Tavira Mediterranica

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Throughout the Mediterranean basin, with all it’s different lands and cultures, the common denominator of the cuisine is based on the traditional staples of wheat, olives and grapes. Technically, Portugal does not border the Mediterranean. It’s climate can best be described as Atlantic Maritime. However, like the Portuguese language, there is always an exception to the rule. The southern Portuguese regions of Alentejo and the Algarve are, by definition, Mediterranean. This is on account of the climate. And climate, throughout the Mediterranean, influences the local cooking style. As does soil conditions and composition, water and location.

Whole wheat sour dough bread.

Wheat is synonomous with the concept of Mediterranean cooking. Without it, there are no regional breads, or any of the regional pastas, tabbouleh, cous-cous, bulghur and so on. The region of Alentejo is Portugal’s bread-basket and the largest producing region of wheat in Portugal. Indeed, it was what attracted the Roman’s to this this place. Wheat was neccessary for “empire building” in order to feed an expanding population. The Romans also brought their improved technology for milling the grain. Needless to say, I recommend whole wheat and encourage you to include more of it in your diet.

Wheatberry salad with golden beets and mustard greens.

In Tavira, I am fortunate to be able to purchase locally grown wheat from a farm in Santa Luzia, a village two miles away. Santa Luzia, or Saint Lucy is the patron saint of eye problems and her feast is celebrated on December 13. “Luz” in Portuguese means light and she is associated with the Winter solstice when the days begin to get longer and brighter. Wheat is also associated with her feast day.

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Certainly, without olives, there can be no extra virgin olive oil and, by default, no such thing as the concept of Mediterranean cooking. It is the primary cooking medium. Olives grow abundantly around Tavira and during the late Autumn, local farmers bring their harvest to the local cooperative to have their olives crushed so as to have it for the coming year.

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As a believer in local and sustainable food systems, Tavira’s local agriculture and markets play a key role in my outlook and food philosophy. Most, if not all, food items that I purchase are sourced locally. I have a special place in my heart for Quinta Shanti, a local organic farm located 5 miles away in Conceicao. I received their extra virgin olive oil pressed from their own Manzanilha olives. Unfiltered, you can see the difference what a year makes. Due to gravity and time, the oil will self clarify as all the little olive particles held in suspension will gradually fall the bottom of the jar. I use it every day for all my cooking needs and also as a table condiment to complete dishes. I also use extra virgin olive oil as a medicinal by taking two tablespoons each morning. Do that for a month and tell me how you feel.

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Much has already been written about Portuguese wines and there are many delicious wines from the Algarve that go under the radar screens. Fuzeta is a fishing village located 10 miles from Tavira. It is the octopus capital of the Algarve. This red wine is not D.O.C. rated because of the inclusion of Cabernet-Sauvignon into the blend. Portuguese D.O.C. wines must, by law, use local varietals that have been traditionally used within a defined region.

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Terras da Luz or Lands of the Light is from the parish of Luz da Tavira, located halfway between the towns of Tavira and Fuzeta. Luz da Tavira is also the archaelogical site of Balsa and considered one the more important Roman settlements in the Algarve. At that time, the Romans named the region Lusitania. Luso was the son of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. Eat, and drink, 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.

Hookah, Line and Sinker.

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The latest buzz is that my little garden reaches its peak around this time with the arrival of dozens of honey bees. They are attracted to the yellow blossoms of wild arugala. It is still just a little early but when it happens, it is a phenomenon because all you can hear is the low drone of many bees at work. It can be a bit unnerving if you are not used to it. I have learned not to wear dark clothes because the bees think that I am a bear looking for trouble. If I wear a yellow t-shirt, everyone gets along. Anyway, this experience has convinced me enough to take a bee-keeping class next Spring. Let’s see what’s for supper to-night. Guess whose coming to dinner?

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The answer to the question is easy. Natty dreadlocks is coming for dinner……This pizzette or fully loaded flat-bread is topped with roasted peppers, Taggiasca olives and a creamy goat/sheep’s milk feta cheese. I like to make this hearth bread with 50% whole wheat flour for a more rustic, peasant style. It is definitely earthy, crunchy at a whole other level. This bread starter that I use dates back to last January.

