Al-Garve Arabesque

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The history of Tavira’s Arab influence is reflected in the town’s heraldic crest. There is the image of the crescent moon which is a symbol of Islam. The dhow fishing vessel, with it’s lateen sails, was a prototype of the caravel, without which the Portuguese empire would probably not have existed. The bridge spanning the river facilitated the movement of people, commodities and ideas. The Arabs brought their sciences, architecture, agriculture and their spices.

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From Arabic, Baharat translates as spices. A baharat, in culinary terms, is a blend of spices. In my kitchen, I use baharat as a seasoning for fish, vegetables, soups and stews as well as a table condiment. There are many recipes for baharat. Typical spices used in the blend include allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, nutmeg and dried red chiles or paprika. It is not spicy hot but more aromatically sweet and smoky and adds zest to the dishes I like to prepare.

 

 

 

 

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Breads are an important feature of meals in Portugal. This is “pao estendida” or extended bread, in the literal translation. Basically, the dough is stretched. I have used my whole wheat bread starter to give these pita breads some backbone

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The “couvert” is the opening act in the sequence of an Al-Garve meal. Usually, it is a simple presentation of bread, cheese and olives. But I think it has tremendous scope for presenting different flavours and textures. I like to equate this course to an Italian antipasto plate or eastern Mediterranean mezze plate.

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The next best thing to not having a wood-fired oven is grilling outside over an open flame. After grilling the bread, I poured local extra virgin olive oil over it and sprinkled it with Za’atar. Za’atar translates as thyme and thyme is one of the more important herbs in the Al-Garve kitchen. Za’atar is a another spice blend that I like to use to season fish and breads. Za’atar is a combination of thyme, sumac, roasted sesame seeds and coarse sea salt.

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Dried beans are an essential item in any Al-Garve kitchen for soups, stews and side dishes. I used my baharat spice blend to flavour this combination of chick peas and courgettes, finishing it with a spoonful of yoghurt, lemon zest and fresh coriander. The accompaniment of za’atar rubbed grilled bread makes for an exotic presentation of beans on toast.

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The story of Tavira and tuna is a rich history. Up until recently, local “pescadores” or fishermen used the traditional Almadraba technique of netting the migrating tuna, al-tun in Arabic. Nets were anchored over a distance of kilometres in the sea and the tuna were steered or corralled into a central zone where the nets were tightened and raised thus allowing the fishermen to kill the giant fish. This style of fishing was brought to Tavira by Phoenicians who arrived about 1,000 bce from today’s Lebabon. Tuna is sold as very thin steaks in the local market. I don’t like that because it is too easy to overcook cook the tuna steaks. Usually, I ask the vendor to slice me a one and a half inch thick slice. I like my grilled tuna on the rare side. I used my za’atar spices as a dry rub on the tuna. I served the tuna over a salad of arugula (jaje’er in arabic), basil and purslane. I spiced up a simple lemon vinaigrette with piri-piri and ate like a peasant.

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Al-Qahwa is Arabic for coffee and when I’m not roasting my own coffee beans for a “bica” or espresso, I like to experiment with espesso blends. This is my interpretation for a Portuguese inspired coffee blend. Brazil was a part of the Portuguese empire, as was the island of Timor in south east Asia. Yemen completes the Arab connection. I use Arabica coffee beans over Robusta coffee beans. They make for a better coffee with less caffeine. They are used throughout the specialty coffee industry whereas Robusta coffee beans are what you find in your local supermarket. Don’t go there. Instead, eat like a peasant.

 

The Callous Dhowboy in the Al-Garve.

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Cooking is the art of seasoning and the distinctive features of Arab culinary art are very much vibrant in Portugal’s Al-Garve region. This can be seen from the use of certain ingredients, cooking techniques, flavourings and consistencies. An interesting classification of ingredients begins with fragrances and spices. On top of this list are items like rose water, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, saffron, cardamom and mace. A second group of flavouring ingredients consists of dried fruits and nuts like raisins, almonds and pistachios. A third group includes both sweet and sour fresh fruits like apples and pomegranates. In fourth comes honey and sugar. The next group includes the likes of  fermented fish sauce.  Next come grains and beans followed by herbs and vegetables. Rounding out this classification are common items like salt, pepper, vinegar and dairy. Spices and flavourings distinguish one dish from another, define flavour and heighten taste. This is by no means a comprehensive listing.

