A bite of Basque country

To really introduce someone to the wonders of Basque cooking, first I’d wax on for a while about one of the true delicacies and taste bud-teases of that world, angulas.

I’d have to describe their silken texture as they slip into the mouth from a wooden fork. Then their tiny sizzle, as they nestle in very hot, heavily garlicked olive oil stung with a bright red chile of the region, after being parboiled with water and sherry vinegar.

But then I’d have to tell you that these 4-inch long, ivory-toned (sometimes with a bit of black on one side, the best) noodle-like treats are elvers, a word you may not know unless you’re a crossword solver. It’s the English word for baby eels.

And then a majority of you would stop reading, repulsed, and not finish my exhortation to explore this largely accessible and familiar, but unique, style of eating — the best the earth has to offer.

You could almost call it a national cuisine, but the Basques — who’ve existed for uncounted centuries where France and Spain, and the rugged Cantabrian and Pyrenees mountains, meet on the Bay of Biscay — have still not quite claimed total freedom from the oppressions of Generalissimo Francisco Franco. In 1937, the fascist bastard tried banning Basque language and culture, and it took decades for this stubborn people to reclaim their independence — most of it. The occasional car bomb still reminds the Spanish that they have to let go.

They have exceptional foodstocks to choose from, and because most Basques live either by the sea or in the mountains, fish and lamb figure prominently. Of the huge assortment of seafood available to them, cod — specifically salt-cured cod — has a special place. Ancient Basque mariners were so successful at whaling that they sailed farther and farther into the Atlantic, and finally to the North Atlantic, where they encountered a dense cod population of those icy waters.

They stuff roasted, sweet red peppers with seasoned, mashed salt cod (soaked in chill water for a night or two to de-salt); they cook it in stews and over open fires; they sauté it with garlic and onions in olive oil, swirling the pan almost continuously to gently work the skin’s gelatin into the other ingredients for a smooth pan sauce; they simmer it with chiles and young spuds for a warm potato salad.

But they also handle tender lamb, some beef, and poultry with the same unique aromatics, almost always including a little or a lot of piment d’Espelette, the powdered slow-roasted red chile of the region.

It’s a rustic but refined, fully realized, largely unique cuisine that’s fairly easy for the home cook to approximate — so long as the very freshest ingredients are used. Most of what’s needed is available in metro Detroit, even some of the obscure spices. I’ve used Gerald and Cameron Hirigoyen’s The Basque Kitchen: Tempting Food from the Pyrenees as my reference for several years, and haven’t tired of the book yet.

Pick it up if any of this sounds interesting. If you want to give it a try first, I’ve adapted one of its recipes, relatively easy and with the true taste of Basque country.


Poulet Basquaise

Serves 4

One 5-pound chicken
Flour for dredging
1/2 cup olive oil
4-1/2 ounces thickly sliced pancetta, coarsely chopped
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
3 large red bell peppers, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
10 garlic cloves, crushed
6 medium tomatoes, cored and coarsely chopped
1 bouquet garni (2 sprigs each of fresh parsley and thyme, and 2 bay leaves, tied in a small bundle with kitchen string)
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1/4 teaspoon piment d’Espelette

1. Quarter the chicken, saving the back for soup or stock. Lightly dredge the quarters in flour.

2. Warm 1/4 cup olive oil in a large saucepan on medium-high. Working in batches, sauté the chicken with the pancetta long enough to brown the chicken on both sides, about 5 minutes per batch. Remove ingredients from pan and set aside.

3. Discard any remaining fat in the pan, replace it on medium-high, then add the remaining 1/4 cup olive oil, onions, peppers and garlic; sauté for 5 minutes. Return chicken and pancetta to the pan, add remaining ingredients, cover, reduce heat to medium and cook 15-20 minutes. Remove breast pieces and set aside. Cover and cook about 20 minutes more, until thighs are done.

4. Return the breasts to the pan; warm for another 3 to 4 minutes. Toss out the bouquet garni. Serve.

Ric Bohy is Metro Times editor. Send comments to [email protected]
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