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.
A completely entertaining post Tracey, with some interesting information about where you live, especially the harsh and unforgiving climate. The new BBC series sounds good too. Did you get filmed for it?
I am constantly amazed by your industry and resilience. It shows that the people of your country are in many ways much hardier than us English. (The Southern ones anyway, before Winko pipes up!)
Regards, from a considerably easier life in Norfolk. Pete.
Thanks Pete! Just got to get the head down and get on with it in this weather – it will pass. We are relatively hardy, but thinking back to what it must have been like here even 40 years ago, nowhere near as tough as Hebridean people, not least the St Kildans. I’ve worked out there and some of the more remote now uninhabited islands, will try and cover them in a post sometime – I got some great photos on St Kilda. I was not filmed for the BBC series fortunately, background bureaucracy is more my forte and comfort zone! PS can you send some sun from Norfolk? Preferably with a bit of warmth too, it’s freezing this evening!
20 degrees this afternoon, and a light breeze. More please! x
Don’t rub it in, Baltic here, 10 degrees, feels more like 3 with a north wind 😦
Harissa paste is one of my favourite ingredients. It sits in the fridge and when ever I feel a dish needs a kick up the behind it gets a dose of harissa. Your seedlings are looking really good. I was amazed at the strawberry flowers. Today the weather in London is hot, long may it last. Lovely snapshot of life in North Uist.
It does gives dishes a delightful kick, you are right. I could do with some of the hot London weather. Very cold and dreich here tonight. I felt a bit crazy sowing basil and coriander in the tunnel – it seems like it will never grow on nights like this, but it will, and I will get a lot of strawberries too, hopefully. Ever the optimist! Thanks.
I might have the weather but you are way ahead of me on the planting.
Plants grow very slowly here, you’ll soon catch up!
Your picture of the haul from the old blackhouse reminds me of where I grew up in the Cairngorms – we lived in an old schoolhouse and every time we dug in the garden we’d discover odds and ends from previous generations of inhabitants. And always lots of broken crockery too! When I was little I used to wash them and put them on my bookshelf museum with labels as “archaeological treasures”.
Maybe I should start to save them on a shelf as garden relics too, although I draw the line at the old car parts I found in another part of the garden 🙂 Our neighbour told us a sword was found under the house when they added the extension in the 1980’s – no idea where that is now! I can’t figure out why there was quite so much broken crockery – tons of it. Thanks.
What a great post – you’ve been so busy and I have complete strawberry envy! I’m also envious over those beautiful lemons… and the price!! I’ll enjoy following your Moroccan food journey and will definitely have a sneaky peak at the BBC programme x
Thank you so much!. The strawberries crop massively inside the tunnel but do very poorly outside. Thankfully the raspberries are happy outside though. I am looking forward to seeing the other programmes in the BBC series too.
I love preserved lemons, harissa and Moroccan food generally, totally agree it’s a great style of cooking that makes the most of simple, often frugal ingredients. Your chicken recipe looks delicious.
Thank you! Great thing is these type of recipes are really quick and don’t require strategic planning – ideal for this time of year.
What a great post! Love the prizes you unearthed from the blackhouse, and the recipes, but you’ve really got me excited for that BBC special. I’ll be watching the listings – surley BBC America will run it, too!
Thank you very much! Not sure what I will do with the prizes yet, recycle for the garden somehow. Hope you can pick up these BBC programmes, at least on the web.
I had a very long look at those big tubs of harissa in the Goldborne Road shop 😉
Excellent recipe – I really must make some preserved lemons myself (I still have a few left from that shop in my fridge)!
Thank you! There were some seriously big tubs of olives and preserved lemons in the halal butchers. I was so disappointed not to be able to carry a big tub of purple olives home with me. My small tub of harissa is consolation, and in truth is probably better than the harissa I can make with ingredients I can get up here – unless my chilli crop come good anyway.
“Or where the Northern ocean, in vast whirls
Boils round the naked melancholy isles
Of farthest Thule, and th’ Atlantic
Pours in among the stormy Hebrides.” (James Thomson, The Seasons)
Good for you getting your garden started! Your surroundings must be so beautiful. I’ll watch for the BBC special…love BBC Canada!
How very eloquent and appropriate, thank you! The weather can be oppressive at times, but it is always beautiful, so much sky and sea and great quality of light. I won’t be deterred from gardening by moderate winds. Hope you can catch the programmes on BBC Canada. Thanks!
I’ve a jar of preserved lemons just about ready to use – might substitute some squash for the chicken in your recipe… The BBC series sounds like an interesting project to be involved with – looking forward to seeing it. The Bill Bailey documentary about Wallace has got me all enthusiastic about BBC nature programmes again!
Thanks, I think it would work with squash. A pity I missed the Wallace programme, he is as much a hero to me as Darwin. I did see the fantastic ‘Secret lives of rock pools’ on BBC Four and it was marvellous – proper science and scientists too, I wish more programmes of that style and calibre would be made more often.
