As might be expected, I have been researching Arabic, Persian, North African, Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish, Eastern Mediterranean, Indian, Tibetan and Nepalese foods, in my quest for the colors, aromas and flavors of the Silk Road. As I experiment in my kitchen, cooking and tasting, with an eye toward making dinner and lunch specials for Restaurant Salaam which beguile the senses, I have found my imagination to be fired by the scent of myriad spices fruits and condiments, some familiar and some entirely new.
Olives, for example, are an old friend. I apparently, from the day when I could first chew, took to olives as if I had grown up playing under the gnarled branches of ancient olive groves. But for the longest time, the only olives I knew were the standard pimento stuffed cocktail olives common to all of the US, or the very bland, somewhat tinny-tasting and characterless black olives of California.
It wasn’t until I started eating and cooking Greek foods that I discovered the beauty of the deep violet-black Kalamatas–rich, fruity, with a dank bitterness layered over an intense salty-sweet taste that made me break out in a lustful sweat from my first bite. Until I tasted my first Kalamata, I only had Paula Wolfert’s word that a diversity of olives existed in the world, each variety delightful in its own way.
Paula Wolfert is the cookbook author who introduced me to the true cooking of both the Western and Eastern Mediterranean regions when I was in high school and early college. I devoured her recipes, reading them over and over, until, when I finally could get ingredients and cook them, I pretty much knew them by heart and didn’t have to consult the cookbook. Her descriptions of the dishes were so eloquent and accurately written that I knew exactly what each dish was supposed to taste like, such that I always knew if I was right on the money with my cooking, or heading towards disaster. I may have now and then headed toward the “Cliffs of Despair” with one or two of Wolfert’s recipes, but thanks to her clear writing, I never went over–I always was pulled back from the edge by her firm authorial voice, and I always managed to cook myself out of any corner thanks to her guidance.
Anyway, now that I am thoroughly introduced to olives, I cannot help but try as many of them as I can get my hands on, and tend to have several different sorts of them in my refrigerator at any given moment. One of the easiest ways to get me interested in a new dish is to tell me that there are olives and garlic in it. Then, I cannot help but take notice.
I am also fond of lemons, but I am sad to say that until I started on my journey of discovery along the path of the cuisines of the Silk Road, I had not felt the need to really encounter preserved lemons.
They are a common enough ingredient in Moroccan cuisine–so common in fact, that most people make them up in large jars at home. Plenty of bloggers have written about making preserved lemons–the only ingredients are lemons, salt, lemon juice, a jar and time. They are simple, really.
But, I had avoided them–for whatever reason–I am not sure why. It makes no real sense, honestly–I had a jar of two of them I had bought at World Market years ago and had carried about from kitchen to kitchen for years. But I never opened them.
Until I decided to make this salad, inspired by the writings of Claudia Roden, another best-beloved cookbook author.
I had found the recipe that sparked this one in her newest cookbook, Arabesque, which highlights the foods of Turkey, Morocco and Lebanon. It was for a dish of spinach sauteed with olive oil, garlic, olives and preserved lemon rind, which is then served cold.
But since Zak doesn’t care for cooked spinach in most cases, I got the idea to use fresh raw spinach, and then chop together the olives, garlic and lemon rind, then dress the whole carefully with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice. I finished it off with dots of very fresh, very tangy local goat cheese, and a sprinkle of toasted pine nuts.
It was not exactly what Roden was writing about, mind you, and was not authentic in the least, but the flavors were blossoming with fragrance and power–it was a salad that made you want more with every bite. That is why I call it Moreish–the combination of flavors from the preserved lemons, olives and garlic is just classic, but the addition of the goat cheese sends it way over the top. And serving this delectable combination over velvety raw spinach is a great contrast in color, flavor and texture, as the spinach retains its both soft and crisp nature, while the chopped up preserved lemon, olives and goat cheese are all differing degrees of softness.
It was just damned good, is what it was.
So, now I need to make myself a jar of preserved lemons. I made a big jar of them for work today, but I need some at home, too, because I sense that they are going to become great friends of mine in the kitchen, alongside my faithful, companionable olives.
Moreish Moroccan Salad with Olives, Preserved Lemon and Goat Cheese
2 preserved lemons, rinds removed, flesh set aside for another purpose or discarded
1/2 cup good black olives–Moroccan oil cured are best, but Kalamatas or other high quality black olives will do–rinsed if necessary
1 small clove fresh garlic, peeled
1 tablespoon minced fresh mint leaves
1/8 cup fresh soft, tangy goat cheese, crumbled
1/2 pound fresh baby spinach, washed and dried
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil–choose a very fruity or peppery one
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup freshly toasted pine nuts–toast in a dry skillet over medium heat, shaking nuts until they brown evenly and become fragrant
Chop the preserved lemon rinds and olives together roughly until pieces are about the size of your pinky fingernail or half that size. Mince the garlic clove together with the mint leaves, and toss with the lemon rinds and olives. Allow to sit at room temperature for about an hour to allow flavors to mingle.
Lay the spinach leaves together in a serving bowl, and scatter the preserved lemon rind and olive mixture over them. Drop the pieces of goat cheese evenly over the top, and drizzle with the olive oil and lemon juice.
Sprinkle with the pine nuts, then, just before serving, toss gently with salad spoons to evenly distribute the lemon olive mixture, along with the olive oil and lemon juice.
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