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This is going to be the back bone of supper to-night. Tomato, in Italian, translates as “Pomodoro” or literally, apple of gold. These heirloom tomatoes are called Orange Valencia. They are, in my opinion, a sauce tomato rather than a slicing tomato. I will trim, blanch, shock, de-seed and prep the tomatoes so as to proceed with supper. I’m in the mood for Middle Eastern. Let’s see what else the garden has to give.

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Hello, cauliflower. Earlier this year, at which time it seemed like a good idea, I bought a flat of six cauliflower seedlings. Of the original six, three survived. The variety is called called “Snowcrown”, a commercial strain you might see in a supermarket. My snowcrown came with a purplish tint. Thats not what it looks like in the catalogues. I think my little visitor was as surprised as me. Cauliflower was introduced into Europe by the Arabs. Middle Eastern enough, so far, so good. I am not repulsed by the sight of a live snail on my cauliflower. Snails like them. But, in this day where chemicals are everywhere, I am happy to think that I have a …..fresh garden.

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This zucchini squash is a Middle Eastern heirloom named “Cousa”. It might even be Syrian. It looks like it has adapted to its shady, woodland location here in my New England back-yard. This was a re-seed from my compost heap.

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Garden centric grain salad composed of farro, heirloom carrots and pole beans, garlic, tomato and herbs. Farro, a relative of wheat, also has its origins traced back to the Middle East.

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I made a mild curry style stew with my tomatoes, garlic,cauliflower, zucchini and herbs. I decided to double starch and imagined this with either simple boiled potatoes or brown basmati rice. I’m a sucker for fish and potatoes any day, anyhow.

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But this callous dhow boy is in the mood for fish too. I marinated swordfish in extra virgin olive oil, light curry spices, garlic, lemon zest and herbs for about thirty minutes. Then seared the swordfish in a hot skillet. I transferred the still rare sword fish to the cauldron and completed its cooking. Minutes later. The swordfish is cooked. It has absorbed mild spice flavor and is meltingly moist. This is how I like my seafood stews. Sometimes, the spice can seem a little coarse or rough. I like like to smooth out those rough edges with a little honey. Honey is the main sweetener in this kitchen, honey! You do not need a lot.

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10 foot sunflower plant. Thanks for reading. Eat like a peasant.

Spice Market

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It was for items like these that Columbus set off on his voyage. America was in the way and the rest is history. And what a history. The Arabs controlled the spice trade for centuries so certainly spices are predominant in their cooking. Though there is an overlap in the spices used with Indian cooking, the flavors of the spices are arranged differently.

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This home made spice mix is my interpretation of Kabsa and is essential in Saudi Arabian cooking, usually for chicken or lamb. Even though I have sifted this mixture, I still like it’s coarseness in comparison to store bought powder. Saudi cooking is full of big, rough and very warm flavours. The coarseness of the spices is usually softened with something sweet like a dried fruit. I have no chicken or lamb or fish to-night…….

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Basically, a simple stew using Kabsa spices…….chick-peas, carrots, parsnips, turnips, dried sour cherries and golden raisins. In my Kabsa blend, I used coriander, black peppercorns, cardomom, cinammom, cloves, nutmeg, sasffron,cumin, turmeric, paprika, allspice, bay leaf and dried lime.

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This is Sardinian parchment bread or “carta di musica”. Another flatbread and this one is unleavened. Sardinia was ruled over at one point by the Arabs at the height of their run. The idea is to eat your Kabsa with the bread. I left these plain but you could season them with rosemary, sea salt, spice, seeds or cheese.

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This is home made Kamut® bread. The history of this remarkable grain comes from the Middle East. You can use it like faro or wheat. Thank for looking at my blog. Eat like a peasant.

 

Fisherman Meets Fellaheen.

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This is locally caught Massachussets flounder. It is a flat fish and related to sole, turbot, plaice, halibut and the like. You can see the eyes on top of the head and it lives on the bottom of the ocean. A bottom-dweller, if you will. Flounder does not have the reputation of Dover sole but it is delicious. Besides, it is a whole lot less expensive. I want to cook it whole. I just need to trim some fins first. This fish weights about 1.5 pounds. If you have never cooked whole fish or fish on the bone and you love eating fish, you have no idea how good it is and it is a whole lot easier than you think.

