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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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.

More Ass Than A Toilet Seat……..the garden.

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I have been eating chives for weeks here in New England. Soon, these chives will flower and I will eat them too. You can see where they will burst open, those little brown pointy things at the top. These yield tasty chive blossoms. Chives are low maintenance and come back every year………..no matter what!

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Desiring a kitchen garden is one thing, putting it together is another. I have a small space and my goal is to have something growing in all seasons, even in the tough New England winter. I planted this garlic back in late November. They look good so far but I won’t see a garlic scape until June. These lived under a weight of snow for months.

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Now this is what I am talking about…….90% of what I grow in my little space are heirloom seeds and plants. This is the original radicchio. Obviously, it is going to taste different from what you would experience in it’s original turf, but it is grown in my back yard with the best intentions and spirit. And it looks very pretty too. The best thing is that it is a perennial. I love low maintenance.

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The low maintenance gardening theme continues with mustard which re-seeds itself somehow every year. I don’t plan for it but it all becomes part of my garden foraged salad mix in the spring. I have lots of free wild edible plants in my back yard from dandelion to chickweed to purslane.

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What spring garden is not complete without radishes. In amongst them are re-seeded wild mountain fennel from Sicily.

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This is an Italian variety of lettuce called “Regina di Maggio” or Queen of May. I’m thinking good luck, see you in June. It has been a cold spring here, a dry spring here but usually around this time I expect to see bigger baby lettuces. Cue to me….more weeding and thinning of plants. I have some Romaine lettuce someplace else but not today. These need to be thinned out.

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Blueberry blossoms………the race is on between me and the local squirrel population.

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Rhubarb…….another perennial and low maintenance too. This is heirloom rhubarb too. Good stuff!

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I have struggled with peas this year or peas have given me a hard time. Either way there is a 3 week difference between the good looking one with pea tendrils and the line of peas emerging behind it. Give peas a chance. They are one of the first things I plant in the spring. This heirloom pea is called “Telefono” and Italian in origin.

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Strawberries…….more perennials and more low maintenance. These are Alpine strawberries. The squirrels can eat these but not the blueberries.

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Black raspberries………old growth and new growth.

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Parsley……my favorite kitchen herb. These are transplants but I know I threw down some parsley seed somewhere……a whole bag scattered…………ferns in the background………..no fiddleheads.

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Preserved lemon. No, I did not grow the lemon but it is a handy kitchen pantry item. But I did make these from scratch.

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After a gruelling day in the garden, I want something to ease the muscle ache, tease the brain and taste good. This is a blend of chopped unsalted pistachios, salted capers, preserved lemon and chile flakes. This is down home Sicilian Arab cooking. Baby, I love you so.

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Baked cod with lots of stuff not from the garden………..it takes time to grow the food. In New England, it can still get down to 40 degrees at night. Thats too cold for tomatoes yet. Three more weeks, fingers crossed. Maybe next time, I can show you leeks, kale, brussels sprouts and cauliflower. Way to soon for any mention of tomatoes.

Parsnips in the Desert, Are You Codding Me?

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New England has just endured a top 5 blizzard. I shoveled snow all day. Lots of it. I understand now how Demi Moore feels……….muscles and aches in places you did not even know existed. I have got to ask her over for dinner some evening. With the sun gone down, the nighttime temperature will dip also. Right now, it is 15 degrees and all that snow is hardening up. After my efforts, I want some thing to eat from a long way away from here. I want spice, I want heat and I want fish. And I want simple.

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I chose cod. And I split that piece into two manageable 4-ounce pieces. I want to cook that fish quickly plus I am exposing a greater surface area of the fish to more marinade. That means more flavor, quicker. The marinade for the fish is based on the Moroccan marinade called Chermoula. This is a marinade which is easily adapted to the home kitchen. I used olive oil as the base and into which I put cumin, coriander, curry powder, ginger, garlic, lemon zest, saffron, paprika and chili powder. I used parsley as I had no fresh coriander. I transferred the marinated fish onto a root vegetable tagine of garden carrots, garden beans, potatoes and parsnips. The tagine was tomato based and seasoned with, again, garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander and chili powder. In addition, I also seasoned the tagine with bay leaf, oregano, black pepper and a cinnamon stick. Set the marinated fish on the tagine and place it in the oven to cook for a few minutes. I like mine less soupy so the photo looks dry. But don’t be deceived.

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I grew up eating parsnips as a kid, usually in the winter in some form of stew. What did I know……I knew I liked their flavor. It still amazes me, and I understand the reason, that something like a parsnip could blend into other accents of flavors. I suppose I grew up a long way from tagines and curries. But what delight to find that a parsnip could do what a carrot does. It introduces a measure of sweetness to combine with the spices. I guess I could never have imagined a white root vegetable from the bog wanting to travel and get some sunshine and heat on vacation. New twists on old favorites.

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Fregola……..also known as Sardinian cous-cous. As per the Arab influence, I like to add saffron to the pasta water during cooking.

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This plate of food satisfied on so many levels. The fish and potato combo that I love, the double starching with potato and pasta, that I was able to include items from my kitchen garden that I saved. The tomatoes were from my garden.It was also the combination of spices and seasonings that lent an air, a desert wind meeting the ocean, to lift the fish and vegetables. And I won’t forget how a parsnip made my day.
*the expression….”are you codding me?’ is popular in Ireland. More often than not, it refers to disbelief as in…………”are you serious” or “are you having me on” or “are you kidding me”. Also, something might be described as being a “cod”…..a hoax, a joke, a lie, something unbelievable. Or, you might do something for “the cod of it”………like a prank, something to amuse yourself or others. Thanks for reading. Hello, Indonesia. Hello, Canada.