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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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.

 

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.

Aport in Portugal

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By default, a good Portuguese fish monger will have a decent extra virgin olive oil from that land. Indeed, extra virgin olive oil is fundamental to southern Portuguese fish cooking. But first, you have to find a decent Portuguese fish monger.
In East Cambridge, Massachussets, there is Courthouse Seafood. If you love fish, go there.

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Here are my raw materials for making my own home made “bacalao”, or salt cod. I should really try to source Portuguese sea salt. But I am more than happy to use Irish sea salt. Both countries have the Atlantic ocean as their neighbour. And share the same time zone.

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There are as many different recipes for salt cod as there are families making it at home. I used thyme picked from my garden, as well as a hot chile pepper I had saved and dried from the summer. I used a micro-plane to grate the lemon zest, which shows it’s hue nicely. I like to make my own salt cod over buying the commercial/industrial varieties on sale. It’s a seasonal thing. I’m ready for a New England winter .

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The cod sits in the salt cure for up to 4 days, depending on how thick the cut of fish is. Afterwards which, whatever I am not using immediately, gets frozen right there and then. To be revived and rehydrated another day.

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The fundamentals for a peasant soup……………leeks and carrots from my garden, rosmary and garlic too. Dried chile pepper, smoked paprika, sweet bell pepper and bay leaf with smoked chorizo sausage. Hello, Portugal.

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The Island of Doctor Morue

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I’m going to give to the Basque people in northern Spain the credit for salted codfish. Very early on, some of these intrepid fisher people were pulling fat-bellied cod from New England waters. And drying the sides of fish in the salt air so as to preserve them for the voyage back home. The histories of codfish and salt travel together. Cod has been used as a unit of currency, it has sustained economies and, even in my lifetime, countries have gone to war over it and fishing rights. England and Iceland spring to mind.
There are a lot of grades of salt cod in the marketplace. If you see it in a supermarket, then it is more than likely supermarket quality. Especially if it is in that little wooden box. Available year round. That is the salt cod off the industrial line of production. To get the a better grade of quality, you need to shop at a Portuguese or Italian market. The better markets will carry it only in season and that is the winter months. Right around now.
Some people are put off by the strong smell of salt cod. I like it and I did’nt grow up with it. I can understand how some people can be revolted. However, salt cod is not as pungent as stockfish, which is something else altogether. Make sure to engage and talk to your local fish monger. I like the idea of salt cod because, despite the rich history, it involves minimal processing using old techniques. The best salt-cod is what you make your self at home. I use sea salt, lemon zest, parsley, chile pepper flakes and thyme. Pack the fish in this mixture. Set it on a rack over a tray in your fridge for two days. Turn it once only. Keep it covered the whole time. After, wrap it well for freezing or use it fresh immediately and re-hydrate as you would. My general yardstick is twice a day for three days for store bought salt cod.
Everybody, it seems, has a recipe for salt cod. There are many. Salt cod is used in Spain, as well as the Basque country and Catalonia. It is popular in Portugal. You can find it in southern France. Italy too as well as the islands, Corsica, Sardinia, Majorca. Salt cod was introduced to Sicily by the Norsemen from Scandinavia. It is also found in Venetian cooking. Pick any recipe. Mine is the classic, Brandade.

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The French have a name for salt cod. It is called “Morue”. “Brandade de Morue au Gratin” is a classic dish. This is what I did.
After soaking, I rinsed the fish (3/4’s pound) and started it in a gallon of cold water and brought it the boil. As it approaches boiling, the fish will release a white scum. This is good. You don’t want that. As soon as the fish reaches boiling, remove it from the flame and strain it. Keep it away from the scum if you can. Rinse out the pot. Put the fish back in the pot with a half gallon of cold water. I added some aromatics at this point…..a small bay leave, a few black peppercorns, parsley stems, a scallion end and a splash of white wine. Bring the pot to a boil and let it simmer for 5 minutes. Simmer means to let it boil softly, just hubble and bubble, softly.
Drain the fish and after, when it has cooled down, pick it apart. Remove any bones if there are any, skin too if you have it, any fatty parts you do not want or any cartilage. You can’t remove the smell. It is just there. Wash your hands to get all the sticky fish parts off. Transfer the nice, clean salt cod to a clean pot. I added a cup of milk, about 6 or 8 cloves of garlic sliced thinly. And proceeded to cook or poach the salt cod in this garlicky milky mixture. For 10 minutes.Be careful not to burn the milk. Really careful. And then, add some hot boiled potato. I went with a 50/50 blend of 12 ounces of cod and 12 ounces or so of potato and mashed everything with a fork. You could use a blender for a smoother, creamier texture but I preferred the rustic route with less wash-up. I mashed it all with a fork. I used Yukon gold potatos. I added also a half a cup of extra virgin olive plus to this potato dairy garlicky fish blend. And I seasoned everything with sea salt, black pepper. lemon zest, lemon juice and cayenne pepper.
Then this Brandade was transferred to an oiled, oven proof dish, topped off with home made parsley and scallion breadcrumbs. I baked this in the oven at 450 degrees Fahrenheit, fifteen minutes or so.

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The fishiness of the salt cod is muted by the addition of all these ingredients. You want to taste the garlickiness, the lemony parts, the heat from the cayenne and the olive oil and milk just cream everything out. The best way to eat Brandade is with some crostinis, grilled bread or crackers. These crackers are made with farro and sesame seed. Sesame always reminds me of spice markets

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All the strictures of simple cooking…….simple ingredients, simple techniques.The Brandade and sesame wheat crackers screamed for something warm and spicy to accompany. Enter Tagine. This version included cauliflower, carrot, turnip, chick peas, raisins and spices like cinammon, cumin, ginger and coriander. Thank you for reading my cooking efforts.