Wine Tasting Guided by Pilar García-Granero Makes for a Festive and Illuminating Course Finale

Earlier this month we celebrated the completion of our USAC-BCulinary Club course with a sensational wine-tasting session guided by Pilar Garcia-Granero — wine expert, teacher, Director of the Escuela Navarra de Cata, former president of the Regulatory Board of the Denominación de Origen (D.O.) Navarra and technical coordinator of the Basque Culinary Center’s Máster en Sumillería y Enomarketing.

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Pilar García-Granero presenting wine to the group

I think it’s safe to say that as a group, we were completely captivated by Pilar’s ability to verbalize the layers of flavor contained in our glasses. She encouraged us to recognize and classify our tasting sensations as she masterfully and elegantly led by example — swirling, smelling, swishing, sipping, savoring….

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Learning to swirl, smell, swish, sip and savor wine with Pilar García-Granero

First we tasted my favorite beverage from this region: traditional Basque cider. Sagardoa (in Basque), or sidra (in Castillian Spanish), has a low alcohol content (4-6%) and is produced through the natural fermentation, with no added sugars or flavors, of the juices pressed from a variety of native apples.

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Varieties of apples used to make traditional Basque cider, at the Basque Cider Museum – Sagardoetxea

Pilar explained that the apple varieties are selected to carefully balance the final product’s characteristic flavor profile – dry, tart, fresh, vaguely musty, gently fruity, with tones of apple and citrus, and ever so slightly tannin.

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Our cider was produced by the cider house Zapiain in Astigarraga, a town at the heart of the Basque cider-making tradition and home to numerous traditional cider houses, or sagardotegia, as well as the fantastic Basque Cider Museum – Sagardoetxea.

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Learning to make cider at the Sagardoetxea

Pilar showed us how to examine the cider visually in the bottle, observing its characteristic cloudiness and bits of natural sediment, as well as in the glass, noting the golden yellow tones, the opacity, the slight carbonation. She reminded us that if cider is left in the glass without being consumed in the proper “all-at-once” fashion, the color deepens as the cider oxidizes and loses its fresh flavor.

She demonstrated the distinctive cider pour (a thin stream from a height of at least 20 cm and up to a meter) into the appropriate glass (not a wine glass, but a tumbler, typically 12 cm tall and 9 cm wide across the mouth).

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Traditional Basque cider pour; photo from www.seaslugandtheturtle.blogspot

Pliar explained the history of the Txotx, the dramatic tasting ritual of the cider houses during the cider season. From January to April, when the previous year’s cider is ready to be consumed, cider is poured at intervals, when “Txotx!” is called, straight out of the barrels known as kupela.

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Txotx! Photo by Jon Urbe, www.argia.com

Historically cider houses did not serve food, they simply opened their doors to buyers to offer tastings of cider before it was bottled. Buyers would bring their own food items to accompany the cider — walnuts and cheeses, simple salt cod dishes, and, if the cider house was equipped, large cuts of meat and fresh, whole fish to cook over a parrilla, or grill.

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Idiazabal cheese, sweet quince paste and walnuts on a cider-house table; photo from http://www.sabrosia.com/

Eventually the cider houses recognized their opportunity — they conditioned their kitchens, built out their dining halls, and began to offer what is now the celebrated, traditional cider-house meal: a tender salt cod tortilla (omelette), salt cod with sweet green and red peppers and onions, or salt cod al pil pil, an enormous grilled txuletón (aged rib-eye steak) or a whole, grilled fish, and dessert of whole walnuts, Idiazabal cheese and quince paste.

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Enormous steaks awaiting their turn on the grill at Petritegi; photo from http://www.euskoguide.com/

After the cider, we tasted a white txakoli (pronounced “cha-ko-li”) wine, a Getariako Txakolina, D.O., the most widely known type of txakoli.

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Zac and Niko examining the txakoli

The majority of Getariako Txakolina is produced in the coastal towns of Getaria and Zarautz in the Basque province of Gipuzkoa, and there are several vineyards scattered throughout the nearby mountains.

