The Salt Cod and the Olive Press

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Throughout the sweltering summer months, olives are slowly ripening in the fields around Tavira.. Also, during these months, it is time to harvest our local Tavira sea salt. Later in the year, it will be used in the preservation of foods.

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Autumn is the season for olive picking and growers begin to arrive at the local olive press to extract the oil from their olives. Though the varietal composition of our local olives groves is unique, the most popular olive grown locally is the “Manzanilha Algarvia”.

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My local press usually runs 24 hours a day at this time of year. Manzanilha Algarvia is a dual purpose variety used for table olives, green or black, and olive oil. Its current status is at risk of disappearing as the majority of the trees are old and receive little care.

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The olives are weighed, de-stemmed, washed and sent to the crusher.

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It not as romantic as one might imagine. The process is highly mechanised. This mash is spun rapidly. Centrifugal force separates the oil from the pulp as well as any water content.

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And out pours this seasons extra virgin olive oil, ready to be purchased and brought home to be used as soon as possible.

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The extraction process is very transparent. I was able to walk around and shoot photographs without getting yelled at. I paid 20 Euros for this container.

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The day is also a social occasion with the local olive growers discussing the seasons events from the weather to the quality of the crop, whose olives are of better quality or what varietals of olive were grown. If you play your cards right, someone might ask you to taste their homemade Medronho or moonshine.

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Bacalhau a Lagareiro is a traditional Portuguese dish from the Beira region of northern Portugal. However, the dish is popular on restaurant menus in the Algarve. Bacalhau is salted cod. “Lagar” translates as olive press and a “lagareiro” is the operator of the olive press. This dish is attributed to that particular owner or employee. In it’s most basic form, it is a simple dish of potatoes, onions and salt cod. Instead of using the more traditional accompaniment of smashed “Batatas a Moura”, I had leftover boiled potatoes that I sliced thinly to line the bottom of an earthernware casserole dish. Next, I spread sauteed onions and garlic, flavoured with bay and thyme, over those potatoes. I added a handful of olive oil marinated olives to further honour the olive mill worker. Throughout, I used my freshly pressed olive oil liberally. I moistened the dish with some white wine. Lastly, I shingled lemon slices over the salt cod to protect the onions from the heat of the high oven. I added a little salt to those lemon slices to help ‘bleed’ some juice of the lemon onto the fish as it cooked.

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It can be a substantial dish, befitting it’s roots of feeding hungry olive mill workers. The olives and garlic become roasted, robust flavours for a robust fish. I did not eat the lemon slices. They were discarded as they had performed their function in protecting the melt in your mouth onions from being charred. The parsley, perhaps my most favourite herb, was used to brighten up the plate. Eat like a peasant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chestnuts in an Algarve Autumn

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Portuguese proverb………”It is Saint Martins Day, we’ll eat chestnuts and we’ll taste the wine”.

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Before the potato was introduced into Europe, the chestnut was a major source of carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals in the local diet. However its position  was supplanted, it still plays a role in the seasonal Mediterranean diet that resonates today. Chefs will still incorporate these food items onto their menus via soups, pastas, purees, roasts, braises and desserts. Fine dining cooking still needs the influence of the peasants classical cooking of necessity. If you did not eat the chestnut throughout the winter months, you might starve.

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But there is still nothing like being able to purchase freshly roasted chestnuts from a street vendor. Their sweet, smoky aroma is irrestible during November in the Algarve. Braziers burn and it is quite the social moment as customers wait their turn to receive their chestnuts wrapped up in a conically wrapped piece of magazine paper.

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Chestnuts are synonymous with the Feast of Saint Martin in Portugal, as well as demarcating that fine, thin line line between Autumn and Winter. In southern Portugal, it is imperative to have the Winter seasons crop of wheat already planted and the pig slaughtered in order to make and preserve the chorizo curing during the cool Winter months. It is also a season of festivity because, right around now, one can taste the new seasons wine offerings. In Algarve, the preference is for aqua-pe or “foot wine”. Essentially, this is an alcohol made from pouring water over the dregs left over from the wine making process, much like an Italian grappa.

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Classically speaking, kitchenwise, more morthern climates associate goose with the Feast of Saint Martin. Though in Portugal, one might be more inclined to see duck, which is what I used for my dish.

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My continued celebration of the chestnut is borrowed from the classic Tuscan dish named “Castagnaccio” (made with chestnut flour). Basically, it is a chestnut dessert pancake comprised of chestnut flour, pine nuts, raisins, olive oil and rosemary. I love the use of herbs for dessert cooking. For my own personal interpretation of Mediterranean cooking, fresh herbs are a must and are used throughout the meal.

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The finished baked item is usually accompanied by a dessert wine. In Italy, where much of my cooking experience comes from, this is VinSanto or Holy Wine. But hey……. hmmmm, this goes great with Port also. Eat and drink like a peasant.

Tavira Phoenicia

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The Phoenicians landed in Baal Saphon (Tavira) from today’s Lebanon approximately 3,000 years ago as traders. And though they are credited with creating an alphabet, they did not keep very good records. Really, it is their archaeological footprint that supplies evidence and speculation. For me, it was the Phoenician fire-pits in Tavira that got me wondering. There is no smoke without fire. The fire-pits were associated with their feasting and religious ceremonies. I was curious to see if there was any echo reverberating from that time in today’s Tavira.

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As recipients of wine-making knowledge from the East, the Phoenicians were instrumental in distributing wine, wine grapes and wine making technology throughout the Mediterranean region. Today, Tavira wines have been recognised as been good enough earn the DOC appelation.

