Nothing compares to the aromas and tastes assaulting one as he walks the streets of San Sebastian on any given day. Perusing the massive counters of any number of Pintxos bars in the city will bring a grown man to his knees – in adoration, not defeat. So, when an opportunity to learn the art of cooking Basque presented itself to me on a recent trip to New York City, I jumped at the opportunity.
Basque cuisine is heavily inspired by the abundance of food from the sea on the one side and the fertile Ebro valley on the other. Spanish and French influence is strong, but the two rarely meet. There is a notable difference between the cuisines of the Spanish and French Basque peoples. Gastronomic societies pervade the Basque culture. Traditionally composed of only men who cook and eat together in a communal “txoko,” the societies are usually large and formally organized and meet together in a small space owned by a group of friends where they share the food and associated costs. Today, women are allowed into some clubs.
The influence of Basque cuisine is far-reaching. Multiple restaurants in the region boast one or more Michelin stars. Chefs like Juan Mari Arzak, Martín Berasategui, and Karlos Arguiñano have changed the landscape and reputation of Basque cuisine worldwide and have paved the way for discriminating and non-discriminating palates to enjoy the fruits of a cuisine from an area heralded to be one of the oldest civilizations still in existence (and they will make sure you know it). What was once a discreet corner of Iberia has today taken center stage on the world gastronomic scene.
The Basque cooking course at The Institute for Culinary Education (ICE) was its first, and I just happened to be in the proverbial right place at the right time. Having taken two courses previously at ICE, I expected that the course would be informative and entertaining. I was not to be disappointed. Chef Daniel took us through a brief history the Basque region and its unique cuisine. Next we reviewed our “menu” for the evening – ten dishes and three hours stood between our class of a dozen students and Basque food bliss. It was time well spent. The dishes were reminiscent of my time spent in San Sebastian and piqued my curiosity to explore the cuisine in more depth. Following I have included three recipes from the class (all recipes courtesy of ICE). Give them a try and do not hesitate to step out and try a course or two on your own.
BASQUE COD CROQUETTES
(Yield: Serves 4/8 croquettes)
For all salt cod dishes remember to soak the fish for 24 hours changing the water regularly. The fish should be poached but care must be taken not to bring the water to the boil or the fish will become tough.
- 3/4 lb salt cod (bacalao), soaked in several changes of cold water for 24 hours
- 1/2 lb potatoes, cooked and mashed
- 1/4 cup hot mil
- 2 tbsp hot milk
- 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
- 1 tbsp chopped Italian parsley
- 2 tsp lemon juice (of half a lemon squeezed)
- 1.2 tsp Piment d’Espelette (this is a Basque spice – substitute pimentón)
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour, plus additional for work surface
- 1 egg, beaten
- 3/4 cup breadcrumbs
- Canola oil for frying
- Allow the mashed potato to cool then stir in the parsley.
- Using a large pan over high heat, bring 2 inches of water to a boil; lower the heat and place the sold cod into the water. Cook gently for 15 minutes. DO NOT BOIL.
- Drain, cool, remove skin and any bones and flake the fish.
- Add the cod flakes, mashed potato, garlic, milk, olive oil, Piment d’Espelette, and flour into a mixing bowl and mix until all ingredients are completely mixed.
- Four your work surface, and with your hands, roll out the paste into a long cylinder, about 10 inches long. Cut into 8 equal pieces.
- Dip each piece into the egg wash and then roll in the bread crumbs to give an even coating. Place in the fridge for 20 minutes to chill (this will set the coating).
- Heat oil in a large pot to 375° F.
- Gently place the croquettes into the oil and fry until golden brown. Cook no more than 4 at the same time, drain on paper towels, then place in a warm oven until all are cooked.
PIQUILLO PEPPERS STUFFED WITH BRANDADE
(Yield: Serves 4)
- 1/2 lb skinless, boneless salt cod, preferably a thick center-cut piece (soaked in several changes of cold water for 24 hours)
- 4 1/2 tbsp olive oil, divided
- 1 1/2 tbsp all-purpose flour, divided
- 2 cups milk
- 16 roasted piquillo peppers (two 6-oz jars), drained
- 1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
- 1 medium carrot, thinly sliced crosswise
- 1 fresh parsley sprig plus 1 tbsp finely chopped parsley
- 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
- 1 1/2 tbsp dry sherry
- Cut the cod crosswise into ¼ inch strips.
- In a medium saucepan, warm 3 tbsp of the olive oil over moderate heat. Add the salt cod and cook, stirring gently, to heat through and break up the fish (about 3 minutes). Stir in 1 tbsp of the flour until incorporated. Gradually mix in the milk. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring often, until the mixture has thickened (about 25-30 minutes). Cool to room temperature.
- Keeping the roasted peppers intact, remove any seeds and carefully stuff each pepper with a heaping tbsp of the cod mixture.
- In a large skillet, warm the remaining 1½ tbsp olive oil over moderately low heat. Add the onion, carrot, parsley sprig, and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft (about 12 minutes). Blend in the remaining ½ tbsp flour and then stir in 1 cup of water. Bring to a boil, cover and cook for 10 minutes to blend the flavors. Uncover, stir in the sherry and simmer for 3 minutes.
- Transfer the mixture to a food processor and puree until completely smooth. Pour the sauce back into the skillet. Season with kosher salt.
- Carefully place the stuffed peppers in the sauce. Cover and simmer gently over low heat until the peppers are heated through (about 3 minutes). Transfer the peppers to serving plates and spoon the sauce around them. Sprinkle the chopped parsley on top and serve at once.
PORRUSALDA (LEEK AND POTATO SOUP)
(Yield: Serves 6)
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 6 medium leeks, chopped fine (use white/light green parts only)
- 1/2 lb Spanish chorizo, thinly sliced
- 3 to 4 large potatoes, cubed (peeling optional)
- 1 tbsp crushed thyme
- 1/4 tsp ground white pepper
- 2 tsp coarse salt
- 1 minced garlic clove
- 2 tbsp all-purpose flour
- 4 cups chicken stock
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 tbsp chopped parsley
- 1 1/2 cups day old bread chunks (optional)
- In a large stockpot, pour in oil and heat over medium-high heat. Add the leeks and chorizo. Stir to brown lightly. Add in potatoes, seasonings, and flour. Toss together until flour is incorporated. Reduce heat to low. Add in chicken stock. Stir until all ingredients are well combined. Cover, place bay leaves in pot, and simmer for 1 hour. Stir in parsley just before serving.
- Place fresh croutons on bottom of individual serving bowls and pour soup over the top. Serve immediately.
Life is short. Drink Spanish wine!