After 3 months on a cool larder shelf, the long anticipated wait to try my preserved lemons is over. I incorporated them in this suitably North African supper dish, which delivers a nice balance of piquant flavours with a combination of harissa, spices, olives and preserved lemon. I used chicken thighs as I always consider this brown poultry meat to be superior in flavour and more moist than chicken breasts. It is also more economical, an important consideration when using free range chicken. My updates about gardening, fishing and wildlife follow or you can cut straight to the recipe at the bottom of the post.
The Hebridean weather pendulum
The harissa chicken casserole could be eaten at anytime of year. It has a sunny, refreshing, summery disposition, yet has the depth of flavour and warmth that are reminiscent of casserole comfort required in cold weather. The schizoid personality of the dish then perhaps matches the spring weather here at the moment: wild swings from calm periods with blue skies to short sharp shocks of wild, squally downpours rolling in on weather fronts from the Atlantic. Then there have been a few days of persistently strong gales of 30-40 mph. The relentless nature of these days makes dog walking fairly tedious (when facing the prevailing wind, at least) – and as for seed sowing – tricky. Even the broad beans are likely to be cast out of my hands in the gusts. Carrots? Forget about it, the seeds would be cast in the wind and likely end up germinating somewhere on the west side of Skye.
Gardening with grit
With another long term forecast for a week of wind and unsettled weather, I have decided to ignore our typically erratic Hebridean spring weather and am determined to make the best of the light nights to get on with planting and sowing. I did, after several attempts, manage to dive out between showers and plant my potatoes, having spent a week of evenings and two weekends digging the soil over in readiness, including removal of 2 huge rocks that had fell into the centre of the old blackhouse from the walls.
Within the walls of the old blackhouse, where there once stood an inn, then a post office (before the war, we think), we gathered quite an inventory: remains of one sheep, 4 broken teapots, countless spoons, bottles and containers, mounds of broken crockery, ink pots and a candlestick!
Planting potatoes is not the most stimulating job, but made that bit more interesting by trying to do so between the showers, looking up, trying to judge when the next one would hit as the black clouds of doom and rain sheets approached from the west. The best indication is always the preceding acceleration in wind speed, the blast serving as a warning that you are most likely to get pounded by heavy rain at any second. Then it is over in minutes, sunshine and fragments of blue sky allowing a window of opportunity for more planting.
Frustrating as this was, I had no excuses to prevent me from getting on with organising the polytunnel for the coming season. Despite a couple of rips which we patched, the tunnel has stood up remarkably well in what is its 4th season. We feared the plastic would be shredded during the first winter, so we are delighted that the plastic has almost made the anticipated 5 year lifespan, even out here. My chilli and tomato seedlings, raised in a heated propagator are robust and strong. Pea and beans in sown root trainers will be ready for planting next week and a plethora of herbs have germinated, including 5 varieties of basil that I will sow successionally across the summer.
I am as organised as I can be for this time of year – for planting at least. There is a lot of construction, maintenance and repair work to be done – gates to be repaired and built, fruit cage to be constructed, deer fence ongoing, dry stone walling, ad infinitum…. I don’t want to think about all that too much, best focus on one task at a time or the list becomes overwhelming. To add the ‘to do’ list, we have started thinking seriously about the timeline for extending and renovating the house, a task that will become all-consuming next year.
The initially cold spring, followed by windy weather has impacted on our fly fishing results too and the brown trout are still fairly deep and inactive. A trip to South Uist for a fly fishing competition last week was a damp squib. The beautiful and productive machair loch, Loch Bornish yielded nothing for the 15 or so anglers present – after 5 hours in the cold and wind. The highlight was a flock of 90 whooper swans present on the loch in the afternoon.
This week’s outing was arguably even tougher. 40 mph winds whipping the line erratically across the choppy waters of the vast Loch Caravat that nestles within the remote interior of North Uist. Blanked again. Still, I did get nice views of black-throated divers. We walked for miles along the west shore of the loch, the only shore we could fish from with the prevailing wind behind us. Ironically, at the end of the outing The Man Named Sous caught a fish about 10m from where we started fishing.
BBC Outer Hebrides wildlife spectacular
The week, the mobile cinema of the Highlands and Islands, The Screen Machine was here in Lochmaddy, North Uist. As part of the programme, they offered a special preview of the a new flagship BBC wildlife documentary series, an episode of which is devoted entirely to the Outer Hebrides. The series is called Hebrides: Islands on the Edge (there’s lots of info in this link) and it is part of the BBC’s up and coming ‘Wild Scotland’ series of programmes. The screening featured episode 3, covering the Outer Hebrides and it was indeed spectacular – and a Screen Machine sell out.