 

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The predominant fat used to cook and finish plates is olive oil. The Arabs extended olive oil production in the Al-Garve and introduced new pruning and irrigation techniques. This is a local fish called Cherne that is crusted with pistachio nuts, preserved lemon, salted capers. I took the liberty of adding a little bit of piri-piri pepper. As for the salt, the town of Tavira in the Al-Garve has the only D.O.P. accredited salt in the Mediterranean.

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Both the cooking utensil and dish known as the Cataplana were introduced into the Al-Garve repertoire. The cataplana can be considered a fore-runner of the modern pressure cooker as well as the basis for the north African Tagine. Once upon a time, before the Age of Exploration, the cataplana was made without adding tomato or potato. I used my own spice blend to make my Cataplana. Amongst the arrangement of spices, I included ginger, coriander, cumin, cardomom and saffron. I used a apple cider vinegar as an acidity and rounded out the leading edges of flavour with honey. The most common honeys used today the Al-Garve are rosemary honey and orange blossom honey.

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A lot of common culinary items traveled out the East. The list includes onions, garlic, beetroot, leeks, carrots and turnips . The Arabs are credited with introducing them to Europe.

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Sweet fava beans are a staple of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cooking, which explains why they are so abundant here in the Al-Garve. Young favas can be eaten unpeeled and are a great snack with an aged and salty sheep’s milk cheese. Mature favas need to have their tough outer skins removed. Their flavour is excellent in everything from salads to hearty soups.

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Damascus steel was a type of steel used in Middle Eastern sword-making. The exact method of production is still unknown. However, the history and reputation of Damascus steel has brought many legends. In 2006, a German research team published a report telling of nanowires and carbon nanotubes in a blade forged from Damascus steel. My point is to make sure to get yourself a decent of knives

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Who does’nt love cooking over fire. Try grilling cauliflower next time. It was another vegetable brought by the Arabs along with celery, celery root, fennel, cabbage and eggplant. Spinach and arugula too.

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The tuna no longer run off Al-Garve waters and so the traditional method of netting them is obsolete. The “Almadraba” style of steering the tuna through a series of nets was introduced by the Moors into the Al-Garve. You can still buy tuna fresh at the local fish market or buy it canned. If you purchase canned tuna,make sure it is packed in olive oil.Or you can do what I do and that is to make your own tuna ‘conserva”. And that way, you know you are using an excellent local olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil from Moncarapacho here in the Al-Garve can and has beaten the best the world has to offer. Look no further than olive oil fairs recently in New York City.

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This is cilantro or ‘coentro” from my garden. It is flowering which means that it will go to seed. I pick and save the seeds for my spice blends and also to plant again next year. Insh’Allah.

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Honey bees play a very important role in our food production system. Up to 70% of the food on your plate has been pollinated by a honey bee. Bee aware that fertilising chemicals brought to you by the likes of Monsanto are destroying bee populations across the globe. You want your food to be as clean as possible, not “pharm fresh”. Support your local, organic and sustainable farm network. I buy directly from Quinta Shanti in Conceicao in the Al-Garve. Thank you, Angela.

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Fennel pollen is another under rated kitchen ingredient. I use it primarily as a seasoning for fish.

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Lastly, where would we be if the Arabs had not cultivated coffee and brought it to Europe also. The history of coffee, coffee culture and Portugal goes hand in hand. I enjoy making roasted coffee blends with the spirit of Portugal in mind. The blends include Brazilian, Sumatra or Timor and Yemenese coffee beans. Enjoy that “bica”. A dhow is an Arab fishing vessel. Callous can be interpreted as jaded, tired and spent. Eat like a peasant.

 

My Way With The Thrill Grill Cult.

