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.

 

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.

 

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.

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.

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.

Trattoria Sardegnese by the sea

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Fresh seafood. Indeed. Everybody has it to sell but it is not always up to scratch. It pays to develop a relationship with a good fish-monger. Mine is Jason from RedsBest in Boston. It may not be the widest selection. And that’s okay because what is for sale is only the freshest fish. And it is all caught by small Massachussets fishing-boats. The quality of this fish may best be described as super premium. Take it from one who knows.

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This is a whole monkfish, courtesy of Jason from Red’sBest. Truthfully, I have never broken down a whole monkfish. It’s a scary looking fish especially with those intimidating teeth. Jaws! or how to cut your teeth with monkfish.

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From my kitchen garden plot…….the end of the orange “Valencia” heirloom tomatoes. This is their swan-song. Kiss them good-bye until next year.

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“Carta di Musica” is a traditional, unleavened parchment bread from Sardinia. This cracker bread is rolled out as thin as a sheet of music paper. Breads of this nature are almost always made with white flour. I add a very generous percentage of whole wheat flour to effect a more rustic texture.

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My favorite way to eat the parchment bread is part of a “salad” antipasto. Cherry tomatoes, basil and thyme are from my garden. I did not make the goats cheese shown but it sits in a quick marinade to “butter” over the cracker bread.

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The classic pasta from Sardinia is fregola. It is Sardinian cous-cous. The Arabs ruled over Sardinia at one point and certainly made their mark in the kitchen. I like fregola because it is not machine-made. Also, the pasta picks up extra flavor because it has been dry-roasted. This action increases the nutty, wheaty flavour I love. I want to cook the fregola like a risotto.

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Monkfish…….trimmed up. Ready for roasting.

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I cooked the fregola with garlic,carrots and red peppers, adding a measure of saffron and herbs. The fregola has absorbed the color of the saffron. And I want to make fregola patties to pan fry.

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I roasted the monkfish tail on the bone for more flavour. I dressed the fish with the orange “Valancia” tomato from which I made a roasted tomato vinaigrette. I went heavy on the salad. All those fisherman away at sea crave their greens and vitamin C when ashore. Thanks for reading. Eat like a peasant.

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Adagio per Andante.

Crescent Moon, Red Sea

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Night fishing in the Red Sea comes with its own unique set of circumstances. Not only are the currents, tides and reefs but there are also some of the fastest and hungriest of sharks to compete with. This rhythm of living is not for everyone.

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This is tilefish. The warm water currents pushing up from south bring this fish to Massachussets waters. It gets to live in these currents just off of the continental shelf. Local small boats race out the distance, about 100 miles, fill their holds and race back to shore. This tilefish is brought to me by Red’s Best Seafood in Boston. And on a personal note, thank you Jason Tucker, for bringing Boston the freshest fish.

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I can only imagine the conditions aboard a dhow, especially from a cook’s perspective. On small boats, it was a shared responsibility. Nonetheless, you are cooking off the grid, astride a moving body of water and hoping you are not the one to set this craft afire. I can only imagine the arduous conditions in which to feed people.

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Hawaj is a blend of spices from Yemen. Traditionally, it was used to flavour sheep, goat, or even, camel on the desert caravans. Hawaj is a melange of turmeric, black pepper, cumin, clove and cardamom. Its flavour profile is tart peppery.

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I dry rubbed the tilefish with the Hawaj seasoning and let it sit while the fire came to temperature and the  grilled the fish. I grilled garlicky pole beans to offset the warm spiced nuances of my Hawaj.

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I seasoned pototoes from my garden with Hawaj. I was not disappointed.

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My Hawaj relied on the princinciples of dhow cooking……no pork, no alcohol…..and limited humble resources……..but plenty of fire.

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My Hawaj is conspicuous by its lack of broth and a dhow. I used a base of tomato juice and rested the seasoned, in this case, cod in the plate with thyme, preserved lemon and Aleppo pepper from Syria. I crossed my fingers and hoped I would not be tossed overboard.

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Every peasant gets this idea of having a flat bread to clean up your plate with. I have rubbed my flat bread with a simple rosemary brush in order to spread the oil around. I have only grapeseed oil.

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Rosemary and coarse sea salt flat bread or hearth bread.

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My interpretation of Hawaj…..with the sea. As the fish cooks, fissures appear. you can see where the juices and olive oil meet. Hawaj can be prepared to your degree or level of heat. I suggest going mild. Let your fish speak with an Arab flavour, insh’allah.

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Yemani coffee is a dying species. For coffee afficionados, this is too bad and that is another story for another night. Haul in those nets. Thanks for reading and eat like a peasant.

In My Solstice Kitchen.

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Who cares if it is 85 degrees…….garden scallion pizza ready for the oven. The cheese is goats milk brie, homemade farmers market hothouse tomato sauce, garden herbs and Taggiasca olives. Eager for those garden and field grown tomatoes, the real ones.

