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.

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.

 

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.

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.

 

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.

 

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.

Bread…….My Flavor

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This is a ball of bread dough made with farro that I have milled. I like my breads coarser and a little bit more rustic, with a higher ratio of whole grain flour. Here I used farro. And the ratio of farro to bread flour is about 2:1, in farro’s favor. I have to be careful how much I knead the dough on account of the general coarseness of the grain. I’m trying to avoid having the sharp edges of the coarsely milled farro from slicing into or otherwise cutting the strands of gluten. It is the gluten which give the bread it’s bounce. And then, the percentage of moist ingredients to dry ingredients is about 65%. I used about 14 ounces of liquid and about 22 ounces of dry ingredients. Whatever about the mathematics, percentages, ratios, equations and formulas, I find bread making with yeast to be enjoyable. Even though it is easier to go and blow money on bread, I’m happy to make the effort. I try to keep the bread program at home manageable. Within my means of time, energy, opportunity and cost. I make it work for me. The bread dough sat unattended in the fridge for five days until I was ready. This slower proofing time is what gives the bread it’s spine.

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Let’s see what can be done. I split the dough into two pieces and I used two different forms to shape them.

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Home made Black Olive Bread. Originally meant to be styled as a ciabatta, the limitations of the size of my pizza stone forced me to compromise. It fit this way, so this way, it was.

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And then, this one is shaped like a ball or “boule”……hence, boulangerie…..where you go to buy the bread.

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I’m a big believer in any kind of bread you do at home is already going to be better than anything you can buy. These breads will also last a few days. The thing with my home bread program is that I only make the items I like and that I will eat. Time is a big factor. Simple cooking from scratch requires time. Manage your kitchen well and eat like a peasant. Thanks for checking me out. Hello, Italy and Hello, France.