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For any earnest cook, intent on cooking what the sea has to offer, Al-Garvean fish markets are a sight to behold. Every time I go, I am stunned by what is on offer. I have had to re-invent my perception of the classification of fish and seafood. I have also had to learn the Portuguese translations for all these various fishes. The upper class of fish available includes (not all) the likes of the European seabass, mullets, drumfish, John Dory and monkfish. Another class involves all the various sea bream including gilthead or dourada, porgy, white sea bream, sharpsnout sea bream, two-banded sea bream and blackspot sea bream. Then there are the sardines, various mackerel and anchovies. The list continues with swordfish, needlefish and scabbardfish. Let’s not forget all kinds of tuna either. Then there are the cartilagenous fishes like dogfish, various rays and skates. Various eels and various flatfish. The classification continues with octopus, cuttlefish and squid. Then there are all the assorted and sundry crustaceans like shrimps and crabs. Last but not least are shellfish like clams and oysters. I really hope that you, dear reader, get the idea of what the expression “bewildering display’ means. (painting by Pedro Fernandes)

 

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This hibachi grill will have to suffice for a bit longer. It is not going to last and I need something far more sturdy and durable for my actions with fire and a grill.

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Now….this is a grill.

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This is a steak cut from a species of fish known as Corvina. The other corvina that I know of is a grape varietal cultivated in the Veneto region of northern Italy. It is used in the production of Valpolicella and Bardolino wines. But corvina, the fish, is a member of the drumfish family. Some people might refer to it as sea-sheep, or shade-fish . It is usually sold “a posta”, in other words, cut into steaks.

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Al-Garve cooks take the idea of simple to another level. I marinated this corvina in extra virgin olive oil. Before it went on the grill, I seasoned the fish steak with local sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

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Fish is served as is. There is never any sauce. People think that there must be something wrong with the fish if there is a sauce. For me personally, once the grilled fish is plated I like extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice. The Al-Garve is awash in some of the best olive oil around and there are no shortage of lemon trees.

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Quinta Shanti is an organic vegetable farm located in Conceicao de Tavira. This is where I buy my vegetables. This composition included wheat berries, golden beets, mustard greens, mizuna and red leaf lettuce. Eat like a peasant. Thanks for reading.

Gastropunk meets Alternative Algarve

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Fish swimming in shoals in the sea brings to mind the Chaos Theory. It also reminds me of the frenetic energy involved in busy, fast-paced kitchens. There is always method and reason.

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I am also reminded of the Portuguese soccer coach, Jose Mourinho. He tells his players that they will play and subscribe to a particular style of footballing philosophy. This idea is also true with food. I prefer to cook in a particular style and with a certain attitude. Bees 3 versus Monsanto Corporation 0.

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Instinctive and fundamental to my culinary beliefs are the ideas of eating local foods, seasonally and organically. This means you inherently support your local farmers, growers and the good people that bring you your food. I am lucky to have found an organic farm near where I am located.

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Quinta Shanti is 90% self sufficient. In addition to grapes, olives are grown. Plus figs, apples, pears, peaches, oranges, lemons and apricots. I have not even begun to list the vegetables.

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I have an agreement with the farmer to buy vegetables from them once a week. This is great news on a number of different fronts. It introduces me to the rhythms of the Algarve growing season which is very different from what I left behind in New England. Even though there is a municipal market in my new town, Tavira, it is still largely supplied by the industrial food chain. You have to careful, observant and disciplined with your purchasing decisions. It is good to be able to recognise an industrially grown tomato or to be able to see what garlic was grown out in the back of the vendor’s garden.

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The Portuguese love their dried beans in all of their various shapes, colours and texture. This chick pea salad has the addition of fresh coriander. I have never eaten as much coriander in my life. I can’t find basil anywhere but coriander is used abundantly and then some, everywhere.

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I only have eyes for you. Say hello to piri-piri peppers. These little peppers pack some serious heat. Whilst the shrimps have never seen the inside of a freezer, their flavour is enhanced by generous amounts of garlic. And yes, it is necessary to have all that delicious olive oil on the plate.

 

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Algarve wines have come a long way in the past 3,000 years. Phoenicians, Romans and Moors all had a hand in this history. Nowadays, some of the better wines available have achieved D.O.P. status and that’s good news for me and you.

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Algarve style fish baked in a pot. I arranged the 1/4 ” sliced potatoes in the dish, shingled so as to be reminiscent of fish scales. I filled the cavity of the fish with rosemary and lemon. I seasoned the fish with Tavira D.O.P. flower of sea salt and sliced garlic. I moistened the dish with white wine, tomato juice and D.O.P. quality olive oil. Serves one.

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I’m still hungry. All that ocean and salt air! This eat out of your hand snack includes local fresh goat’s milk cheese, cherries and pistachios on home made whole wheat bread. Thanks for reading. Eat like a peasant.

Salted Cod.

