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

 

 

My Way With The Thrill Grill Cult.

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For any earnest cook, intent on cooking what the sea has to offer, Al-Garvean fish markets are a sight to behold. Every time I go, I am stunned by what is on offer. I have had to re-invent my perception of the classification of fish and seafood. I have also had to learn the Portuguese translations for all these various fishes. The upper class of fish available includes (not all) the likes of the European seabass, mullets, drumfish, John Dory and monkfish. Another class involves all the various sea bream including gilthead or dourada, porgy, white sea bream, sharpsnout sea bream, two-banded sea bream and blackspot sea bream. Then there are the sardines, various mackerel and anchovies. The list continues with swordfish, needlefish and scabbardfish. Let’s not forget all kinds of tuna either. Then there are the cartilagenous fishes like dogfish, various rays and skates. Various eels and various flatfish. The classification continues with octopus, cuttlefish and squid. Then there are all the assorted and sundry crustaceans like shrimps and crabs. Last but not least are shellfish like clams and oysters. I really hope that you, dear reader, get the idea of what the expression “bewildering display’ means. (painting by Pedro Fernandes)

 

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This hibachi grill will have to suffice for a bit longer. It is not going to last and I need something far more sturdy and durable for my actions with fire and a grill.

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Now….this is a grill.

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This is a steak cut from a species of fish known as Corvina. The other corvina that I know of is a grape varietal cultivated in the Veneto region of northern Italy. It is used in the production of Valpolicella and Bardolino wines. But corvina, the fish, is a member of the drumfish family. Some people might refer to it as sea-sheep, or shade-fish . It is usually sold “a posta”, in other words, cut into steaks.

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Al-Garve cooks take the idea of simple to another level. I marinated this corvina in extra virgin olive oil. Before it went on the grill, I seasoned the fish steak with local sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

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Fish is served as is. There is never any sauce. People think that there must be something wrong with the fish if there is a sauce. For me personally, once the grilled fish is plated I like extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice. The Al-Garve is awash in some of the best olive oil around and there are no shortage of lemon trees.

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Quinta Shanti is an organic vegetable farm located in Conceicao de Tavira. This is where I buy my vegetables. This composition included wheat berries, golden beets, mustard greens, mizuna and red leaf lettuce. Eat like a peasant. Thanks for reading.

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.

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.

Celtic Fire Festival.

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Of the four major Celtic fire festivals in Ireland, Samhain or ,more contemporary, Hallow’een, is the largest and most widely known. In other cultures, this is the Feast of the Dead. Or All Souls.

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Characteristic to Irish country cooking is the use of a three-legged cauldron sitting over a fire which was kept going all day. Coastal cooking traditions varied from inland towns and districts. The idea was the same, however, and that was to feed hungry peasants. I am using a three -legged grill with fire.

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In the old Celtic calendar, Samhain marked the end of harvest and summer as well as the beginning of Winter or the “dark time” of the year. It was also a time of transition marked by the changing of the seasons and weather.

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On land, these seasonal changes forced herdsmen to bring their cattle back down from summer mountain pastures. A procedure known as transhumance. Cheeses would have already been made, perhaps to age in a blanket of sea-weed. Pigs or wild boar from the woods would have been killed and cured at this time. The process of preserving meat by curing with sea-salt was introduced by the Celts into Europe. It was also the time of year to “pit” potatoes for winter storage. Guinness goes great with sea salt. Wash your next oyster down with it.

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In coastal areas, seafood would have been preserved also. There would not have been many opportunities for off shore fishing during winter. So the techniques of smoking, brining and salting fish would have been common. I wonder if it was the Basque fishermen  who introduced salting to Ireland. Nowadays, there is a small cottage industry of sea-salt harvesting in west Cork on the Beara Peninsula, the most south westerly point on the island. The most famous mussels in the known universe come from Bantry in that same neck of the woods.

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Indeed, any opportunities for fishing would have been limited at this time of the year to sheltered coastal inlets and river estuaries. The changing of the season also influenced what species of fish were available to coastal peasants. Seasonal fish like John Dory or Saint Pierre migrated to warmer water. Other ocean swimming fish like some species of shark moved into shallower water. The rocky coastline provided shelter for rock fish like bass and codling and other flat fish like turbot and flounder. There was also plenty of oysters and rock lobster, cockles and mussels too.

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Another source of protein for coastal people was the availability of sea-gulls eggs on sheer cliff faces.. This was a risky business. You did’nt want the Feast of the Dead to be all about you and the crabs.

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Written records begin in Ireland in the 5th century of the Common Era with the arrival of Christianity. Samhain predates Christianity with its roots going back to the arrival of the Celts in Ireland around the 5th century BCE. Fire was an important part of Samhain used in rituals for protection and cleansing. But bonfires can be traced back even further in Irish mythology. Nowadays, the tradition of lighting bonfires at Hallow’een is not so prevalent as it once was.

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Thanks for reading. Eat like a peasant.

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Just about says it all.

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The Haunted Pumpkin ………….out soon in hard-cover.

How to go Organic.

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I imagine my little kitchen garden. And I work with nature. I want lots of bees smothered in pollen, drunk on it. Yee-haw!

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How to go organic…….there are lot of ways……….start with compost and earthworms. And thank busy soil organisms hard at work for you in your space.