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Amphoras were used to transport wine. They were sealed with olive oil to prevent or reduce spoilage. This was fine until they were spilled in rough seas. Later in history, they were used to capture  cephalopods or octopus from our local waters.

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Nowadays, the original earthenware amphorae are more difficult to locate. They break easy on rocks at the bottom of the sea and are expensive to replace. Local fishing vessels use these black plastic replicas to attract the octopus, who like to hide out in dark cavernous places.

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The Buzio’s or purple spiny murex are still to be found at the local markets or better “marisqueiras”. Though extensive middens of shellfish are located along the Algarve coastline from older times, today they have become expensive. This type of shellfish was prized by the Phoenicians for the purple ink that it secreted which was used as a dye by their priest class. The dye was used to color their clothing so as to distinguish their elevated place in Phoenician society. This priesthood supervised the Phoenician cult of the dead, hence the fire-pits associated with these ceremonies. Bodies were buried with offerings of food and drink. One of the Phoenician gods was named Baal Saphon, Tavira’s earliest urban name, and was their God of the Sea.

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Fuzeta is a fishing village located close to Tavira. It is the octopus capital of the Algarve. One of the items that the Phoenicians capitalised on as they made inroads into Iberia was the use of cork to cap their amphorae. The largest production of cork in the world is in southern Portugal. Odds are that every time you open a bottle of wine, you will have to deal with a little cork stopper. Another Phoenician vibration……

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Octopus, or “polvo”, is a common sight at the Tavira fish market. There are many recipes available in books and magazines for this species of animal. I chose to blanch the tentacles and then boil it. After, I let it sit overnight in a simple olive oil based marinade. This marinade consisted of thyme, piri-piri, garlic and thyme, items that are to the forefront of the Portuguese pantry.

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My latter day version of the Phoenician fire-pit was an outdoor grill, ubiquitous to cooking all over the Algarve. Wrapped in smoke, the grilled octopus paid homage to another time in our collective culinary history. Eat like a peasant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

Feast of the Seven Fishes.

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The origins of the Feast of the Seven Fishes (or Festa dei Sette Pesci, in Italian)can be traced back to early Roman times in Sicily. It was celebrated on Christmas Eve as an act of purification or cleansing to prepare for the birth. The feast can also be can also be called “La Vigilia di Natale” or the vigil. The Feast required people to abstain from meat and dairy.

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This is smoked mackerel, parsnip and leek soup in a porcini mushroom base, accented with thyme and bay leave. This was a great way to use up the end of the leeks from my garden.

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The notion of abstinance and anchovy’s together can seem like punishment to some people.

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But there is a school of thought which contends that the feast has its origins in ancient Egypt and the Nile. In which case, the feast is regarded as a festival of abundance. I think I prefer that particular aspect.

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This flatbread or focaccia is based on a traditional Apulian recipe using onion, anchovy, olives and rosemary. I used scallions instead  to brighten up the flatbread. The absence of dairy or cheese reminds me of the original Neapolitan pizzas. Though I try to use only New England fish species, these anchovies from Italy are the exception this year. The baby Jesus wept!

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Venice is well known for its seafood risotti. On this occasion, I traded in the butter that I would normally use to make a risotto and used grapeseed oil in its place. This crabmeat risotto includes carrot and both red and green chiles. The chiles are mild so as not to dominate and the carrot adds a sweet element. Because there is no egg employed to bind the rice cakes, they are very light and need an even lighter touch when it comes down to their handling.

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I like to carmelize a slice of lemon. I like the stronger, more robust lemony flavor added by keeping the lemon rind attached. Preserved lemon would also make an an attractive, simple garnish to accompany.

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Salting cod to preserve is a seasonal activity at this time of year. I like to make my own salted cod . I prefer it over what it available commercially. In fact, there is no comparison with the flavor. I like to use thyme from my garden, lemon zest and thinly sliced, whole dried cayenne pepper in the cure. I cure or dry the codfish for  up to four days.

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Polenta is another mainstay from the Veneto region in Italy. This is peasant food at it’s most simplest. Essentially, it is coarse cornmeal and water stirred together. I like to fry the polenta in grape seed oil. In my opinion, fried food never really tastes oily or greasy when using grape seed oil.

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Combining polenta and salt cod in tomato sauce is a classic pairing. It is even better when the tomatoes are ones that have been preserved from the summer. It is fair to say that I use a lot of extra virgin olive oil. All of the plates will be enhanced by drizzling, nay, pouring generously ……..lots of good quality oil over each plate  one to finish.

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One of the things I like to try to do for this menu is to try to include as much vegetables from my garden as possible. I saved the peas in the freezer and that’s why they get to be used. Berbere is a spice mix from Ethiopia.  It gets its color from ground up hot dried peppers and paprika.

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Seared sea scallops with pea puree, Ethiopian spices, lemon zest and extra virgin olive oil.

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The nice thing about this menu is that you get to eat your favourite items. I love to combine fish and potatoes in any permutation. Add fennel and that leaves room for garlic and rosemary. The fish is scup, or porgie. It is a member of the sea bream family and  is fast becoming one of my favorite fishes to eat. For me, the advantages are that it is small/large enough to be cooked whole and it is relatively inexpensive. The fish can also yield two nice sized filets plus the bones to make fish stock. With this fish, you have options. Best of all, there are still lots of this fish left in the ocean and it is what we should be eating. It’s not farmed either.

 

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Pan fried potato crusted scup with fennel “confit”. If the number seven is regarded as the most perfect number, then at least I’m consistent in my imperfections. I cooked six courses. There is always next year again and plenty of fish to be cooked in the meantime. Thanks for reading and eat like a peasant.