A Cooks Garden

iDSC_0561Everything comes full circle and at the start of 2016, after many years of living and working abroad as a chef, I found myself back living in Ireland next door to where I had been raised. DSC_0565Growing up here, most people had a little back yard plot and my family was no exception. My grandmother lived up the street and that was where my first experiences in tending a garden began. And everywhere I have lived since, I have tried to maintain a garden. IMG_20160217_082815 I remember the gentleman who owned this house and garden. He was quite prolific and meticulous. Had he been here now to see its current state, he would have been very upset to see the neglect. As you can see, its a jungle and over the years people had used the space as a dumping ground for domestic waste. Beer cans, broken bottles, rusty nails, plastic bags, plastic containers, carpeting, bones leftover from someones many dinners, bottle caps and the list goes on. IMG_20160217_082740 I decided to clean it all up and try to restore the garden to its former glory. It was an enormous undertaking and one that would eventually take me over two months of work.IMG_20160308_171422 It certainly seemed daunting and it was difficult to figure out where to begin because it was so overgrown with small trees, shrubs, brambles, ivy and weeds.DSC_0624 During the process of clearing out the space, I accumulated all of this debris and garden waste. There was more than just one of these piles and it all had to go. IMG_20160316_181621These steps were excavated. I had forgotten about them but here they were, unwalked on for decades. The garden path, so to speak.IMG_20160313_164009 I wanted a blank canvas for myself before I could even think of planting anything. Thus far, the only tools I had available to me were an axe, a saw, a pair of secateurs and gardening gloves. At this point, I was very encouraged. I knew that after years of neglect, I had the next best thing to virgin soil. But nothing is that easy.IMG_20160417_164932 As above, so below. Once the work above the ground was completed, the next task was to begin digging to see what the soil actually looked like. Be careful what you wish for, in this case, because I noticed all of these roots. It is a weed that spreads underground and if left unchecked can take over a garden. Which it did. It sends up a shoot that grows by binding itself around another plant and basically chokes it. They are very prolific and can grow fast. I declared war on it. IMG_20160321_183220I dug up kilometers of this chokeweed by hand using a shovel only. No chemical sprays were used as I believe in the principles of organic gardening. One thing that I noticed as I was digging the garden was that there were no earthworms. That would have to be rectified and I placed that idea on my priority list as well as a composting bin.IMG_20160723_190742 The organic gardening principles and philosophy that I adhere are simple. In addition to to composting and allowing earthworms perform their magic, I also use a four year crop rotation plan, heirloom or antique seeds, save seeds, companion plant, and employ a basic approach to bio-dynamic and lunar gardening aspects. The goals are to have a simple kitchen garden to supplement my cooking ideas, a garden that is sustainable and one that welcomes pollinators.  IMG_20160608_163455 The four year crop rotation plan includes legumes, alliums, roots and brassicas with room to plant a little extra for self satisfaction as well as the herbs I enjoy using in the kitchen. For the year round cool weather climate that is experienced in Ireland, there is plenty of scope to grow. And eat. Eat like a peasant.IMG_20160716_171806.jpg

 

 

 

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Feast of the Seven Fishes

 

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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.

 

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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.

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

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A warm salad with garlicky shrimps, carrots and radicchio.

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

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

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Roasted cod with onions, olives and lemon. Eat like

 

 

Raw State

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I decided to leave Portugal behind me late in 2015 and in December, I returned to Ireland to my hometown. After relocating, I found myself living in a house with a garden that had been neglected for many years. Once upon a time it had been a thriving garden. I had a connection for this particular “terra” and early in February (Spring, according to the ancient Irish calendar), I felt that this garden space needed a little bit of attention.

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It was a daunting task. It was unclear how to proceed because of the state of the space was so far gone. When I started blogging the initial premise of thewayofthecook was the theme of from seed to table. I thought that I could use this space to continue that theme. But there was a lot of hard, grunt work ahead of me. All the gardens that I have worked in were always ready to plant. Not so, in this case. So I began to clear it. Inch by inch, square foot by square foot. 

