This article about Basque cuisine was published at NJ:
Basque in glory: Savory regional cuisine prepared with passion
by Janet Leonardi
Wednesday February 20, 2008, 11:00 AM
The cuisine of the Basque country -- in the western Pyrenees straddling northern Spain and southeastern France -- just could be the most glorious food you've never heard of.
At least, not in detail unless you are a food professional or a seasoned world traveler.
Think of delicate veal scallops simmering in sweet red pepper, tomato and cognac-infused piperade sauce, or succulent lamb shanks slowly roasted in green-tinged olive oil and aromatic garlic.
Don't miss the steaming bowls of hearty stew with tender chunks of fresh tuna and pearly potatoes.
The culinary surprizes of the area known as le Pays Basque -- or the Basque country -- has long been acclaimed in Europe and regarded as one of the world's best kept epicurean secrets. But times are changing. There's an ever heightening interest in regional cooking and both the word and taste of the Basques are spreading, quickly but quietly.
"We Basque are passionate about our cooking," says Maria G. Aurre, proprietor of Casa Vasca, a family-run restaurant in Newark's Ironbound district. The restaurant name translates to Basque House, and Aurre, who grew up in the Spanish province of Bizkaia, still follows tradition, serving classic home-style dishes, getting the ingredients fresh from local markets each day.
"In Basque, every meal is a celebration meant to be shared with others. When you visit there, the first thing someone will do is invite you to eat," Aurre says. "There's old Basque and new Basque cuisine, but the secret lies in using quality ingredients carefully cooked to perfection."
Food -- in both its preparation and enjoyment -- almost borders on obsession there, and every man and woman, wealthy and working class alike, cooks. Many belong to local gastronomical societies and ancestral recipes are cherished, lovingly passed down from generation to generation.
The area's Pyrenees Mountains, fertile Ebro valley and curving Bay of Biscay provide a virtual food landscape, affording its residents every opportunity to hone their cooking skills.
Just some of the staples of this satisfying yet simple cuisine are prime lean and cured meats, farm fresh vegetables, creamy cheese custom-made in mountain caves and a myriad of seafood, ranging from anchovies, hake and spider crabs to lobster, cockles and scallops.
Brilliant red chili peppers, unique to the area, are strung like badges of honor outside Basque homes throughout summer and are milder in flavor than the chilis we know here. One of the Basque's most popular sauces is piperade, a tasty saute of red peppers, onions, garlic and olive oil that is served alone, with scrambled eggs or any number of different meats and fish.
Humble white beans, another staple, are elevated to new heights when stewed with lamb, juicy ribs and hunks of chorizo sausage. Extra-virgin olive oil is the region's oil of choice because of its availability and high concentration of flavor; spices are fresh and, like salt, are sprinkled sparingly.
Carlos Izaguirre, sous chef at La Campagna Restaurant in Cherry Hill, is of Basque heritage and teaches a class on Basque country cooking. "Another very popular Basque food is Bayonne ham. Its flavor is so special because local pigs feed on chestnuts, which are abundant in the region, giving the pork a subtle chestnut taste. We also use chestnuts to make simple purees which accompany lamb, pork and fish dishes," hs says.
Izaguirre admits Basque cuisine has undergone some changes over time, but the basics remain the same. "It was once thought of as poor man's cuisine, but not anymore. And with the growth of ethnic markets and the internet, ingredients for this style of cuisine are easily obtainable."
The Basque were always great fishermen with many recipes originating from crews on fishing boats who cooked their catch either fresh at sea or dried it in salt. Salt cod is a signature and if legend is correct the Basque were responsible for getting the Mediterranean world hooked on this dried specialty.
Bacalao al pil-pil is classic Basque fare made by simmering dried salt cod in an olive oil and garlic emulsion that is expertly combined with the fish gelatin to produce a light creamy sauce.
Aurre says even though this dish seems deceptively simple to make, "It's difficult to cook because only achieving the perfect temperature and carefully shaking the olive oil will produce the desired mayonnaise like sauce."
"There are at least 50 or 60 more recipes for making salt cod dishes," says Ignacio Cenicacelaya, chef/proprietor of Jai Alai, a Basque restaurant in Dover.
Cenicacelaya, who grew up in a Basque family of restaurateurs, says fish of this region have unique flavor. "It's attributable to the sea balance resulting from the North Atlantic Ocean meeting the Bay of Biscay. The water is more oxygenated which gives fish an extra boost of taste."
Delicate baby eels known as angula are another specialty often served piping hot in small casseroles with olive oil, crushed garlic and red pimiento. Snowy white squid are served in velvety black ink sauce enhanced with tomato, garlic, olive oil and cognac. Plump jumbo shrimp sizzle in a garlic-infused sherry sauce laced with saffron.
Clams, scallops, mussels, red snapper, mackerel, hake, tuna, sole, swordfish, skate, monkfish, lobster and crabs are just some of the other popular fish either grilled or steamed.
Cenicacelaya explains the real beauty of Basque cooking is that it's natural and organic. "We allow a food's true flavor to come through because when you have something good you don't need to do very much to it. We never use water in cooking but rather add wine, sherry, brandy or cognac to make fish and meat sauces and stocks."
And one cannot mention Basque cuisine without mentioning its boldly flavored pintxos, the Basque version of tapas. Pintxos here are the ultimate finger food, set out on bars across the region. You never have to order but rather just walk in, take a plate and sample from the tantalizing selection on display.
Washed down with a glass of local wine, these small rafts of crusty bread hold a wealth of topping treasures ranging from sizzling parsley-filled mushroom caps and grilled eggplant to chopped ham, stuffed peppers or a dozen other choices, all held in place by small wood skewers topped with an olive.
From zesty pintxos beginnings to mouth-watering dessert endings which can include golden apple and almond tarts; deep mauve Rioja-poached pears; arroz con leche, a creamy rice pudding or glistening ramekins of custardy creme caramel, Basque country cooking is in a class by itself.
And there's no better time than the present to start celebrating its glory.
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