 

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Salt cod is an under appreciated gem in some parts of the Mediterranean. All that is needed are the two primary ingredients. They are decent sea salt and fresh cod. I will celebrate my heritage by using sea salt from my paternal ancestral area, west Cork, to fashion my own home crafted salted codfish.

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It’s no matter whether you pronounce it bacala as in italian, or bacalhau in Portuguese, or bacalhao in Spanish or even morue in French, it is still salted cod. I like to include thyme, lemon zest and flaked Portuguese piri piri to accent the salt. I let the salted fish cure for three days in my refridgerator. Then I wrap it well with parchment paper and plastic wrap and freeze it until I want it.

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Spring garden asparagus soup is a perfect accompaniment to salt cod in some parts of the planet. I garnished mine with new olive oil and just snipped garden chives.

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When I want to use my salt cod, I fish it out of the freezer and allow it to defrost. Usually, I soak it in water for two days or longer. I change the water three times a day.

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The artichoke, vegetable or hand grenade?

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I love fish and potatoes combined and these little salt cod potato cakes satisfy. Just add lemon.

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I like to add the salt after they have roasted.

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Any left overs are great the next day. I bake the salted fish-potato mixture with a generously seasoned composition of scallion, parsley, dried oregano, lemon zest, piri piri pepper, garlic, salt and olive oil. Thanks for reading. Eat like a peasant.

 

From my Secret Laboratory.

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At this early stage of spring, my Headiterranean Mediterranean garden is already gearing up. This is Radicchio di Treviso in all it’s splendour.

 

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Little French Breakfast radishes all lined up for spring duties.

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The garlic was well mulched and covered in snow all winter long.

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No spring garden is complete without chives.

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Alpine Strawberries sunning themselves in the afternoon sunshine.

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My backyard Asparagus is making an early run.

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Wild arugula and wild fennel at play together.

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The raw materials for tonight’s supper includes radicchio, arugula and chives.

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I wonder…….

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First of the season Asparagus Frittata.

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The days are bright and its good to be outside but the nights are chilly once the sun sets. That’s my excuse for turning on the oven. I roasted the codfish with my garden thyme and rested it upon the salad leaves. I’m hungry so I made potato-fennel gratin and roasted rutabagas to accompany. More than enough to satisfy my soul.

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Loaves and fishes or fish with potatoes. Eat like a peasant. Thanks for reading.

Marinada e Grilhada Piri-Piri

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Though piri-piri comes in many shapes and forms, from bottled pastes to flavored oils, essentially it is a thumbnail sized, spicy dried chili pepper. It is of African origin and was transported to Portugal during the Age of Exploration. Portugal held outposts in today’s Angola and Mozambique as it sought to seize control of the valuable spice trade. Today the pepper is part of the Portuguese culinary repertoire and is an essential ingredient of the marinade for a simple grilled chicken. My marinade included piri-piri peppers, garlic and home made preserved lemon as its base.

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I crushed the peppers with my blade or otherwise split them and chopped them up. I used a microplane to process the garlic to a pulp. As for the preserved lemons, I removed everything but the rind and rinsed it off before mincing it with my knife. I used what herbs that I had on hand, parsley and rosemary. Some cooks might include ginger, coriander or thyme. Just be generous with the amount of piri-piri that you use. And they do generate some heat.

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Take two items, and make garlic bread. I have olive bread to play with.

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Grill the bread, dry and on both sides.

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Afterwards, when the bread is off the grill, rub it with the garlic clove, sprinkle on some good sea salt. Pour on good quality extra virgin olive oil all over. You’re done.

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Grilled spring onions.

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I pounded and flattened out the chicken breasts. Why? because I want them to cook quickly over a hot fire. This way they are less inclined to dry out. Pounding out the chicken also helps to tenderise the meat. They sat in the marinade for almost four hours.

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Plain and simple. I dressed the plate with olive oil and lemon.

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Thumbnail sized piri piri peppers. Thanks for reading. Eat like a peasant.

 

Another Thyme, Another Place.

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I was happy to see that my little thyme plant was one of the survivors in my garden. It’s resilience to crusty New England winters reminded me of another one or two of its virtues. It grows great in certain parts of the southern Mediterranean and is especially tasty with fish. My garden thyme is a magic carpet.