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It took me six weeks to get this far and this is just above the ground. The space measures about 1,100 square feet but I am only going to use about 800. And everything had to go, rocks, bottles, domestic refuse and that was only above the ground. 

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And this is how the kitchen garden looks three months later. May 1st is tomorrow. The list of flowers to attract pollinators includes bluebells, aquilegia, honeysuckle, lavendar, roses, sunflowers, foxgloves, borage and morning glorys. The list of herbs and leaves includes parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, chives, tarragon, bay, wild fennel, arugala, mesclun and red oak leaf lettuce. The list of fruits includes cherry tomatoes, gooseberries, strawberries and rhubarb. There is also peas, fava beans, cabbage, brussels sprouts, potatoes, scallions, shallots and red onions. Later I hope to put in beans, swiss chard, beets, turnips, radishes and celery root. If space permits. All has been done with organic and bio-dynamic methods. I hope to return to blogging with the seed to table theme. Eat like a peasant.

Chestnuts in an Algarve Autumn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tavira 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.

 

The Callous Dhowboy in the Al-Garve.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

 

Salted Cod.

 

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Salt cod is an under appreciated gem in some parts of the Mediterranean. All that is needed are the two primary ingredients. They are decent sea salt and fresh cod. I will celebrate my heritage by using sea salt from my paternal ancestral area, west Cork, to fashion my own home crafted salted codfish.

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It’s no matter whether you pronounce it bacala as in italian, or bacalhau in Portuguese, or bacalhao in Spanish or even morue in French, it is still salted cod. I like to include thyme, lemon zest and flaked Portuguese piri piri to accent the salt. I let the salted fish cure for three days in my refridgerator. Then I wrap it well with parchment paper and plastic wrap and freeze it until I want it.

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Spring garden asparagus soup is a perfect accompaniment to salt cod in some parts of the planet. I garnished mine with new olive oil and just snipped garden chives.

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When I want to use my salt cod, I fish it out of the freezer and allow it to defrost. Usually, I soak it in water for two days or longer. I change the water three times a day.

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The artichoke, vegetable or hand grenade?

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

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I like to add the salt after they have roasted.

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Any left overs are great the next day. I bake the salted fish-potato mixture with a generously seasoned composition of scallion, parsley, dried oregano, lemon zest, piri piri pepper, garlic, salt and olive oil. Thanks for reading. Eat like a peasant.

 

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.

Marinada e Grilhada Piri-Piri

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Though piri-piri comes in many shapes and forms, from bottled pastes to flavored oils, essentially it is a thumbnail sized, spicy dried chili pepper. It is of African origin and was transported to Portugal during the Age of Exploration. Portugal held outposts in today’s Angola and Mozambique as it sought to seize control of the valuable spice trade. Today the pepper is part of the Portuguese culinary repertoire and is an essential ingredient of the marinade for a simple grilled chicken. My marinade included piri-piri peppers, garlic and home made preserved lemon as its base.

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I crushed the peppers with my blade or otherwise split them and chopped them up. I used a microplane to process the garlic to a pulp. As for the preserved lemons, I removed everything but the rind and rinsed it off before mincing it with my knife. I used what herbs that I had on hand, parsley and rosemary. Some cooks might include ginger, coriander or thyme. Just be generous with the amount of piri-piri that you use. And they do generate some heat.

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Take two items, and make garlic bread. I have olive bread to play with.

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Grill the bread, dry and on both sides.

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Afterwards, when the bread is off the grill, rub it with the garlic clove, sprinkle on some good sea salt. Pour on good quality extra virgin olive oil all over. You’re done.

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Grilled spring onions.

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I pounded and flattened out the chicken breasts. Why? because I want them to cook quickly over a hot fire. This way they are less inclined to dry out. Pounding out the chicken also helps to tenderise the meat. They sat in the marinade for almost four hours.

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Plain and simple. I dressed the plate with olive oil and lemon.

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Thumbnail sized piri piri peppers. Thanks for reading. Eat like a peasant.