Winter Bounty


Winter is the most vibrant growing season in Tunisia.  Think San Diego to get a bearing of a comparable US climate zone.  We’ve got cool weather, but never (pretty much) freezing.  I think we had ice on our car windows once or twice in the morning in my 3 1/2 years here.

I’m getting back involved in the social life of our community.  Friends have been over to the house for meals and brewing and everyone seems to bring me a bunch of something from their garden.  But they have a bumper crop if they’ve got any, so  I’ve gotten huge sacks full of lemons and arugula, spinach transplants to go into pots, a pot of thyme,  and a bundle of just-cut roses.  It’s all wonderful, and I get to indulge in cooking, using mass quantities of these wonderful ingredients.

I’ve made preserved lemons before, and they are nice, though I can buy preserved lemons in local shops any time I want them.  Saveur magazine presented a similar but different idea which I tried this time: lemon olive oil.  Here are their very loose directions for making it up.

Lemon Olive Oil

“Throw a lemon- rind, pith, seeds, the whole shebang- into a blender with olive oil, blitz the heck out of it, and what do you get?  A bright and bracing emulsion that’s terrific in everything:  tossed with roasted potatoes, added to marinades, even mixed into pancake batter for some zip.  Refrigerated, it can keep for three weeks.”

I quartered a medium-large lemon, picking out all of the seeds I could see,  and trimmed any blemishes from the peel.  Then, I pureed it with about 2 cups of extra-virgin olive oil.  The emulsion holds perfectly.

Lemon Olive Oil

And now, here is the recipe,  from the header photo, which is perfect for using large quantities of the freshly-shelled peas, fennel, and other greens that are thriving in our cool winter sun. This is a vintage recipe from Saveur, April 1996,  but it was recommended by The Canal House as one from Saveur’s 20-year past that influenced them.  I know that anything The Canal House adopts as a touchstone recipe is one I need to make my own.  (Oh, watch the video on that link.  It will make you desperate to run outside, collect fresh food, cook it simply, but brilliantly, and share it with some lovely friends.)

Cooked and Raw Winter Salad

Serves 8-10

  • 6 slices bacon, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts
  • 2 shallots, finely chopped
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 16oz. package frozen lima beans
  • 1 16oz. package frozen peas
  • 1 cup roughly chopped mint
  • 1 cup roughly chopped parsley
  • 1/3 cup grated parmesan
  • 7 scallions, finely chopped
  • 1 bunch watercress, roughly chopped
  • 1 head bibb lettuce, cored and torn into small pieces
  • 1 medium bulb fennel, finely chopped, plus 1/4 cup roughly chopped fronds
  • 1/3 cup lemon juice

1.  Heat bacon in a 12″ skillet over medium-high heat; cook until crisp, about 6 minutes.  Using a slotted spoon, transfer bacon to paper towels to drain; set aside.  Add 2 tbsp. oil to pan;  return to medium-high heat.  Add pine nuts, shallots, salt, and pepper;  cook until shallots are soft, 2-4 minutes.  Transfer mixture to a bowl;  set aside.

2.  Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Cook lima beans and peas until bright green, about 1 minute.  Drain and transfer to a bowl of ice water.  Drain and spread on paper towels to dry;  transfer to bowl with pine nuts and shallots.  Add reserved bacon, remaining oil, mint, parsley, half the parmesan, the scallions, watercress, lettuce, fennel and half the fronds, lemon juice, salt, and pepper;  toss.  Garnish with remaining parmesan and fennel fronds.

My modifications:

I prefer to use pancetta in place of regular bacon.  The flavor is lighter and saltier, and I think it goes so well with fennel.  We can get freshly-shelled peas easily now, so I used all fresh peas and blanched them quickly to bring up their color.  In place of watercress, I used a combination of mache and arugula.  I also used my new Lemon Olive Oil  in place of the oil and lemon in the recipe, minus the amount for sauteing.  Taste to see if you need any more lemon at the end to brighten the flavor.  Canal House encourages making any substitutions that work for you.  Bonus:  This salad is brilliant lightly sauteed and tossed with pasta and extra parmesan on Day 2.

A pile of peas at the Sunday market.

Grilled Caesar Salad

            You know that January night when you come home from work and say, “Wait a minute, isn’t the sun usually down by now?”  There is some lingering daylight hanging over the backyard and the long-shrouded barbecue is giving you a nod.  We’re a month past solstice and at a minute per day, it amounts to something.
            I wanted so much to make this grilled Caesar salad last summer, but in Tunisia, Romaine lettuce is a winter crop, not summer.  It is perfect and abundant now so tonight, we have a great opportunity to bring some summer into our winter work week.
            I use non-stick aluminum foil on the grill.  With some planning, I can cycle through the entire meal with one set of foil.  I started with leeks wrapped in pancetta and drizzled with excellent olive oil.   Wrapping vegetables in pancetta and grilling them is one of my go-to food preparations.  I do an entire bundle of vegetables at once and then put them in scrambled eggs for breakfast during the rest of the week.
            Next, I toasted bread, tossed in the leeky, salty olive oil.  This is basically Texas Toast.  Funny thing, my dad is from Texas and everything great in our house, when I was growing up, was from Texas.  I actually thought that Texas Toast was my dad’s invention until about 3 months ago when I heard my Canadian friend, Paul, mention Texas Toast to his sons in the context of not having a toaster yet because their shipment hadn’t yet arrived.
            Finally, you put the Romaine lettuce on the grill and leave it only until it develops grill marks.  Grilling it in whole heads is extra beautiful, but mine came apart on its own.
2 flat anchovy fillets, drained and chopped
2 small garlic cloves, chopped
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 large egg
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, or to taste
Artisinal salt (I used Himalayan pink salt)
Freshly ground pepper
Blend all ingredients until emulsified.  Adjust amounts to taste.
           We bought these eggs, individually, yesterday in the Tunisian countryside.  I carried them home in a plastic bag.  I felt like I was playing a party game on the way home, trying not to break the eggs.  I won!
           Toss the greens with the dressing, to taste.  Coursely chop the leeks and pancetta and place on top.   Dust with freshly grated Parmesan and pepper.

It doesn’t just taste like a summer salad.  It’s a little bit roasted, a little bit wilted.  It suits winter.