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Tavira is a fishing town located in the eastern Algarve region of southern Portugal. And when you absolutely have to have the freshest fish……Well, this is how we do it.

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Find the freshest fish that you can. Leave it whole. Small fish works better. Light a fire.

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Any fish with a gammy eye, you don’t touch.

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Cooking utensils are simple. All you need is a decent pair of tongs to fit your grip and a fish spatula. In fact, a fish spatula is just about the last word for outdoor grilling. Get a decent one. One that won’t melt. Use sea salt that you enjoy.

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This is my first attempt at grilling in 2014.

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What I like about outdoor grilling is the unpredictability. But, altogether, I’m pleased with my blistered fish.

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Different sized fish will have  different cooking times. And the grill cook is always responsible for his fire.

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This fish is called scup, or porgie.

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Grilled fish, off the fire, Tavira style.

 

 

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And then, back to reality. Eat like a peasant. Thanks for reading.

The Shake Shake Sheikh of Araby.

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The bright melange of spices in a good Hawaj blend is reminiscant of busy fishing ports up and down the Red Sea. This is a different Cooking of the Sun.

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There are probably a million and one ways to cook this dish.
I diced onion, garlic, ginger, carrot, parsnip and celery as a vegetable base and sweated them all together in grape seed oil with sea salt until they began to loose their moisture content and concentrate their flavors. I added my “I Kill You” blend of Hawaj spices and deglazed with lemon juice and honey. My Hawaj was tomato based and I am fortunate to still have a few jars of last summer’s preserved tomatoes remaining in the pantry. Basically, the pristine fresh fish was steamed over the spices in the stew. Notice that my stew is not awash. The flavors are very concentrated. The mussels can be interpreted as “sea dates” and lent their flavor.

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Yes, mon or yeah man but it’s all about the craft of coffee roasting which has a long tradition in this part of the planet. These beans or seeds are from Yemen.

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All Coffee from Yemen may be regarded as heirloom with hundreds of years of tradition behind it. Yemeni coffee is commonly grown at over 5,000 ft. and agricultural practices may be regarded as organic. Yemeni coffee is a small bean and is dry processed. All of its production is done by hand.

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I roasted my Yemeni coffee beans on top of the stove in a heavy skillet without bells or whistles. These beans are a hard bean so can be exposed to a longer duration of heat. These beans are just freshly roasted. Over the course of the next day or so they will settle themselves after having being roasted. Each day, the attentive cook will notice changes to the roast. The roasted beans need to de-gas and the aroma will change. Some oils may emerge, suggesting the degree of roasting. I like it rich and chocolatey.

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Though I am not a believer in flavored coffees, there are always an exception or two. One is the addition of cardamom. Coffee and cardamom pair very nicely with each other. Eat like a peasant.

Flower of the Sea or Sea Dust.

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Sea salt is a necessary ingredient for any cook worth their salt. The coastal town of Tavira, located in the eastern Agarve of Portugal, has a tradition of salting dating back over two thousand years. It is so good that it has been awarded with DOP status.

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This bread dough that is proofing is for Papo Secos. They are a traditional Portuguese dinner roll. They are usually made with white flour only but I like my breads revved up with a decent measure of whole wheat flour for taste. I like them for their crispy crunchy crust, otherwise they are soft in the middle. Its best to eat these still hot from the oven, with butter dripping off them or use them to clean up your plate, peasant style. I admit to have used cornmeal to rest the bread on. Cue Portuguese cornbread soon!

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Throughout the Mediterranean, there are many styles of fishermans stew. In the Algarve region of Portugal, the traditional fishermans stew is called Caldeirada. Though there are no strict recipes to follow and each fishing port has its own variation, there are endless varieties and permutations of ingredients. I like to add saffron, a nod to its Moorish influence as well as piri piri peppers. These are an African pepper and an acknowledgement of Portugals colonial history. I like to use lots of thyme.

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My simple tomato sauce for Caldeirada consists of onion, garlic, celery and bay.

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I am going to use haddock, mussels and shrimp for this seafood stew.

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Little bread rolls.

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Al-garve style Caleirada. Just add 2013 season extra virgin olive oil. Some of the best comes from a little town outside Tavira called Moncarapacho.

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The next time I need to use saffron, I hope to be able to pick it from my garden. Hopefully, the tough New England winter will not have killed it off. Thanks for reading. Eat like a peasant.