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.

 

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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.

Spice Market

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It was for items like these that Columbus set off on his voyage. America was in the way and the rest is history. And what a history. The Arabs controlled the spice trade for centuries so certainly spices are predominant in their cooking. Though there is an overlap in the spices used with Indian cooking, the flavors of the spices are arranged differently.

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This home made spice mix is my interpretation of Kabsa and is essential in Saudi Arabian cooking, usually for chicken or lamb. Even though I have sifted this mixture, I still like it’s coarseness in comparison to store bought powder. Saudi cooking is full of big, rough and very warm flavours. The coarseness of the spices is usually softened with something sweet like a dried fruit. I have no chicken or lamb or fish to-night…….

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Basically, a simple stew using Kabsa spices…….chick-peas, carrots, parsnips, turnips, dried sour cherries and golden raisins. In my Kabsa blend, I used coriander, black peppercorns, cardomom, cinammom, cloves, nutmeg, sasffron,cumin, turmeric, paprika, allspice, bay leaf and dried lime.

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This is Sardinian parchment bread or “carta di musica”. Another flatbread and this one is unleavened. Sardinia was ruled over at one point by the Arabs at the height of their run. The idea is to eat your Kabsa with the bread. I left these plain but you could season them with rosemary, sea salt, spice, seeds or cheese.

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This is home made Kamut® bread. The history of this remarkable grain comes from the Middle East. You can use it like faro or wheat. Thank for looking at my blog. Eat like a peasant.

 

Fisherman Meets Fellaheen.

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This is locally caught Massachussets flounder. It is a flat fish and related to sole, turbot, plaice, halibut and the like. You can see the eyes on top of the head and it lives on the bottom of the ocean. A bottom-dweller, if you will. Flounder does not have the reputation of Dover sole but it is delicious. Besides, it is a whole lot less expensive. I want to cook it whole. I just need to trim some fins first. This fish weights about 1.5 pounds. If you have never cooked whole fish or fish on the bone and you love eating fish, you have no idea how good it is and it is a whole lot easier than you think.

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I want to cook the fish in the Saudi Arabian style of al Kabsa. Traditionally, either chicken or lamb or were cooked al Kabsa and it is regarded as the national dish. Chicken cooked with rice or lamb cooked with rice. Sometimes goat and camel too. But rarely, if ever, fish. As a cook who enjoys geography, this led me into thinking that a land like Saudi Arabia, a peninsula, a land surrounded by three bodies of water, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean and everybody’s favourite, the Arabian Gulf or Persian Gulf. There is a lot of fish in those waters but they rarely get a mention. I realise that there is no flounder in the Indian Ocean but there must be another flat fish. A cousin, so to speak.
Al Kabsa refers to the spice blend used so the range of spices or the recipe can vary from cook to cook. Coriander, cinammon, saffron, cumin, clove, allspice. black pepper, ginger to name a few. Although I bought my al Kabsa blend, you could make it at home. If I took any liberties, I added thyme, green cardomom pods, curry leaves and the black spherical item in the photo,dried lemon (loomi in Arabic). The dried lemon is ground up and is also a spice in the classic al Kabsa blend. I sweated onion, garlic and fresh ginger in olive oil, added some al Kabsa spices, cooked it a few minutes. added whole, canned tomatoes. I used Muir Glen brand of organic tomatoes and added a pinch of sugar. American tomatoes are not as sweet as old country ones. They are more acidic. Adding a pinch of sugar takes the edge off of the tomatoes. Just ask any Sicilian grand-mother.

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Roasted cauliflower with Aleppo pepper. The first mention of cauliflower dates back to the 12th century and it was the Arabs who introduced it

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Brown Basmati rice pilaf, al Kabsa style, with tomato and carrot. Traditionally, the rice was cooked in the same pot as the chicken or lamb. I cooked mine separately. I used a brown rice which takes 45 minutes to cook. My fish will need about 20 minutes.

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Looks like we are done, al Kabsa style. For the record, al Kabsa can also be spelled as al Khabseh and a couple of other variations in between, depending on your accent. That is most likely the reason that there are so many twists to the recipe.