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La Ruta del Txakoli – The Route of Txakoli; click the image to link to an interactive map of Txakoli vineyards, presented by the Regulatory Board of the Getariako Txakolina Denominación de Origen

Pliar explained that here in Gipuzkoa, nearly all txakolis are made from the Hondarrabi Zuri grape, a white grape resulting in a crisp, tart, slightly sparkling wine with a pale greenish-yellow color and a moderate alcohol content (9.5-11.5%).

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Hondarribi Zuri grapes; photo from www.viveroslucea.com.

We learned that there is also a lesser-known red txakoli grape variety in Gipuzkoa, known as Hondarribi Beltza, from which a relatively tiny amount of wine is produced, and that in the Basque province of Bizkaia (Biscay in English), there is a type of txakoli produced from a mix of both red and white grapes. Txakoli wines are also produced on a small scale in the Basque province of Araba/Álava and in the province of Burgos.

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Hondarribi Beltza grapes, photo from www.viveroslucea.com

People usually drink txakoli as an apéritif, before a meal, and often while taking part in a txikiteo (also known as a poteo) — the custom of going from bar to bar with friends, usually in the early evening, to drink small glasses of wine or cider (referred to as txikitos or potes), or small glasses of beer (zuritos), accompanied by small appetizers known as pintxos (in the Basque Country) or as tapas (throughout Spain).

Pilar pointed out that the aromas of our txakoli, immediately after being poured into the glass, were reminiscent of green apples, yet once the wine was agitated and aerated in the glass, the aromas expanded, evoking sweet, golden apples. This wine was a big hit with our group!

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Mia, Brittany, Martiza and Simone examining the txakoli

Next we sampled a pair of Rioja wines made from Tempranillo grapes, the predominant grape of the Rioja region to the south of (and slightly overlapping with, in the province of Álava) the Basque Country.

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Map of the Rioja wine regions; image from http://www.riojawine.com

Pilar talked about the four major Rioja wine styles (Rioja, Crianza, Rioja Reserva and Rioja Gran Reserva), their technical definitions and their overall characteristics. This Wine Folly piece also does a great job.

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Rioja wine styles defined and average prices in US$; image from www.winefolly.com

First we sampled a young Rioja wine, characteristically aged under two years, with little or no time in oak barrels, and with a relatively high alcohol content of 13.5%.

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Niko pouring himself a taste of Rioja wine

Thin, fresh and fruity, young Rioja wine is typically enjoyed as a pre-meal apéritif. Traditionally these wines were labelled as vino joven (young wine), though most present-day winemakers label them simply as Rioja.

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Mia pouring herself a taste of Rioja wine

We moved on to a satistfying Crianza. The Spanish word crianza has several meanings: it can refer to the upbringing, nourishment and education of children, to the breeding, care and nourishment of animals, and to the aging and maturing of wines. While vinos jovenes, or young wines, are sometimes referred to as sin crianza, Crianza wines are by definition aged for a minimum of two years, including at least one year in oak barrels, and have an alcohol content of 13-14%.

In comparison to the Rioja we sampled, we found our Crianza to be much fuller bodied, ripe with tears, with deeper flavors of red berries, hints of clove, overtones of oak, and a slower finish.
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Mia, Lauren, Brittany, Maritza, JaNon, Simone and Caroline…pleased with the Crianza!

After our guided tasting with Pilar, we continued our session by exploring how our wines and cider paired with the various components of our pica-pica spread: cured anchovies, olives stuffed with anchovies, guindillas de Ibarra, semi-cured Idiazabal sheep’s milk cheeses (smoked and unsmoked), Cabrales cheese (a rich blue cheese made from cow’s and sheep’s milks), raw local oak forest honeydulce de membrillo (sweet quince paste), bonito tuna with olive oil, walnuts and almonds, pa amb tomàquet.

Some stand-out, classic pairings we enjoyed: txakoli with anchovies and with bonito; Rioja and Crianza with our cheeses, cider with nuts, quince paste, Idiazabal cheese…and a bit of everything with everything!

