Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Simply Delicious

The article you're about to read was published at amNewYork:

The delicious simplicity of Basque food

By Ya-Roo Yang
Special to amNewYork

While Basque cuisine is technically a Spanish regional cuisine, dismissing it as simply Spanish would be unfair.

The three provinces that form the Basque country have their own distinct language, government and culinary style, which Alex Reij, chef at Chelsea’s Txikito (pronounced “chee-kee-toe”) describes as “more connected to France than Spain.”

Food is such an important part of the Basque community that men, who normally wouldn’t be caught dead cooking at home, form secret gastronomic societies where they socialize by cooking together.

Unconvinced? Just look at the Michelin Guide and find the greatest concentration of stars in San Sebastian, Spain - the Mecca of foodies and gastronomes.

The quality of Basque cuisine lies in the ingredients derived from three distinct micro-climates. Rain provides for the fertile soil that yields beans, leeks, tomatoes, peppers, garlic and onions. Close to the coastlines, seafaring Basque fishermen catch cod, hake, octopus, spider crabs and sea urchins. Inland, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, Basque Shepherds raise beef and lamb.

“They have such incredible products: great produce, seafood, cheese, lamb and beef that really resonate with people that are into cuisine and care about food,” says Seamus Mullen, executive chef at Boqueria.

Many ingredients used in Basque cooking are locally grown others can be ordered online or purchased from Despana in SoHo. Like most ingredient-driven food traditions, Basque cooking techniques are very simple and the dishes can be replicated by any home cook with basic kitchen skills and the proper ingredients. In his cookbook Pintxos (Ten Speed Press, 2009), San Francisco chef Gerald Hirigoyen writes about how easily he cooked for a party of unexpected friends with things found in his pantry.

There is also the convivial spirit of eating. The Basque tradition of catching up with friends at a bar, before lunch or supper, for a glass Txakoli, a light effervescent local wine, and a few pintxos (pronounced pinchos), bite-sized snacks, is perhaps the most beloved part of this cuisine. Natalie Sanz, owner of Las Ramblas in the West Village, speaks fondly of the tapas bars in San Sebastian: “The bars are crowded with patrons seeking the house specialty. Go alone and you will feel like you are close friends with everybody within arm's reach.”

While New York does not have a pintxo culture, some of this is rubbing off at Basque eateries like Txikito, where diners from different parties often talk and share food with each other.

Five Cool Facts about Basque cuisine

1) The Basque were into offal before it became fashionable to be into offal: The Basque diet includes a steady staple of innards with delicacies like sweetbreads, kidney, liver and tripe.

2)Using canned and preserved food is sometimes okay: While most Basque dishes are created with the freshest ingredients, many Basque dishes actually taste better made with canned goods. This is especially true for white asparagus, piquillo peppers, Vantresca tuna and anchovies. Of course, a Basque pantry is never complete without salted cod.

3)Pintxos are great alternatives to canapés at parties: These bite-sized snacks are often bits of sausages and cheese or shrimps skewered together with toothpicks or open faced sandwiches with eggs and anchovies that make them great finger food for parties.

4)It’s the perfect food for the culinary commitment-phobe: The pintxo culture makes trying lots of different food very easy; and one can wander from bar to bar without committing to any one place.

5)Basque cuisine is also pretty good for weight conscious: The largest Basque meal is lunch, which is served around 2 pm. Supper or dinner is usually something small like a few pintxos or some yogurt.

Q and A with Alex Reij

As one of the chefs and owners of Txikito, a Basque restaurant in NYC, Alex Reij is known for her authentic yet modern interpretation of Basque food.

Q: With the sophistication of New Yorkers’ palates, why do you think there are not more Basque restaurants?

AR: I think up until recently New York wasn’t ready to sustain them. New Yorkers who have traveled know that Basque food is synonymous with quality. But Spanish regional cooking hasn’t resonated with New Yorkers. Outside of the Basque country, the food and the community were not clearly distinguished from the rest of Spain.

Q: Being that Txikito is one of two Basque restaurants in New York; do you have problems explaining the cuisine to New Yorkers?

AR: Not at all. What’s beautiful about Basque cuisine is it values a bean as much as it values a crab so I found that is a way to really engage the American diner. We don’t want to tell people how to eat. The menu is composed of ingredients that people know. If you like the ingredient, you’ll like the dish because in Basque cooking everything taste like what it is and there are no hidden flavors.

Q: With all the exotic ingredients Basque food demands, do you have problems sourcing your ingredients?

AR: Sometimes the stuff is outside of our price range. Other items, like the spider crab, aren’t available here. You could import many things but the prices are so prohibitive that it makes more sense to use local ingredients and cook it in the Basque spirit.

Q: Most of the dishes on your menu are very traditional. Are you inspired by the modern Basque cooking?

AR: I am really inspired by contemporary cooking – by Basque as well as other innovative chefs in Spain. But I am more interested in how they maintain the Basque identity - the things that are thoroughly Basque and thoroughly original. I like the continuity between the gastronomic legacy that it comes from and the food.

Five NYC Places to Enjoy Basque Food

One of the two Basque restaurants in New York City
240 Ninth Ave. NYC
(212) 242-4730

The other Basque place, on the East side of Manhattan
108 East 4th Street, NYC
(212) 982-9788

Try the kokotxas.
53 West 19th Street, NYC
(212) 255-4160

Las Ramblas
Basque dishes include: piquillo con morcilla, bocadillo crujientes, pintxos de setas rebozadas among others.
170 West 4th Street, NYC
(646) 415-7924

Try the poached eggs with white asparagus or the braised short ribs.
37 East 28th Street, NYC
(212) 213-2328

Recipe: Garbanzos de Vigilia: Lenten Chickpea stew with Salt Cod and Spinach

1 pound dried chickpeas
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoon olive oil
1 carrot peeled
1 Spanish onion split in half
1 unpeeled head of garlic plus 3 cloves garlic peeled and sliced thin
Salt to taste
6 cups fresh spinach leaves
2 pounds rehydrated good quality salt cod, (torn in small pieces), or substitute 2 pounds fresh cod well-salted for 10 minutes and rinsed.

In a large pot cover the dried chickpeas with 8 cups water and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and let stand ½ an hour to rehydrate.

Drain the rehydrated chickpeas and restore them to the same pot with the onion, head of garlic and carrot. Add 3 teaspoon of salt, and cover with fresh water by about 4 inches.

Add 2 tablespoon olive oil and bring to a boil for five minutes. Turn the heat down and simmer until tender checking frequently after the first hour and adjusting seasoning if necessary. Approximately 2 hours. Remove the garlic and discard.

In a small pan heat the remaining olive oil, toss in the garlic until just golden, pour into a blender. Add ½ a cup of chickpeas from the pot, a cup of cooking liquid and the carrot and onion to the blender and carefully blend to a smooth puree.

Add the chickpea puree back to the chickpeas to thicken the stew.

Stir in the cod and spinach until cooked. Top with a thread of good olive oil.

Seems like the author of the article forgot that part of Euskal Herria is currently (and illegally) occupied by France, so "technically", Basque cuisine could be considered as French cuisine according to her. This is why people need to understand that Basques are not Spaniards nor French, it is actually quite simple, they are Basques.

Also, Iruñea (known as Pamplona) is located in Euskal Herria, so technically, the one with the name Pamplona is a Basque restaurant too.

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