The logic of many things escapes me – margarine; socks and sandals; the irrefutable fact that a couple will quarrel when standing over a map; chocolate in the fridge; sea urchin; Stephen Hawking's quantum wormhole theory; people who don't read books; logic itself. Then there are those experiences and tangible things whose raison d'etre is so undeniably clear. As glass, and I'm not talking the frosted, smoked variety. Consider the calming effect of a beautiful sunset; the immense comfort of a perfectly cooked bowl of pasta; a hug; a scream; relieving an itch; a crackling wood fire under the stars; the crunch of watermelon on a hot day; lemons.
The importance of lemons in everyday life may not be well documented on paper, but I cannot think of another ingredient that is so damn popular, so widespread, so captain of the hockey team. The North Africans knew they were on to a good thing when they decided to preserve them in a salty brine; those (enviable) Amalfi-ites holed up on shores of The Med realised, in between long lunches and days on the water, that the finishing touch to any salad, curl of charred squid, piece of grilled fish, biscuit or cake was a citrussy twist; while their hombres in Mexico used it to plug their beers (although some would argue that was purely to clean the bottle tops – useful all the same). Hell, the reason they say "when life gives you lemons..." is because there'll always be lemons. In lemons we must trust.
But, their smooth skin, buttercup hue and glowing exterior do not a sunny disposition guarantee. To the untrained tongue, the sour blast can be overwhelming, and to the torn cuticle, the juice akin to acid. The beauty of lemons lies in their versatility and compatible nature. They're good guys. You'd hardly slice up a lone fruit and tuck in (although I did the other day when my friend Yasmin brought me a Meyer lemon from her tree; the flavour as we each sucked on a wedge was a sherbety cocktail of lime, lemon, orange and grapefruit), but when paired with the right contrasting ingredients, it's like cracking the golden ratio. With just a squeeze, rich flavours are tempered, salt is balanced, insipid foods injected with sass and heavy cakes or desserts suddenly float of the plate.
So when life gives me lemons, old chap, I suck those sour babies up and get into the kitchen. And forget about lemonade. They work magic in a healthy, Moroccan-style salad of preserved lemon, pomegranate, roasted cauliflower, pearl barley and fresh herbs (see recipe below); and a crumbly, buttery shortbread tap dances across the tongue with the help of some finely pared zest (check out the link). You'll be asking life to throw you lemons. Stat.
Roasted cauliflower, preserved lemon and pearl barley salad
This recipe is not your regular recipe, because sometimes it's tiring following a recipe – all those steps, all those ingredients, too many instructions. You just want to roll your sleeves up, cook and be free. Instead this recipe is simply a poem of different flavours that work so well together. Follow my suggestion, then let loose and cook them in your own way.
Combine cooked, cooled pearl barley with chopped spring onion, chopped preserved lemon rind and chopped pistachio kernels. Swirl together some pomegranate molasses, lemon juice and olive oil, season then toss with the pearl barley mixture.
Add some roasted cauliflower to the mix (I roast mine with oil and ground coriander, but lemon zest and dried chilli flakes also work. And don't forget to season it well, that's the key, otherwise you run the risk of nursing home cauliflower).
Roughly chop generous handfuls of fresh mint, parsley and coriander, if you like, then add to the salad with some finely shredded, raw kale (delicious) or baby spinach. Garnish with the seeds of a pomegranate for wow factor, then dig in as a side or as a hearty vegetarian salad.
Click here for a recipe for easy lemon shortbread.