Monday, 12 October 2015

Chermoula chermoula

Dear Nigel,

I have decided to cook your 'Chermoula aubergine' (page 373) for supper tonight. Chermoula is a marinade used in Algerian, Libyan and Moroccan cooking made from fresh herbs, lemon juice and oil. Your recipe uses leaf coriander and preserved lemon and a good kick of chilli.

I am usually a bit reticent about the use of coriander leaves, as I often find them a bit soapy to taste. But, having sampled this dish I can honestly say that they provide a very different base here - fresh and almost grassy. I think this is because the herbs are very finely blended and mixed with several very strong flavours. There is salt from the preserved lemon (which is pickled in salt water), sour from the lemon juice, and heat from the green and red chilli (and also the ginger, paprika and cayenne). These act as a foil for each other; and, although they are strong, none of them overpowers the others. I serve the chermoula with plain brown basmati rice, which has a nice nutty flavour and slightly chewy texture. In my experience it is also considerably quicker to cook and more flavoursome than the ordinary brown rice I have cooked in the past.

I make the marinade and, instead of putting it in a sealable plastic food bag as you suggest, I put it in a plastic lock'n'lock box and shake it vigorously around the peeled aubergines. I should have read the whole recipe before I started - which of course I didn't - as I would have seen that you recommend leaving it to marinade for 'at least an hour, two or three if you can'. (A note at the top would perhaps have been useful here as I've come to think of this section of recipes as quick evening suppers.) In the event, I don't have the time as we've just come back from an afternoon's walking over on the Chatsworth Estate with our bellies grumbling. So I omit the marinading time, hoping it won't make too much difference; but, as the aubergine is cooked in the marinade, which then becomes the sauce for the dish, there is plenty of flavour there already.

The lovely thing about this dish is that what seems like a huge amount of olive oil used in the marinade, is exactly what makes the aubergine taste so succulent. We are all used to fried and roasted aubergine and it makes a refreshing change to have aubergine cooked in this manner.

The aubergines are cooked whole with deep slits cut into each where the marinade and oil can penetrate. Aubergines are notoriously greedy of oil and soak it up like a sponge. The final dish is carved into thick slices as you might a piece of steak. It is a great recipe to serve vegetarian or vegan members of your family and friends.

The council have decided to dig up all the roads in the village for some reason or other - no one is quite sure why. I wake this morning to find not one but two signs declaring their imminent progress at the end of our lane. This did strike me as being a little too officious, considering that the lane is a dead-end and only three cars use it. But it is nice to know that we're being given the personal treatment. Perhaps a handwritten letter from some nice man in the Highways department will be next. Like all such 'improvements' I confidently predict it to be about the only topic of conversation, apart from the weather, for the next six months at least. Parliaments may rise and fall, economies collapse and laws repealed, but conversation here will focus myopically as always.

Our walk yesterday on the Chatsworth Estate took us from Carlton Lees and up over the hills past the Russian Cottage. This lovely old building was built following a gift of a model of a Russian farm from the brother of Tsar Nicholas of Russia in 1855 to the 6th Duke of Devonshire. He had previously served as the Ambassador to Moscow and become friends with the Tsar. It has steep-pitched roofs and dark logs set against white shuttered windows and reminds me of the stories in Arthur Ransome's book 'Old Peter's Russian Tales', which I loved as a child.

 Further over, herds of red and fallow deer were grazing. You can walk quite close to the herds, who appear to be wandering freely - which I suppose they are - although they too are contained within a 15km long dry stone wall and deer fence, which houses the 1000 acres of the Park.

An old sweet chestnut tree lay on its side, broken. Yet the leaves and the prickly pods seemed very healthy growing horizontally out of the end of the broken tree. It had rooted itself once more and long spinally roots curved over in an arc seeking out water and nutrients and had plunged themselves back down into the earth.

Back home I am filling up the bird feeders once more. There are a couple of large grey squirrels chasing each other over the branches of the tall pine trees in the garden of the farmhouse opposite. I hope they won't take over the nut feeder again like they did in the town. We are lucky to have a wide variety of birds here who visit our bird table throughout the year. There is a farm not far away that sells wild bird seed by the sack, and this is by far the most economical way to keep the birds happy. One sack usually lasts us the whole winter.

There are more Belted Galloways in the fields on the Moorlands, I notice. These last few years there has been a huge increase in the numbers of farmers keeping both Highland cattle and these tubby little creatures. This heritage beef breed are very hardy and pretty to look at. They originate from Galloway in the west side of southern Scotland and were adapted specially to living on the poor upland pastures and windswept moorlands of the region. This makes them ideal candidates for our open moorlands here. The sheep are also being gathered together slowly. We notice their density increasing in the fields. The first frosts and snow may not be too far away. Several farmers near us lost sheep in the drifts last year, I remember.


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