Palomar’s cured lemon paste

Palomar is a restaurant in central London that I discovered, along with an awful lot of other people, a couple of years ago. I ate there, for the first and only time, on my birthday after we found that our chosen, unbookable (aka irritating) place already had a queue half an hour before it opened. I refuse to queue for a restaurant so, hoping but unconvinced that we would get in, we headed south to another place high on the list: Palomar. By some happy coincidence, two spaces at the bar were free and we snuck in, sat down and were regaled for the next few hours by exceptionally entertaining waiters and the punchiest, brightest, most unusual combination of flavours this side of the Red Sea.

Described as ‘the food of modern Jerusalem’, Palomar’s menu has very little in common with anyone else’s (except, perhaps, its partner restaurant, the Barbary). Even the great Ottolenghi’s are navigable with a passing knowledge of London food trends but Palomar’s is off-the-scale different (at least to me). A scan of the current menu, over a year later, shows that that hasn’t changed. I’ve had plenty of tzatziki in my life, but not made with burnt courgette. Risotto is a staple, but I’ve never made it, or heard of, ptitim.

Not fazed? How about machluta, chickpea msabacha, matbucha (they like an ‘m’), kubaneh or tataki? No, me neither. But it doesn’t matter. These are small plates, you can try lots and they’re all unlikely to remind you of anywhere else. We came out wanting to go straight back. As yet, we’ve not made it (small plates, alas, don’t seem to make lunch cheaper than large ones) but last summer they brought out a cookbook, which means I can have as many return visits as I like.

It is a wonderful book full, like the restaurant menu, of unusual and never-before-seen dishes. You’re not going to sigh as you see another version of x or y in this book. So far, my favourite thing is the Persian-style oxtail stew but, since it takes about six hours, covers two pages and has cross-references (which I usually hate but, in this instance, forgave), it’s not blog-suitable. Divine, yes; everyday, no. I’ve tried lots of other, shorter recipes (schug, hand-chopped chicken liver, red onions and sumac, honey cake) and they have all been delicious but the one that has made most difference to my cooking life, that will be in my fridge for good, is the cured lemon paste.

Like preserved lemons, cured lemons are covered in salt but, unlike the preserved ones, they are then covered in oil, not water, and stored for a relatively short period (so three days, not for a month or longer). You can then use them as they are (I haven’t as yet), removing the slices as required, or make them into this delicious, versatile and adds-interest-to-everything paste. So far, I have eaten this with plainly-cooked lentils, cauliflower, couscous salad and socca. It is sour, bright, spicy and unforgettable. Once you have made it, you will also have leftover oil which makes excellent salad dressing. Technically, the paste lasts for three weeks (which is a good thing, since this, which is already half of their recipe makes plenty) but mine is still going after week four or perhaps even five. It may be something that takes a little time but, from then on, it will save you loads since it will add zing to so many other plain, fast dishes. Go buy yourself five lemons, salt, some oil and a jar right now. You won’t regret it.

Makes about 750ml

Cupboard (or things you may already have)
flaked sea salt (Maldon’s my favourite) 30g
olive oil (not your best stuff) 185ml (the recipe specifies half rapeseed, but I used just olive)
paprika, ½ tbsp
chilli flakes, ¼ tsp
cumin seeds,½ tsp

Shopping list
lemons, 5 (the recipe called for unwaxed but I bought waxed then scrubbed them under a hot tap to remove any wax)

You will also need a 1-litre glass jar.

How to
1. First, sterilise the jar. (Either put it through a hot cycle in a dishwasher, wash it in soapy water, rinse then dry it in a low oven; or, my preferred route and theirs, pour boiling water on the lid and jar and dry thoroughly with a clean cloth.)

2. Cut off the ends of the lemons then slice crossways into 5mm slices.

3. Put a layer of lemon slices in the bottom of the jar, cover with some of the salt and repeat until you have used up all the lemons and salt. Fill the jar with the oil (the lemons should be submerged, so add more oil if needed) then seal with the lid. Store in a cool, dark place (the fridge is ideal) for at least three days and up to a month if kept in the fridge.

4. When the lemons are ready, toast the cumin seeds in a dry frying pan and grind roughly in a pestle and mortar.

5. Remove the lemons from the oil, put in a blender or food processor with the paprika, chilli flakes, cumin seeds and some of the oil and blend to a paste. (Keep any leftover oil for salad dressings.)

6. Store the paste in a sterilised jar in the fridge (it will keep for a few weeks), covered with a layer of oil, and use as required. Remember, if you are dipping in and out of it, to use a clean spoon, not to double-dip, and to replace the layer of oil if need be. Serve with everything (okay, maybe not chocolate).

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