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Our pica-pica spread

To cap off our evening, students were awarded their certificates for completion of the course. Well done, everyone! Glasses raised to you all! Chin-chin! Zorionak!

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Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!
Zorionak eta Urte Berri On!

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It smells like Thanksgiving, but it looks a little…puffier.

It’s our Pumpkin Pie Pantxineta

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Fresh from the oven in this week’s class, our exuberant Pumpkin Pie Pantxineta; photo by Alexandra Denne

…the fusion of two mythic desserts, one from either side of the Northern Atlantic.

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Pumpkin pie from Brooklyn’s beloved Four & Twenty Blackbirds; photo from newyork.cbslocal.com

Pumpkin pie is a traditional North American favorite during the fall and winter holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas. It is essentially a custard made from sweet pumpkins, baked in an open pie shell, and infused with a characteristic blend of spices, including cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves and allspice. (Proportions of these spices vary, of course, depending on the baker, but this mix from My Baking Addiction nails it as far as I’m concerned.)

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Grinding cloves and allspice to make pumpkin pie spice

Pantxineta, here in Donostia-San Sebastián, is “el dulce de la ciudad” — the sweet of the city — a simple and elegant parcel of puff pastry filled with vanilla custard and topped with almonds. Many believe the original pantxineta recipe was developed by the Otaegui bakery (founded in 1886) during the Spanish Civil War, when other ingredients were scarce…

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Otaegui in the Parte Vieja, Donostia-San Sebastián; photo from www.alpanpanyalvinovino.es

…while in a dishy piece about the history of the pantxineta, a writer from Bilbao explains that José Maria Gorrotxategi, historian, baker and author of  La Historia de la Confitería Vasca, believes the recipe may have originated even before that.

In any case, this investigation has gotten me very excited to visit the Gorrotxategi Confectionary Museum in Tolosa, home to an ethnographic collection of tools — divided into sections including Chocolate, Sponge Cake, Liqueurs and Spirits, Cream and Butter, Honey and Wax, among others — representing centuries of the Basque confectionary tradition. More on that in a future post!

As some students observed in class, several of the traditional Basque desserts we have made — fried cream, pears in wine, rice pudding — have filled our kitchen with a now-familiar aroma profile, combinations of vanilla, lemon peel, orange peel and cinnamon. The classic pantxineta recipe falls right in line.

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The custard for our Pumpkin Pie Pantxineta – finger lickin’ good!

In making this recipe, however, our Pumpkin Pie Pantxineta sent us down a distinct sensory path, filling our kitchen with the pungent, heady fragrances of other times and other places — of crisp autumn days, of the cornucopia of things we are thankful for — as our two iconic desserts reached out and joined hands across the ocean….

PUMPKIN PIE PANTXINETA

Ingredients:

For the pumpkin puree:
1 medium winter squash (best choices: sugar pumpkin, kabocha squash, butternut squash)

For the pastry cream:
800 ml (3 1/3 cups) whole milk
200 ml (1 cup) heavy cream
150 g (2/3 cup) white sugar
4 egg yolks
1 whole egg
65 g (1/2 cup) corn starch, sifted
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
1 lemon, zested in strips
250 g (1 cup) pumpkin puree
3 tsp pumpkin pie spice 

For the pantxineta:
500 g puff pastry (2 sheets)
200 g raw almonds, peeled and chopped
1 whole egg, beaten
Cooled pastry cream
Flour for dusting

Instructions:

1. First, make the pumpkin puree. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C (400 degrees F). Cut the squash in half lengthwise, remove the seeds, and roast it, cut-side down, in a baking dish lined with parchment paper and covered tightly with foil, for about 30 minutes or until very tender. (Don’t add anything – no oil, water, butter, salt, sugar, spices, etc.) Scoop out the flesh and puree it with a hand blender. You can use it right away, or you can refrigerate or freeze it for later use.

