork and Lemon Polpettine with a secret flavor punch of finely chopped anchovies, and Strawberry Mascarpone Tart – elegant and easy and not too sweet, which I really appreciate. (See photo below - even though it isn't lemon.) The Roast Pork Sandwiches – a slab of belly roasted with peppercorns, fennel, bay leaves, and lemon juice piled on good bread (I found some!) with arugula (rocket here) and thick slices of summer tomatoes from the market – were really good too, but the kids couldn’t quite deal with all that belly fat. I’ve got to try the Roast Lamb with Anchovy and Mint too, but my family is a little lambed out right now. ]

I also made the kids’ favorite: lemon squares, although the recipe I found on the web seems to be a bit eggier (4 eggs?) than the one I make at home (Does anyone have a perfect one to share with me?) and, for the lovely ladies in my knitting, spinning, and weaving Wednesday group, a slightly messed-with version of a Lemon Yoghurt Cake.

This recipe came via Chris, another food-loving neighbor, from an Alison Holst cookbook; she’s a New Zealand icon in the kitchen. You’re supposed to bake it in a tube pan but I don’t have one here so used a large springform and made Nigel’s caramelized lemons (doubled with one lemon and one orange) to form a decorative circle on the top. I overbaked it a touch because I forgot to set the timer for the last 10 minutes, but it was still delicious, with the super-caramelized fruit, chewy and almost toffee-like on top.

On the savory side, I had already made a big batch of preserved lemons but, with this new harvest, I made another two jars, one for Jeanette and one for my friend Margot. I love preserved lemons; they are simply the best combination of salty and puckery and so simple. See method below. This is a basic recipe. Some recipes include hot chile peppers, star anise, cinnamon etc. but I like mine straight up for most flexibility.

You need a large super-clean glass jar with tight-fitting lid. Figure out how many lemons will fit in it quite tightly. Wash the lemons well – and don’t even think about doing this with sprayed lemons. Put a kettle on to boil. Cut each lemon like a flower into quarters but leaving the stem end intact. Get a bowl of non-iodized coarse salt (sea or kosher) ready and use your fingers to fill each lemon “blossom” with about a tablespoon, placing each filled lemon in the jar as you go. Squeeze the juice from another set of lemons - half the number of lemons you have in the jar and pour that lemon juice into the jar. Fill the rest of the jar with boiling water, sliding a clean knife around the side of the jar if necessary to make sure no air bubbles are taking up space. Screw lid on tightly. Let jar sit on counter for about 10 days, turning it upside down every day to redistribute juices and salt. Then refrigerate and start using. Notes for use: always use a clean fork to remove lemons from jar, rinse preserved lemons before using, and always remove flesh before using -- it’s the rinds you want.

The photo at left is a recipe test I did for a food friend, Deborah Krasner, who is finishing up a tome on cooking all parts of the animal back in Vermont. It is a lamb shank tagine with green olives and preserved lemons along with some cinnamon, ginger, cumin, and saffron and only water to braise. It took all my willpower not to throw in a little wine or stock, but after aggressive reduction and fat-skimming of the final sauce, it came out quite delicious. (Deborah assured me, after the fact, that the recipe comes by way of Mediterranean cooking goddess Paula Wolfert and that water is authentic, which I figured.) You’ll have to wait for her book to get this particular recipe, but if this has whet your appetite, lamb tagine recipes using preserved lemons are plentiful.

Other things to do with preserved lemons:
· Blend a vinaigrette with the salty, briny punch of preserved lemon. Whiz the rinsed peel of half a preserved lemon in a blender or processor with 1/4 cup olive oil, a tablespoon of fresh oregano or parsley or cilantro, freshly ground pepper, a pinch of sugar, 2 T lemon juice, and a little water . Depending how salty your lemons are, you may not need to add salt. Inspired by Bill Granger, Bill’s Open Kitchen. Serve on a sturdy salad or with fish, chicken, and pork.
· Roast a whole chicken with a rinsed preserved lemon rubbed over the skin and then put in the cavity, or chicken pieces with slices of rind tucked among them.
· Make a preserved lemon and tomato salsa to serve with fish – from the gorgeous NZ Dish magazine try this: ½ small red onion, thinly sliced and soaked in water for 15 mins, drained, squeezed dry + 3 quarters of preserved lemon rinsed and scraped of flesh and thinly sliced + 2 tomatoes, halved, seeded, and sliced + 2 T lemon juice + 3 T olive oil + 1 clove crushed garlic + ¼ tsp toasted cumin seeds + ¼ tsp sweet paprika + 2 T chopped coriander. Mix together and season to taste.
· Whip up a preserved lemon mayo by folding a couple tablespoons or so of finely chopped rinsed rind into 1/2 cup blend of mayo and crème fraiche (or sour cream) and a small handful of chopped dill or chives to serve with grilled chicken breasts, chicken burgers, salmon, or salmon cakes (thanks to for this idea)
· There’s this great pasta recipe in Cooking with Shelburne Farms: Pasta with Sweet Peas and Morel Mushrooms. It has cream and tarragon and lemon in it too. After we developed it for the cookbook, Rick started serving it at the Inn in a restauranty version enriched with a dollop of crème fraîche and he used finely minced preserved lemon rather than the lemon zest.