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Salad is a traditional complement to the al Khabseh experience. I added arugala, or jajeera in Arabic, to the roasted cauliflower. I dressed everything with a lemon-cumin vinaigrette. Jajeera should not be confused with media outlet, al Jazeera.

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After all that I’m exhausted. Where would we all be……..if it was’nt for go-go juice. Yemenese coffee is a dying breed, unfortunately
Serious coffee drinkers will appreciate this one from Yemen. Definitely an heirloom coffee and soon it will not be available. Buy it while you can. Mocca means mocha. Sanani means that it comes from the area around the capital city, Sana’a. In Arabic, the expression “fellaheen” translates as a poor agricultural worker or peasant. Like I always say, eat like a peasant.

Arabesque

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These are little home made pita breads rising. I ground up wheatberries for flour to make these pita a little more homespun. I can bake them as they are or grill them, either plain as they are or topped with something, like a seasoning or flavour. Hmmm! The original flatbread was made with a coarser grind of grain and thats what I am trying to do.

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I did not get as far as grilling any flat breads to-night…..time is a buzz-kill. I baked some off plain and some I seasoned with Za’atar. Za’atar is a combination of sumac, thyme, marjoram, sesame seed and sea salt. It can be used as a seasoning for vegetables fish and other meats. There is no better way to eat pita bread than with hummus. I started with dried chick peas and flavoured the hummus with roasted garlic and freshly milled toasted cumin seed. Most of the spices I use are in whole form and I like to grind all my own spices as I need. Cumin is one of the more frequently used spices in my kitchen. The hummus is finished with olive oil and paprika.

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The grain here is called Freekeh and is popular throughout Middle Eastern regions. It is green wheat that has been burnt or set on fire or somewhat charred to help remove the husk. The grain itself has a remarkable smoky or toasted flavour. I boil it like brown rice. Here, I added cinammon, allspice and bay leaves to the cooking liquid. And cook it so that the pot or pan is dry after the Freekeh is finished cooking.

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Marinated striped bass steak. Yes, steak, not a filet. I visited a Portuguese fish market and they had striped bass steaks….you know, with that big bone through it. Fish cooked on the bone is much better. The bone conducts the heat giving you a more juicy and flavourful piece of fish…or whole fish, as the case may be. Skin on is good too for the same reasons. I marinated this striped bass with olive oil, pomegranate molasses, preserved lemon, lemon zest, thyme, pureed garlic, green onion and…….Za’atar.

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This is what i got…..pomegranate and za’atar marinated grilled striped sea bass. I put this atop the spiced freekeh, cumin roasted carrots and turnips, arugula, orange segments and almonds……then I crossed my fingers……and the kitchen muse smiled. I think she forgave me that there are no striped bass in the Arabian Gulf. Everything worked……even the pomegranate molasses to the extent of it’s been charred. Grouper or Hamour as it is known in the Arabian Gulf would be an acceptable substitute among others.

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At the end of every great meal, or any occasion really, in the Middle East, a shot of cardomom flavoured espresso is the way to go. A 50:50 blend is the standard ratio. Just grind it all up together.

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Coffee was introduced to Europe by the Arabs and Ethiopia is it’s ancestral home. I guess Jah-jah Jah-jah Jah Rastafari had a coffee buzz going on too. Queen City refers to it’s degree of roastness or doneness. it would be similiar to a Full City roast. Harar refers to the area outside of Addis Ababa, across a wadi, up a steep hill then up a mountain to the middle of nowhere, where the coffee is grown. . I did not smell the blueberry aromas but I sure got lots of cocoa. This would be an heirloom coffee bean given it’s history and method of production.

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My grill has no bells or whistles and involves lighting it manually with a match and paper. With limited light, it is difficult to control the cooking, plus there is the wind and sub-zero night time temperatures. There is a balance to be struck between not burning the fish or overcooking it. The sugars in the pomegranate molasses means it can carmelise and blacken and burn more easily. Maybe even stick to your grill. And you have to take into account that bone which runs through the fish steak, both cooking and eating it.

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.