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2. Get organized before making your pastry cream! If you’ve never made one before, or have had trouble trying, don’t worry! With a bit of care and the right tools, you can make a smooth and creamy custard with no fear of scrambled eggs or gooey lumps. Be sure you have a sturdy whisk and a heat-resistant rubber spatula.

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Your partners in pastry-cream making: a sturdy whisk and a rubber spatula

3. In a medium saucepan, bring the milk just to a boil with the vanilla bean (seeds and pod), lemon zest and pumpkin pie spice. Lower the heat so the milk is not boiling but remains hot and steaming; allow the milk to infuse for 10 minutes. Stir occasionally to prevent a skin from forming. (If a skin does form, just remove it.) Remove the pod and the zest.

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Infusing the milk with vanilla bean, lemon peel and spices

4. In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the cream and the cornstarch until smooth and set aside.

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Cornstarch and cream whisked together

5. In a large mixing bowl, blanchir the egg yolks, whole egg and sugar by beating with a whisk until pale and creamy. Whisk in the cornstarch mixture.

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Eggs and sugar whisked together until pale and creamy

6. Temper the egg mixture with the hot milk: Slowly pour about 200 ml (about 1 cup) of hot milk into the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Add the remaining hot milk in 3 or 4 additions, whisking constantly. Whisk in the pumpkin puree.

7. Pour the mixture into a clean saucepan and begin heating over medium heat, stirring constantly with the rubber spatula to incorporate any froth and to keep the mixture moving as it comes up to temperature. You may raise the temperature to medium-high, but keep a close eye on it. When the mixture starts to thicken, that is, when you just begin to see some sticky business forming on the spatula, switch from the spatula to the whisk and whisk vigorously as it thickens to achieve a smooth, luscious custard. Once the thickening process begins, it should all take no more than about 3-5 minutes.

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Whisking to form a smooth, creamy custard

8. Pour the custard into a cool, deep tray or platter and cover with plastic wrap, allowing the plastic to touch the surface of the custard to prevent a skin from forming as it cools. Allow to cool.

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Custard cooling in the window; laundry hanging in the rain

9. Make the pantxineta. Preheat the oven to 170ºC. Lightly roll out one sheet of puff pastry and press it into a tart mold like this one. Fill the shell with the cooled pastry cream. Unroll the second sheet of puff pastry and place it directly on top of the mold, trim it and carefully seal the edges where the two layers meet.

Alternately, you can create mini-pantxinetas by cutting circles from the puff pastry. Lay out half of the circles, top each with a spoonful of custard, use beaten egg to paint their borders, top with remaining circles and gently press together.

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Preparing mini-pantxinetas

Brush the surface of the pantxineta(s) with beaten egg, sprinkle with the chopped almonds and bake for approximately 40 minutes until beautifully puffed and golden. Serve warm.

Enjoy! Happy Thanksgiving! On egin!

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Longwood Gardens, Pennsylvania

Recipe: New England-Meets-Basque-Style Clam and Salt Cod Chowder, v. 1.0

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New England-Meets-Basque-Style Clam and Salt Cod Chowder, v. 1.0, 15 November 2013

This recipe — borne out of an aromatic journey down memory lane, through the clam shacks of my childhood, and up to the present day, through the kitchens of the Basque country — combines the essential elements of a New England clam chowder (clams, potatoes, onions and corn in a broth enriched with milk) with several fundamental elements of Basque cuisine: choricero peppers, Pimentón de la Vera, and bacalao.

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Cape Codder Seafood Market, West Yarmouth, Massachusetts, November 2008

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Extracting rehydrated choricero pepper pulp

This chowder is at once hearty and substantial, yet it remains delicate and fragrant, with the flavors of the clams and fish shining through the broth. Just in time for our Basque Thanksgiving feast next week, it strikes a perfect balance for me between what I have known “forever” in my New Englander bones about great chowders, and what I have been absorbing since I came to live on the other side of the Atlantic. I hope you love it too!