OK, I’m hungry now.


Demerera Lemon Cake with Thick Yoghurt
by Nigel Slater from The Kitchen Diaries

Abridged from headnote: Serve with thick Greek yoghurt or tart crème fraiche. Use unwaxed or organic lemons. My note: US measurements in parens.

For the topping:
a lemon
demerara sugar – 2 tablespoons (soft brown sugar fine here)
water – 4 tablespoons

For the cake:
butter – 2oog (about two sticks)
demerara sugar – 200g (use soft brown sugar although it’s not quite the same, a scant cup)
plain flour – 90g (2/3 cup)
ground almonds – 90g (2/3 cup)
baking powder – ½ teaspoon
a large lemon
large eggs – 4

For the syrup:
demerara sugar – 2 tablespoons (soft brown sugar fine here)
the juice of a large lemon

Set oven to 160 degrees centigrade (320 degrees F). Line a large loaf tin with baking parchment (simply cut a piece of paper the exact length of the tin and lay it inside the tin and up the longest sides). To make the topping, slice the lemon thinly and put it in a small saucepan with the sugar and water. Bring to the boil, then watch closely for five minutes or so, until the water has almost evaporated and the lemon slices are sticky. Set aside.

Beat the butter and sugar together in a food mixer till they are light and fluffy. [I managed this all with a hand mixer, which is all I have here.] You can expect it to take a little longer than it would with caster sugar. Meanwhile, weigh the flour and almonds and mix them with the baking powder. Grate the lemon zest and add it to the flour mixture. Break the eggs and beat them lightly with a fork, then add them to the creamed butter and sugar a little at a time. The mixture will probably curdle a bit but don’t worry. Remove the mixing bowl from the machine and gently fold in the flour, almonds and baking powder with a large metal spoon (a wooden spoon would knock the air out). Scoop the cake mixture into the lined tin, then lay the reserved lemon slices on top, overlapping them down the center of the cake. Bake for 45 minutes, till risen and golden. Insert a metal skewer to see if it is ready. If it comes out clean, then the cake is done; if it has mixture sticking to it, it needs a few minutes longer. Remove the cake from the oven and set aside. For the syrup, stir the demerera sugar into the lemon juice; it will only partially dissolve. Spike the top of the cake with a metal skewer, then spoon over the lemon and sugar. Leave to cool.

Citrus Yoghurt Cake
Adapted from Alison Holst’s Lemon Yoghurt Cake

For topping: make Nigel’s caramelized lemons above – doubled with one lemon and one orange
For cake:
1¾ cups sugar
rind of 1 lemon and 1 orange
2 eggs
1 cup oil (I used half canola and half olive oil)
½ tsp salt
1 cup yogurt (I used Greek whole milk plain – she says use whatever you want including flavored, but I’m a purist)
3 T lemon juice
2 cups self-raising flour (you can find this in US or use 2 cups a-p flour, 4 teaspoons baking powder, and 1/2 teaspoon salt)

Preheat oven to 180 c (350 f). Easiest to use food processor: Process sugar and rinds together until finely chopped together. Add the eggs, oil, and salt and process until thick and smooth, then add the yoghurt and lemon juice and blend enough to mix. Add the flour and process just enough to combine. Pour cake mixture into buttered and floured pan (bundt or large springform). If using springform, lay caramelized fruit, alternating lemon and orange slices, in circle on top of cake. Bake for 30 mins (more like 45 if not in bundt), until a skewer comes out clean.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

And what do you do after such an amazing day?

Well, the day after the hike the boyz went white river rafting while Margo and I meandered around the town of Tokaanu near Lake Taupo, where we soaked ourselves and our sore legs in natural hot spring pools and had a serendipitous morning tea in a vineyard. The division of activity worked for everyone.
Alex's favorite part was jumping off this waterfall...although the soak in the private hot spring at the end of the excursion was also was the excitment of riding the rapids.

And now for the non-adventure side of things:
Before the hot pools, while searching for a cup of coffee, Margo and I stumbled into a small, picture-perfect, family-run vineyard where Jenny, sister of the owner, kindly offered us tea and warm slices of her mother's wartime fruit cake. The vineyard produces Pinot Noir, Reisling, and Chardonnay grapes, she explained, but her brother has outsourced winemaking to someone over the last couple of years so that he can care for his wife who has Alzheimer's. Jenny was there visiting from Herefordshire to help with her sister-in-law and relieve her brother a little and, by her own admission, was pleased to have the distraction of visitors. In addition to the cake recipe, she also shared a promising sounding recipe for celery and blue Stilton soup. (As opposed to white Stilton, she said. Who knew there was such a thing?)