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I want to cook the fish in the Saudi Arabian style of al Kabsa. Traditionally, either chicken or lamb or were cooked al Kabsa and it is regarded as the national dish. Chicken cooked with rice or lamb cooked with rice. Sometimes goat and camel too. But rarely, if ever, fish. As a cook who enjoys geography, this led me into thinking that a land like Saudi Arabia, a peninsula, a land surrounded by three bodies of water, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean and everybody’s favourite, the Arabian Gulf or Persian Gulf. There is a lot of fish in those waters but they rarely get a mention. I realise that there is no flounder in the Indian Ocean but there must be another flat fish. A cousin, so to speak.
Al Kabsa refers to the spice blend used so the range of spices or the recipe can vary from cook to cook. Coriander, cinammon, saffron, cumin, clove, allspice. black pepper, ginger to name a few. Although I bought my al Kabsa blend, you could make it at home. If I took any liberties, I added thyme, green cardomom pods, curry leaves and the black spherical item in the photo,dried lemon (loomi in Arabic). The dried lemon is ground up and is also a spice in the classic al Kabsa blend. I sweated onion, garlic and fresh ginger in olive oil, added some al Kabsa spices, cooked it a few minutes. added whole, canned tomatoes. I used Muir Glen brand of organic tomatoes and added a pinch of sugar. American tomatoes are not as sweet as old country ones. They are more acidic. Adding a pinch of sugar takes the edge off of the tomatoes. Just ask any Sicilian grand-mother.

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Roasted cauliflower with Aleppo pepper. The first mention of cauliflower dates back to the 12th century and it was the Arabs who introduced it

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Brown Basmati rice pilaf, al Kabsa style, with tomato and carrot. Traditionally, the rice was cooked in the same pot as the chicken or lamb. I cooked mine separately. I used a brown rice which takes 45 minutes to cook. My fish will need about 20 minutes.

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Looks like we are done, al Kabsa style. For the record, al Kabsa can also be spelled as al Khabseh and a couple of other variations in between, depending on your accent. That is most likely the reason that there are so many twists to the recipe.

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Salad is a traditional complement to the al Khabseh experience. I added arugala, or jajeera in Arabic, to the roasted cauliflower. I dressed everything with a lemon-cumin vinaigrette. Jajeera should not be confused with media outlet, al Jazeera.

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After all that I’m exhausted. Where would we all be……..if it was’nt for go-go juice. Yemenese coffee is a dying breed, unfortunately
Serious coffee drinkers will appreciate this one from Yemen. Definitely an heirloom coffee and soon it will not be available. Buy it while you can. Mocca means mocha. Sanani means that it comes from the area around the capital city, Sana’a. In Arabic, the expression “fellaheen” translates as a poor agricultural worker or peasant. Like I always say, eat like a peasant.

Arabesque

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These are little home made pita breads rising. I ground up wheatberries for flour to make these pita a little more homespun. I can bake them as they are or grill them, either plain as they are or topped with something, like a seasoning or flavour. Hmmm! The original flatbread was made with a coarser grind of grain and thats what I am trying to do.

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I did not get as far as grilling any flat breads to-night…..time is a buzz-kill. I baked some off plain and some I seasoned with Za’atar. Za’atar is a combination of sumac, thyme, marjoram, sesame seed and sea salt. It can be used as a seasoning for vegetables fish and other meats. There is no better way to eat pita bread than with hummus. I started with dried chick peas and flavoured the hummus with roasted garlic and freshly milled toasted cumin seed. Most of the spices I use are in whole form and I like to grind all my own spices as I need. Cumin is one of the more frequently used spices in my kitchen. The hummus is finished with olive oil and paprika.

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The grain here is called Freekeh and is popular throughout Middle Eastern regions. It is green wheat that has been burnt or set on fire or somewhat charred to help remove the husk. The grain itself has a remarkable smoky or toasted flavour. I boil it like brown rice. Here, I added cinammon, allspice and bay leaves to the cooking liquid. And cook it so that the pot or pan is dry after the Freekeh is finished cooking.

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Marinated striped bass steak. Yes, steak, not a filet. I visited a Portuguese fish market and they had striped bass steaks….you know, with that big bone through it. Fish cooked on the bone is much better. The bone conducts the heat giving you a more juicy and flavourful piece of fish…or whole fish, as the case may be. Skin on is good too for the same reasons. I marinated this striped bass with olive oil, pomegranate molasses, preserved lemon, lemon zest, thyme, pureed garlic, green onion and…….Za’atar.