NEW ENGLAND-MEETS-BASQUE-STYLE CLAM AND SALT COD CHOWDER, V. 1.0

Ingredients:
2 kilos (4.5 pounds) hard-shell clams, scrubbed and purged
1 kilo (2.2 pounds) rehydrated salt cod, cut into pieces (2.5-5 cm/1-2 inches)
275 g (0.5 pounds) smoked bacon, cut into lardons
4 medium leeks, trimmed and sliced into 1-cm pieces
1 large onion, peeled and diced
6 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
5 medium potatoes, peeled and diced into 1-cm cubes and held in cold water
500 ml (2 cups) whole milk
3 bay leaves
6 black peppercorns
3 sprigs fresh thyme
500 ml (2 cups) dry vermouth
6 grams (1 Tbsp) Pimentón de La Vera
20 grams (1 Tbsp) pulp of rehydrated choricero peppers
350 grams (1 cup) corn kernels, sliced from 2 large cobs, or canned
6 grams (2 Tbsp) fresh chives, finely chopped
3 grams (1 Tbsp) fresh parsley, finely chopped
2 liters (8 cups) white fish stock, heated to a boil and left barely simmering
1 baguette-style loaf of bread, cut into 1-cm slices
1 garlic clove, sliced into paper-thin slices
1 gram (4-5 individual) small, dried cayenne peppers
Freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil

Instructions:
1. Prepare the clams and clam broth. In a large pot combine 175 ml (3/4 cup) of the dry vermouth, 350 ml (1 1/2 cups) of water, 1 bay leaf and 6 peppercorns and bring to a boil. Add the clams, cover, and cook until the clams just open. Move them gently once or twice, taking care not to break their shells. Remove from heat. Remove the clams from the liquid with kitchen tongs and strain the liquid through a fine-mesh strainer into a clean bowl. Shell the clams and reserve them in another small bowl. Discard the shells.

2. Prepare the sofrito. In a large, clean pot, sweat the bacon lardons over medium heat until they begin to render their fat. Then raise the heat slightly and toast them on all sides.

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Bacon lardons

3. Add the onion, leeks and garlic to the pot with the bacon, season with salt and cook over medium heat until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the corn kernels.

4. Add the remaining vermouth and allow it to reduce almost completely. Add the choricero pepper pulp and the pimentón and stir well.

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The sofrito 

5. In another medium pot, combine the milk, thyme, 2 bay leaves and potatoes, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 6 minutes.

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Potatoes simmering in aromatic milk before being added to the chowder pot

6. Add about 1.25 liters (about 5 cups) of the fish stock to the sofrito and bring to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat slightly and add in the mixture of potatoes and milk. Stir well. It is important that the chowder not return to a rapid boil from this point on (to keep the milk from separating), but it should be kept hot, over medium-high heat.

7. Gently incorporate the salt cod and simmer gently until the fish is firm, about 5 minutes. Stir occasionally. Taste. Season with salt and black pepper. Incorporate chopped chives and parsley. Remove the pot from the heat.

8. In a wide, shallow pan, heat a thin layer of olive oil over medium heat, along with the paper-thin slices of garlic and the cayenne peppers. When the garlic begins to just sizzle, add as many slices of bread as will fit in the pan in an even layer and toast them, first on one side then on the other. Remove toasts to a plate and sprinkle with a hint of pimentón. Discard the cayenne peppers.

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Small, dried cayenne peppers (Capiscum spp)

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Chopping chives for finishing the chowder

9. Serve the chowder in wide bowls with two or three toasts nestled right into the broth. Grab a spoon.

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Enjoy! On egin!

An Aromatic Journey to our Recipe for New England-Meets-Basque-Style Clam and Salt Cod Chowder

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Allandale Farm, Brookline, Massachusetts, November 2012

It’s hard not to feel homesick for New England these days, with a chill in the air and Thanksgiving right around the corner, so it’s been with extra spirit that I’ve been working on this recipe — New England-Meets-Basque-Style Clam and Salt Cod Chowder — for an upcoming class, where we’ll prepare a special Basque Thanksgiving feast.