After the boys white water adventure and our hot water adventures (teacups to soaking pools), we joined forces again to stroll through the Tokaanu Thermal Walk where I finally managed to capture the oozing glory of bursting hot mud bubbles on film.

If it had only been chocolate....

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Tongariro Alpine Crossing March 14, 2009

By the numbers: Seven hours, 19.4 km (12 miles) ascending to 1,886 metres (5,905 feet), 800 of which we actually climbed around and across three mountains, stunning jade-green lakes, rust-red craters, moonscape, and alpine tundra fueled by 10 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, six plums, five apples, a dozen really good homemade peanut butter-chocolate chip cookies (NYTimes version of Cook's Illustrated recipe) and a bunch of neon sour gummy worms (among other things). Just our party of 5 (including my Kiwi friend Margo) and another 1,500-odd trampers doing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, named one of the best one-day hikes in the world. Oh and the weather could not have been more perfect. The experience was truly a highlight of my life -- and I think the boys would agree.

The shuttle bus to the start of the hike (tramp in Kiwi-speak) picked us up at 6:55 am and we started on the trail around 7:30 am well fueled with coffee and bagels (yes, I found some decent ones here). It was quite lovely to be up there so early -- although we were far from alone...

as you can see by the long line of hikers in front of us heading for Mount Ngauruhoe, best known for its cameo as Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings movies.

Mount Ruapehu bathed in early morning sunlight. This is our closest ski slope too -- about two hours from home here in Wanganui.

The boys all bundled up at the start - it was cold with a sharp wind in places. Thank heavens for our good friend Margo, who came with us, and had piles of extra gloves, hats, etc for us to borrow. (Not to mention that she found us a perfect apartment to stay in for the weekend and arranged all details. We're in a bit of travel-planning overload.)

The weather on these mountains is notoriously changeable and can be quite dangerous with visibility going from good to zero in the space of an hour, but Margo had efficiently arranged for perfect weather too.

Mount Doom with a recent dusting of snow, very early this year.

We came from down there!

Me, in red, and Margo, in orange a few hikers back. This uphill chunk at the beginning was not a piece of cake, but it was a good work out. The diversity of ages, levels of expertise, and languages on the track were quite amazing. (Margo got into a nice chat with guy in front of her about his sexy legs...although, ostensibly, she was asking him where he got his legwear.)

Despite growing up less than 90 mins from this hike, Margo had never done it. (She does point out that she lived thousands of miles away in London for 30 years but I still gave her grief, of course.)

Across moonscape, up rocky hill.

As we climbed higher, the volcanic formations and rocks were fantastic, not to mention the views of terrain. I wished for a 360 -degree lens.

Halfway through, shedding layers, staying motivated through strategic deployment of snackage and the awe-inspiring views.

On a clear day, you can see Mount Taranaki, which is about 80 miles away - as this picture managed to capture.

The first view of the Red Crater - one of those sights that photos water down from their true-life brilliance.
Nikko snapping away - the boys were truly impressed by the grandeur and diversity of the landscape we covered.

The Red Crater with Mount Ngauruhoe behind.

The Blue Lake.

Descending, very gingerly, the skree (very loose gravel) to the Emerald Lakes. Alex and Mark followed the example of some who merrily ran down the hill, ignoring the fact that one poorly placed step could send you somersaulting down the precipice.

Margo, almost at the end of the skree, which must account for her smile. Although those gorgeous lapis lakes might have something to do with it too. (It probably wasn't the strong smell of sulphur that arises from the craters around the lakes.)

This actually captures the color pretty well. They are just breathtaking. Their vibrant color comes from the minerals in the volanic earth and they freeze in the winter in that hue.

Looking back from whence we came. Red Crater, backed up by Ngauruhoe, and then Ruapehu, which is incidentally quite an active volcano with the last major eruption in 1996. (In Maori, the name means "pit to explode.")

Specks on the crest to the right are hikers at, I believe, the highest point of the hike at 1,886 meters. Yes, we were there.
White gentian flowers like this one were blooming along the lower track in many spots, although the alpine plant life is relatively sparse and not very colorful. Apparently, most alpine flowers are yellow or white because their pollinators - moths, flies, and beetles - do not have the same eye for color as do butterflies and bees.

View on the descent of Lake Rotoiara and then Lake Taupo in the distance.

The last hour in the sunshine but still some wind. It was gorgeous, but a little anticlimactic said the boys.

The steaming Ketetahi Springs on sacred Maori land passed on the way down.

A final view as we near the end framed by the omnipresent flax seed pods - the leaves of the plant were used in traditional Maori weaving of baskets, rugs, and capes.