The production team of Maramedia have worked on filming this BBC commissioned series for the last 3 years and I have been lucky to be involved with some of their activities, in a very small way. There have been many contributions from the numerous knowledgeable naturalists across these islands that have helped to support the production team to obtain the spectacular footage.
The director Nigel Pope engaged with local people and naturalists from the start, meeting with the committee of our natural history society, Curracag, which I chaired until recently, calling upon the expertise of our members and very capable naturalists in the wider community. I also provided some licensing advice for filming of protected birds during the series in my previous job. Nigel and his crew are extremely experienced and knowledgeable about the ecology of the species they film.
He very kindly provided a talk for Curracag members about his work on the series and that of the world renowned wildlife cameramen who shot it. Nigel and the crew previously worked on other BBC wildlife spectaculars including Big Cat Diaries and Life in the Freezer. At the time of the talk last summer, Nigel had not decided who may narrate the series and was looking for suggestions. It turns out they did very well in obtaining the services of a high profile Scottish star, actor Ewan McGregor and his narration worked very well on episode 3.
The series is not about hardcore natural history but is excellent eye candy that provides an insight into the character of these islands and their inhabitants. I think the footage in episode 3 captured the essence of the scenery, weather and wildlife of the Outer Hebrides perfectly. Some of the footage, particularly of divers, is incredible. I have no doubt it will do wonders for wildlife tourism in the Outer Hebrides, which deserves to be put on the map as a special destination to see a unique combination of species in a spectacular setting. The wildlife and scenery were, after all, key reasons why we ended up living here in the first place. If you have the chance, do watch the 4 part series on the BBC or the web, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.
Making preserved lemons
And so to the recipes. I have at least 6 different variations on recipes for preserved lemons and have not tried all of them. I prepared some as a Christmas present for my mum and they worked so well, I could not resist making more when I saw bumper amounts of lemons in a local shop at 20p for 6. The recipe is very simple. Once prepared, the lemons are best left for at least 2 months. I left these for 3 months. Here, I have used Ottolenghi’s recipe.
6 unwaxed lemons
6 tbsp sea salt (I use Maldon Salt)
2 sprigs rosemary
1 large red chilli
Juice of 6 lemons
- Sterilise a jar big enough to hold all of the lemons
- Wash the lemons and make a deep cut all the way from the top to the base so you are left with 4 quarters attached at the top and bottom of each lemon.
- Stuff each lemon with a tablespoon of salt, opening up each of the slits and stuffing it in.
- Push them tightly into the jar and leave in a cool place for a week.
- After a week, remove the lid, press down the lemons hard to squeeze out their juice and add the juice of 6 lemons, rosemary and whole chilli and cover with a thin layer of olive oil.
- Seal the jar and leave it in a cool place for a least a month, but the longer the better
You can swap the rosemary and chilli for any appropriate flavour that you like. I also prepared a batch with coriander and caraway seeds.
Harissa chicken with chickpeas, olives and preserved lemons
This recipe was inspired in part by the availability of my preserved lemons, but also because I have been reading Paula Wolfert’s tome, ‘The Food of Morocco’ to increase my understanding about the delightful cuisine of the country. Her introduction serves to remind the reader that Moroccan ingredients are fairly simple and that some amazing food can be made from a few well selected cheap cuts of meat, combined with herbs and aromatics and pulses and grains to produce honest dishes with incredible depth of flavour. I try to incorporate those ingredients that typify this ethos here. I think I am at the beginning of the process of understanding Moroccan food. I have a long way to go, but will relish the journey.
Chick peas – try to find time to soak and boil dried chick peas in preference to tinned. They are worth the extra effort as they have a much deeper more intense almost meaty flavour.
Harissa – This is easy to make, but on this occasion I used some authentic Moroccan harissa paste purchased for about £1 for a big tub from a shop on Golbourne Road, London.
8 chicken thighs, bone in (free range if possible)
200g dried chickpeas, soaked and cooked (or 1 400g tin, drained)
2 tbsp Harissa paste
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 fennel bulb, finely sliced
1 large onion, finely sliced
1 tsp cumin seeds, dry fried and ground
1 tsp coriander seeds, dry fried and ground
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
pinch of cayenne pepper
1 tsp sweet paprika
1 preserved lemon, pulp removed, skin rinsed and finely chopped
150 g mixed black and green pitted olives
200ml chicken stock
salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 170C
- Season the chicken thighs with salt and pepper and sear them in a casserole dish with some olive oil over a medium heat until lightly browned.
- Remove and allow to drain on some kitchen towel.
- Add the onion and fennel to the casserole dish, then the garlic, cook until soft and translucent. Add the harissa and spices, stir gently.
- Return the chicken to the casserole dish, add the chickpeas, olives, chopped preserved lemon and stock.
- Put in the oven for 45 minutes to allow all the flavours to infuse into the meat and chick peas. Serve with cous cous and flat bread.