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New England-Meets-Basque-Style Clam and Salt Cod Chowder, v. 1.0, 15 November 2013

It’s been a sweeping, aromatic journey down memory lane, through the clam shacks of my childhood in Massachusetts, with their heaps of steamers and hearty chowders (not to mention their fisherman’s platters and steamed lobsters, but I’ll save those for other dishes!)…

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Steamers at Woodman’s of Essex, Essex, Massachusetts; photo by Michael A. Gardiner in San Diego Food and Travel

…and up to the present day, through the kitchens of the Basque country, with their sweet choricero peppers, smokey Pimentón de la Veraand beloved bacalao, or salt cod. (In Castillian Spanish, bacalao, and in Basque, bakailaoa, also refer more generally to the fish species, Atlantic cod, but in most Basque recipes, it refers to salt cod, unless otherwise indicated as fresh.)

But before we dig into the recipe, let’s get a better handle on chowder. According to Merriam-Webster, a chowder is “a thick soup or stew made of seafood or corn with potatoes and onions and milk or tomatoes.”

Where I come from, the region of New England, the king of all chowders is the clam chowder. Across individual states in the region, people have very strong opinions about (many things, including) what makes a good, authentic clam chowder, and these opinions vary quite definitively. (Varieties of clams also vary across the region, and specific, highly local clam-based recipes abound, as described in a wonderful 1986 piece by Florence Fabricant in the New York Times.)

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Shuckers Raw Bar, Woods Hole, Massachusetts, November 2011

Perhaps the widest known of the clam chowders is the New England-style clam chowder, revered in the more northern states of Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. It is essentially clams and potatoes in a clam broth thickened with milk or cream and sometimes with flour and/or oyster crackers. Up north, people generally prefer it thick and creamy. It might have something to do with the long, cold winters.

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Winter window, Gloucester, Massachsetts, December 2011

But head a bit south and things change. Rhode Islanders like their clam chowder broth clear, with no milk or cream. Simply delicious. New Yorkers (just below New England) like it translucent but red, with tomatoes, and the same goes for many folks in Connecticut (though not universally, as traditional New England-style chowders and hybrids also abound).

This is unsettling for the folks up north. Most Mainers can’t bear the thought of tomatoes in a clam chowder. In her NY Times piece, Fabricant reminds us, “In Maine in 1939 a bill was introduced in the legislature making it illegal to add tomatoes to the chowder.” Strong opinions indeed.

My strong opinion is that a great clam chowder should have a hint of creaminess in its body, to suspend the flavors in place, as my husband put it, but that creaminess should never go so far as to mask the glories of the broth. And if tomatoes join the party in the pot, we’re heading out of chowder territory and toward the Portuguese and Italian seafood stews also beloved along the New England coast.

I love this recipe; it’s what I look for in a chowder — it’s at once hearty and substantial, yet it remains delicate and fragrant, and the flavors of the clams and fish come shining through. Just in time for our Basque Thanksgiving feast, it strikes a perfect balance for me between what I have known “forever” in my New Englander bones about great chowders, and what I have been absorbing since I came to live on the other side of the Atlantic. I hope you love it too!

Recipe: New England-Meets-Basque-Style Clam and Salt Cod Chowder, v. 1.0

Highlights from This Week’s Class – A Cephalopod Ode, the Pleasures of Peppers, Working with Heat and Time…

A productive night it was in our cozy kitchen in the BCulinary Club at the Basque Culinary Center. Our dishes — Riojan-style Potatoes with Chorizo and Pork Ribs, Salt Cod in Pil Pil Sauce with Piquillo Peppers, and Pears in Wine — were a comforting antidote to the day’s orange-alert level winds and rains.

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Potatoes a-stewstewin’, pears a-poachpoachin’ and piquillos a-chupchupin’.

One of the night’s highlights was an impromptu performance of a sweet ditty about cephalopods. (Hopefully next week, when we prepare our Galician-style Octopus with Potatoes, we’ll catch a repeat performance on video!)