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This is what i got…..pomegranate and za’atar marinated grilled striped sea bass. I put this atop the spiced freekeh, cumin roasted carrots and turnips, arugula, orange segments and almonds……then I crossed my fingers……and the kitchen muse smiled. I think she forgave me that there are no striped bass in the Arabian Gulf. Everything worked……even the pomegranate molasses to the extent of it’s been charred. Grouper or Hamour as it is known in the Arabian Gulf would be an acceptable substitute among others.

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At the end of every great meal, or any occasion really, in the Middle East, a shot of cardomom flavoured espresso is the way to go. A 50:50 blend is the standard ratio. Just grind it all up together.

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Coffee was introduced to Europe by the Arabs and Ethiopia is it’s ancestral home. I guess Jah-jah Jah-jah Jah Rastafari had a coffee buzz going on too. Queen City refers to it’s degree of roastness or doneness. it would be similiar to a Full City roast. Harar refers to the area outside of Addis Ababa, across a wadi, up a steep hill then up a mountain to the middle of nowhere, where the coffee is grown. . I did not smell the blueberry aromas but I sure got lots of cocoa. This would be an heirloom coffee bean given it’s history and method of production.

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My grill has no bells or whistles and involves lighting it manually with a match and paper. With limited light, it is difficult to control the cooking, plus there is the wind and sub-zero night time temperatures. There is a balance to be struck between not burning the fish or overcooking it. The sugars in the pomegranate molasses means it can carmelise and blacken and burn more easily. Maybe even stick to your grill. And you have to take into account that bone which runs through the fish steak, both cooking and eating it.

The Bhoys from Khorasan

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Khorasan wheatberries also known as Kamut®

The land called Khorasan has a 3,ooo  year old history.  It is debated that the area was settled during the Bronze Age.  It came into being as part of the Persian Empire. Today, it would emcompass parts of Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. During this time span it’s borders contracted and expanded. Various armies came and went as invaders to the land, from Alexander to the Romans from the west and Kushans from the east and many others besides. Khorasan was not recognised as a political state under the third century AD.

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Home made breads from the ancient grain, Kamut®.

It was not until 647 AD that the land of Khorasan was invaded by Arabs. And for the remainder of it’s history was kicked around by various dynasties and more armies coming and going. Some of these players included Genghis Khan and the Soviet Union.

The land of Khorasan has also lent it’s name to a form of grain or grass. Whilst not exactly wheat, it’s DNA is not that far off and it could certainly sit under the same umbrella as spelt, wheat or farro. And also be utilised the same way in the modern kitchen, eaten in it’s whole form or to be milled into flour.

There are romantic stories and legends regarding this plants origins. Whether it is true or not that it was buried in a pharaohs tomb, it is still a long distance, physically, from Khorasan. However, in the modern era, the credit is usually given to farmers in Egypt for preserving this old grain.

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Homemade Kamut® brand Khorasan wheat bread fortified with sunflower seeds, unhulled sesame seeds and flax seeds. I grind up the flax seeds. This bread has a great crust and is very moist inside.

I can only imagine this grain, preserved solar power in a kernel, being a commodity that was hardy enough to last a desert caravan’s transit. It could arrive at it’s destination safely, a market in a city,  and be traded. I can only guess at the economics. But the Romans introduced many innovations for grain milling during their time in Egypt to sustain their legions.

Long story short is that this particular ancient grain fell through the cracks of agricultural development as we know it today and was  unknown in the US until comparatively recently. It is still a largely unknown grain in the modern marketplace. And it’s current preservation lies with Kamut, International. In it’s modern guise, the grain named after the land of Khorasan is called Kamut® brand Khorasan wheat. Kamut is an old Egyptian word for wheat, as the story goes. Nowadays, we have to contend with armies of marketers and lawyers.

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Winter composition of Kamut ®,smoked salmon, roasted cauliflower, and kale

This grain is worth looking up and researching via Kamut, International. I like the whole idea of minimal processing of foods. I like the foods that I eat to have a story or energy behind them and this ancient grain adds to the pantry and repertoire.

As far I was I was concerned, I made out like a Phoenician bandit. No matter where you are from simple foods seem to win out all the time. And over time. Time and again. Timeless.

And just like the bhoys from Khorasan, you have to eat well, so that you can be strong, so you can fight back. Eat like a peasant.