All good things in this recipe. We make our own preserved lemons too, though truth be told, we start eating them at six weeks, rather than three months–and we like using the pulp as flavoring too. I’ll bet this dish tastes all the better for the fact that it’s raw and windy outside. I’m not sure I’d have the spiritual fortitude to be a gardener in similar circumstances. Good post. Ken
Thanks Ken, my lemons would not have made it to 3 months had I not been away for all of March 🙂 I use the pulp for some recipes – I like it in a marinade for olives. As for gardening, it is a challenge but satisfying and surprising to find just how much I can grow even in a short season, and slow grown food appears to taste so good (my perception at least) I’d hate to let the weather triumph completely. If that happens, I’m moving to Tuscany …..
Love it that you found such wonderful food props, or at least that’s what I would be using them for. Don’t think I’ve ever had harissa paste nor preserved lemons, although I was only in Morocco for ten days. Fabulous food. Regardless of how bored I was. I don’t do sun and beaches very well.
Thanks, You would certainly make the dish a whole lot more interesting to look at with props, I get a bit lost with food styling and photos. If you ate anything in Morocco, I’m sure there would have been one or both in some dishes. As for sun and beaches, not my idea of a holiday either. Tedium. I can’t sit still long enough for that kind of holiday 😉
How is it you live so remotely and yet have so much going on! Love it. I’d be made up to find a haul like you found in the wall (I’m a secret time team fan, tell no one). First thing I’m making when we get tovmove is a poly tunnel, think it’s essential from Leeds Northwards. Then a brick pizza oven of course…. ;). Look forward to the documentary, having just signed of surveys of St Clements Church, Kisimul and Blackhouses at Arnol, I feel like I’ve already been,there! Love the dish by the way, just my sort of thing….totally agree about using dried chickpeas.
Thanks though, I think we end up keeping busy because if you didn’t you might go a bit mad! I get nervous every time I dig in the garden, we live so close to the ancient monument. That said, we have the go ahead to extend the house after a walk over by an archaeologist. I will only relax when the foundations are dug, then like you, we can think about a pizza oven add on 🙂 thanks!
Love your potato patch haul! A colleague at college is doing a project using similar objects which she dug up in the woods at Menstrie. It was the site of an old hospital, I must tell her to look at your blog.(She follows it anyway) I’m off to make Harissa chicken for dinner now. Looking forward to the programme on BBC.x
Thanks, you are welcome to take some of our treasure trove away, I’m sure you could make good use of it for your studies! Enjoy your Harissa chicken, hopefully with preserved lemons too x 🙂
Man, you’ve got some big rocks on your garden and that’s some buried treasure you’ve uncovered. I’ve got some preserved lemons here and have been looking for a recipe to get the most out of them. I think this is one I can make without having to go to 3 stores and 2 spice shops. Thanks for sharing the recipe and for the heads-up about the BBC series. Marie is right. It should be broadcast over here soon.
Thanks. I would like to think that’s the last of the big rocks, but I suspect not! The good thing about this recipe is it calls for a small number of store cupboard ingredients that aren’t too weird, glad it will cut down your shopping 🙂 Hope you can catch the BBC series, it would be a missed opportunity for the BBC only to broadcast it here.
It is funny about timing…I’m preparing chicken with preserved lemons tonight using the first of the lemons I preserved. I like the idea of chick peas in your dish.
Thanks, it wouldn’t be the same without the chickpeas, enjoy your lemons! Tracey
I’ll definitely use them…perfect timing as they say.
Oh my goodness! I have never seen strawberry flowers. They are so cute. Love your preserved lemons recipe as well as your pictures.
Thank you, I will photograph the strawberries as the fruits ripen too, I’m confident of a decent crop 🙂 thank you for your kind comment about my photos too!
the preserved lemons must have added so much flavours in this dish…..and..can i just stay with you for a week?…..love what you are doing at home 🙂
Thank you so much, you are very kind, the lemons did! Of course you can stay for a week – as long as you do your share of the cooking 😉
Interesting, insightful and cruel all at the same time, as ever I drool over your recipes, photos and words 🙂 Thanks for the preserved lemon recipe; I will definitely have to give that a go as I missed out at the Turkish market.
Looks great. The olives are a nice addition!
Thanks, any excuse to put olives in a dish 🙂
I’m going to have to make preserved lemons. I love the in tact bottles and jars – I hope you’re going to display them somewhere!
Thanks, I will keep some of them in the kitchen, others in the workshop – all usable ones will be recycled, for sure.
I love new words – blackhouse. Just looked this up. What a great history, and they all look so charming.
And your recipe looks lovely. I’m a long-time fan of Northern African food, and this is one of my favorites. My best meal on a recent trip to Morocco was a variation of this dish (but with artichokes) in an out-of-the-way Riad. Hoping to post it soon 🙂
Your Moroccan meal sound delicious, I love artichokes – and a bit more exotic than cooking in an old crofthouse – even with the views of a blackhouse. Look forward to your post! thanks, Tracey