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Take care of your seed. Bless it when you sow. Observe the weather. Keep a garden journal. Know the cycles of the moon.

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Weed early and often. Enjoy the gifts of the season. Save your seeds.

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And while you are doing all of that and more besides, try to learn how to make polenta. Four Star Farms are on my blogroll. Give them a turn.

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Polenta is the widow-maker of northern Italian cooking. Organically speaking, who feels it, knows it.

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Most of all, going organic is the right thing to do. And everything that you grow always tastes better anyway

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And everything you make and cook will taste better.

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From my little space…….cauliflower, pole beans and garlic.

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Going organic means celebrating the seasons. I love striped bass caught in New England. For me, it is the best of summer with lots of vegetables. Credit to RedsBest Seafood at Dewey Square Farmers Market in Boston for this immaculate striped bass. I braised the fish in a version of Ratattouille with Poblano peppers and ate it with lots of basil from my garden. 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.

 

Winging It.

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These are Spanish Rioja garlic scapes. You have to clip these so as to have pickable garlic bulbs in about a months time. In the meantime, use the scapes the same way you would use garlic. Despite the cold spring here, I am surprised that they seem to have arrived early. A second variety I planted, Purple Glazer, has not begun to (e)scape yet. Apparently, this has been the coldest spring since 1996. No wonder everything is struggling in my little garden. But as long as I have garlic, I am content.

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Earthy crunchy home made whole wheat pizzette topped with roasted beets, crumbled goats milk cheese and garden scallions. Zen spartan brilliance. Match this with some salad, some immaculate olive oil and if you are feeling frisky, have another glass of wine.

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I like this image for a couple of reasons. I like how the parsley stem still has the pea tendril still attached. Clearly, the peas used the parsley for support. The onion, thyme and parsley bring back austere memories of damp mornings and steamy kitchens. But  parsley still remains my favorite herb. And this particular variety is called “Gigante d’Italia”. Or “Giant of Italy”. Think gigantic. This will grow over four feet in my little space. This parsley is nowhere near what is available in a regular grocery. It has some spine, snap and flavor.

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I have mentioned Red’s Best seafood previously on this blog. The skate is from Woods Hole on Cape Cod. Images of cool underwater exploration, Robert Ballard and Titanic. Skate is very cartilaginous. Skate wing is the pectoral fin which is used for flying or gliding through water. Though it is difficult to overcook this fish, believe me, it can be done. You do not really want to that thus making the wing rubbery. The cooked wing should simply melt in your mouth

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I seasoned the fish with black pepper and very lightly with salt. Besides using the garden grown garlic scapes and parsley, I also used home made preserved lemon and salted capers to flavor the fish. Skate needs big flavors and acidity to cut through all that wing juiciness. The preserved lemon and salted capers add a Sicilian accent. But everyone knows that the very best capers come from the island of Pantellaria. Pantellaria is closer to north Africa than it is to Sicily. Make sure to use lots of good extra virgin olive oil.

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Sicilian flavors and Sicilian oil. Planeta puts out decent wine also. I refer you all to my earliest postings on all about extra virgin olive oil. Essential information that answers all the questions you are afraid to ask.

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Peas starting to drop. I’m going to pick some so as to encourage more pod growth.

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Sauteed garden onion and pea pods accented with thyme. Eat like a peasant. Thanks for reading.

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.

Full Contact Gardening Meets Full Contact Cooking.

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It has been a long, cold winter in Boston. Spring is in though and my little kitchen garden is busy. These are garlic chives and come back every year.

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These are going to be onions and scallions. Too bad, I won’t have any shallots this year.

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Spring chives………I use them on everything.

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Garlic. These lived under 5 feet of snow this winter. Yes, I know, I shoveled it.

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Asparagus. I planted this 4 years ago. This is first time to pick any so this on the menu tonight. Asparagus Surprise.

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These little seedlings are kale. Cavolo Nero Toscano or Tuscan black kale. They will be thinned out as they grow. Fingers crossed. I also stuck in the ground seeds for fennel, parsley, chervil, romaine, brocolli rabe, kohl rabe, mustard and wild fennel.

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Radishes all lined up.

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Radicchio……..right now it is nice and sweet. As the season advances, the radicchio gets more bitter.

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Somehow peas have struggled for me this year. I’m blaming the cold spring.

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Wild arugula……..this is the spicy stuff and this will be on the menu tonight also. First of the season wild arugula. Next to it…..wild fennel. Too early to pick that just yet. I grow this for the pollen……..fennel pollen from my garden, how cool is that?

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Tonight’s salad bowl candidates……arugula, dandelion, lovage, radicchio and fresh herbs.

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Garden asparagus and chives with some farm eggs becomes……….

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Frittata Primavera or spring asparagus and herbs baked with farm eggs. All it needs is a glass of Prosecco. To celebrate Spring, of course.

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This gratin is made with potato, roasted fennel and olive oil. I used no dairy. And I bought the potatoes and fennel. But hey, I did plant some fennel seed to day as well as wild fennel. This gratin reminds me of Provencal cooking. Simple and rustic.

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Roasted rutabaga. I have never grown rutabaga but turnips are on the list. I bought this rutabaga. This one comes from Prince Edward Island. They know how to grow these things up there. After roasting, all it needs is a splash of olive oil and black pepper.

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Skillet roasted codfish with lemon, garden chives, olive oil and garden greens.

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Eat like a peasant.