 

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This is what I mean.

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Massachussetts Bluefin tuna, grilled rare with garden mustard seed vinaigrette and olive oil poached garlic. Some spicy garden arugula too.

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A wholewheat bread loaf ready for the oven. Mercury rising!

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This is the remainder of the tuna. I trimmed it up by removing the dark meat. This is about 6 ounces worth. Pricey enough but a whole lot cheaper than going to Sicily or Calabria or Nice for that matter. I want to make tuna ‘conserva’ or preserved tuna. The quality of your “conserva” is only going to be as good as your raw materials. The tuna has been out of the water for under 36 hours. Yes, I know they would laugh at me in Tokyo. Shame on them for their fishing practises.

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Love to cook fish…..if anyone has’nt already noticed. This is scup. Trim the fins, season it and you are good to go. Minimal prep, simple cooking.

 

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Not the best, not the worst……but I’ll find out tomorrow morning.

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Tuna “conserva” working………I am poaching the tuna in olive oil with lemon, bay leave, garlic and black peppercorns. I am also including in the poaching medium onion, thyme, parsley and fennel seed, all from my little garden.

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Draw a couple of slashes in the fish with your blade.

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The oven is still on…….time for oven-roasted fish. There are several ways to determine if your whole fish is still fresh. One of them is to look at that fish in the eye. The eye ought to be clear, not cloudy. But the overall expression of the face of the fish ought to suggest …..surprise, as in you caught me. Despite being caught with no fins on, the fish still looks very much alive and vibrant. Don’t worry that you cannot see the slashes that I have made.

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An early summer side dish of sauteed scallions and golden beets.

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Preserved tuna or tuna “conserva”. Better than anything you will find in a can.

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. Here are those slashes again. A generous pouring of olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon juice is all I need to dress the fish. It is already juicy enough but now it will simply melt on your palate. Eat like a peasant. Brownie points for eating the sliced open lemon pip. Thanks for looking at my blog. Have a good summer.

 

Grill Interupted.

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Who does’nt like grilled potatoes?

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I have never grilled cauliflower before but I like the look of it already. I tossed it with extra virgin olive oil, sea salt and black pepper. After finishing grilling, I will pour more olive oil over it.

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This piece of bread dough weighs one pound. I’ve stretched it out to about a 10-inch round. My little grill is only so big and I do not want to smother the flame. Let’s throw this on the fire.

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I enjoy grilling because the technique is so elemental. But it is a skill that requires attention. This grill has no bells or whistles, no knobs or temperature gauges. You are on your own. All it needs is a match and some paper to get the lump charcoal lit. Fire and air to keep it going. The attention to detail is really what matters, from getting the bread onto the grill to not burning it.

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The bread is beginning to bubble. That’s good. There is some heat underneath. The zen balance is the size of your grill, your fire and your bread. I own a small grill which means I build a smaller fire. With a smaller grill, the bread is going to be closer to the fire. The temperature of the heat is important. You do not want to incinerate the bread. And last but not least, don’t be screwing around taking photographs. I can smell the bread burning.

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That was close. Maybe a hair on the dark side but still looking good. And now the underside.

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This looks good enough.

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Spiedini di gamberi marinato alle erbe. Shrimp skewers marinated with garden herbs. I used parsley and rosemary. Garlic and lemon too.

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Shrimps over fire. Thanks for reading and looking. Eat like a peasant.

The Callous Dhow Boys

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A serious fish cook is hard to find. These silvery streaks are fresh sardines and all I’m going to do is light a fire and grill them as an appetiser. Sardines are popular throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East. I was reminded of the traditional sailing vessel, the dhow.

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This fish is called Scup, also known as Porgy. It is a member of the bream family and many of its cousins swim in other parts of the world. But this one is from Cape Cod. There is plenty of it and it is still relatively inexpensive, all for the good.
The dhow is an Arab trading vessel. They sailed out of the Red Sea area and the Arabian Gulf region. Their journeys took them south to Zanzibar, off the East African coast and across the ocean to India. My guess is that the sailors ate a lot of fish on the way.

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Make sure you start off with a clean grill. Get rid of the junk with a stiff brush. The zen is getting your grill hot enough without incinerating yourself or the fish.

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For example, I grilled the bread without destroying it. It just about fits on the grill and should have this delicious, smoky flavour to it.

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“Splash”, say the fishes in the sea.

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This is good. Here the zen is not to leave any skin behind on the grill as well as to have the fish nicely tanned and blistered.

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Radicchio in my kitchen garden.

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That’s it… grilled sardines, fennel and bread. Save the last sardine for lunch tomorrow.

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Whole grilled fish……….I like it with good olive oil and lemon. Eat like a peasant.