Feast of the Seven Fishes

 

img_1737

The Feast of the Seven Fishes or Festa dei Sette Pesce is traditionally associated with southern Italy and celebrated on Christmas Eve. Also known as La Vigilia della Natale, it is a day in the calendar where abstinance of certain foods allowed the participant to prepare for the birth of Jesus. I encountered it a few years ago whilst working in Boston’s Italian neighbourhood, the North End. As a cook, I was fascinated by the various details involved in such a menu. I kicked off mine with Donegal oysters from the north-west coast of Ireland. I prefer mine plain.

 

img_0814

Grilled Sardines on fennel confit with grilled focaccia. The abstinance of meat, meat products and dairy on Christmas Eve is a general theme throughout southern Europe.

img_1879

Sauteed monfish with green olives, garlic, capers, tomato and herbs.

img_1759_1

A warm salad with garlicky shrimps, carrots and radicchio.

cataplana-with-monkfish-and-baby-squid

This is one version of many of Caldereirada, the Portuguese fisherman’s stew. I used squid in my rendition.

dsc_0852

Lightly cured, oven baked mackerel with thyme, scallion and Aleppo pepper, dressed with pomegranate-balsamic vinaigrette.

dsc_0543

Roasted cod with onions, olives and lemon. Eat like

 

 

The Salt Cod and the Olive Press

DSC_0111

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.

DSC_0053

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”.

DSC_0151

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.

DSC_0509

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

DSC_0088

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.

DSC_0092

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

DSC_0084

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.

DSC_0511

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.

DSC_0492

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.

DSC_0496

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tavira Phoenicia

DSC_0483

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.

IMG_1291

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.

DSC_0422

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.

DSC_0335

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.

DSC_0323

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.

625

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……

DSC_0464

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.

DSC_0488

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

DSC_0124

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.

DSC_0144

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.

 

 

 

 

DSC_0158

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

DSC_0170

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.

DSC_0173

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.

DSC_0184

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.

DSC_0181

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.

DSC_0155

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.

IMG_0764

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.

 

IMG_0949

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.

IMG_0391

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.

IMG_1411

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.

IMG_0959

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.

IMG_0971

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

IMG_1061

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.

IMG_1383

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.

IMG_1529

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.

IMG_1581

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.

IMG_1562

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

IMG_2852

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.

IMG_3071

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)

 

IMG_1092

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.

IMG_3110

Now….this is a grill.

IMG_1099

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.

IMG_3125

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.

IMG_3127

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.

IMG_1089

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

IMG_0920

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.

IMG_0913

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.

IMG_0968

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.

IMG_0978

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.

IMG_0972

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.

IMG_3047

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.

IMG_0919

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.

 

IMG_3048

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.

IMG_3053

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.

IMG_0905

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.

 

IMG_2449

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.

IMG_2454

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.

IMG_0426_1

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.

IMG_0049

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.

IMG_0330_1

The artichoke, vegetable or hand grenade?

IMG_0050IMG_0051IMG_0052

IMG_0054

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

My_Artichokes2

I like to add the salt after they have roasted.

IMG_0263

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.

IMG_0791

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

 

IMG_0796

Little French Breakfast radishes all lined up for spring duties.

IMG_0797

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

IMG_0826

No spring garden is complete without chives.

IMG_0820

Alpine Strawberries sunning themselves in the afternoon sunshine.

IMG_0835

My backyard Asparagus is making an early run.

IMG_0846

Wild arugula and wild fennel at play together.

IMG_0853

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

IMG_0858

I wonder…….

IMG_0862

First of the season Asparagus Frittata.

IMG_0877

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.

IMG_0756

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

Another Thyme, Another Place.

IMG_0665

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.

IMG_0669

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.

IMG_2880

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

IMG_2875

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

IMG_2877

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.

IMG_2882

This is my first attempt at grilling in 2014.

IMG_2885

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

IMG_2887

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

IMG_0675

This fish is called scup, or porgie.

IMG_2895

Grilled fish, off the fire, Tavira style.

 

 

IMG_0512

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