Speaking of cephalopods, who knew that the world just celebrated International Cephalopod Awareness Days? In a future post, Brittany will offer some insights about the biology and behaviour of these tremendous (and usually delicious) creatures, the most intelligent invertebrates on the planet!

And speaking of tremendous ocean creatures, soon we’ll also have a closer look at cod and cod fishing practices in the Basque Country and in other parts of the world, including some perspective from Zac, who fishes commercially with his brother out of (my home state of) Massachusetts!

In class this week, we had a chance to get better acquainted with two very special varieties of peppers ubiquitous in Basque cuisine – dried pimientos choriceros (central flavor elements of our Sukalki and last night’s Riojan-style Potatoes recipes)…

…and roasted pimientos del piquillo (that we poached in olive oil with garlic to make the garnish for our Salt Cod in Pil Pil Sauce).

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Roasted piquillos ready to be poached in olive oil with garlic for our garnish.

Piquillo peppers are primarily grown in the Basque province of Navarra, where they have their own Designation of Origen (D.O.) as Piquillos de Lodosa. The are traditionally fire-roasted and peeled by hand. Here you can have a closer look at the process.

We compared the prepared, bottled flesh (“carne“) of rehydrated choricero peppers (tasty)… Screen Shot 2013-11-06 at 11.33.47 PM …to the carne we removed ourselves from whole, rehydrated peppers (very tasty!).

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JaNon meticulously extracting the goodness from our rehydrated peppers.

We made a hefty sofrito to get our potatoes started on the right path…

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Sofriendo el sofrito.

…and we took advantage of our heavenly pork rib broth to round out the dish. (A few of us even slurped down the vegetables leftover from the broth! Not naming names….)

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Zac and Niko carefully straining the broth into the potatoes.

We honed our paring skills, peeling pears for our dessert…

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Painstakingly Preparing Pears for Poaching in Port and other Pleasing comPonents.

…and finally, as our night drew to a close and our appetites escalated, we prepared our Salt Cod in Pil Pil Sauce — a storied Basque dish whose preparation highlights one of my favourite insights about good cooking:

To cook well, one must not only be capable of a series of basic techniques (please check out Amanda Gold‘s great article, 10 Techniques Every Cook Should Know), but one must develop a deep understanding of what Harold McGee calls the invisible ingredient in every kitchen: HEAT. And, I would add, of the particular relationship between HEAT and TIME that applies to any given preparation.

(This is a topic I hope to explore in a future post. Memories of line cooking and kitchen multi-tasking, the little voices in my head [familiar to anyone who’s ever cooked professionally!] constantly chattering: “How hot is that?” “How long has that been in/on there?” “That’s too hot!” “That needs to come up to temperature!” “The pan must be smoking hot!”)

So what about our salt cod? All this to say, our cod was delicious, and our sauce was full of cod-garlic-cayene-olive oil flavor… DSC_0173 …but we did NOT successfully work the magic of creating a true Pil Pil sauce (a creamy emulsion derived from the protein-rich juice, or gelatin, that the cod exudes as it slowly poaches in warm oil), because the process, of course, is NOT magic, it’s SCIENCE, and, quite simply, the oil was too warm to properly emulsify our protein! Cook and learn. Learn and cook. We’ll try again, though. Elkarrekin. Cooking and learning together. And next time we won’t wait until we’re so hungry! Until then, On Egin!

Class Tomorrow! Fending off the Chill…

I am looking forward to class tomorrow! The temperatures have been dropping, and the rain has begun. No better place to be than in the kitchen, I say.

We’ll steam up the windows and warm our whiskers making several dishes that appear on Basque tables throughout the year, but that are particularly suited to these first days of the rainy season, when one can’t help but be reminded that more rain falls on average here than in any other region of Spain.

Our first recipe — Rioja-style Potatoes with Pork Ribs (recipe posts coming soon!) — is a dish typical of the Rioja region, most of which lies just south of the Basque Country, except for the Rioja-Alavesa sub-region, a small piece of the Rioja that overlaps with the Basque Country. This hearty dish starts with a full-bodied sofrito, it incorporates potatoes that are “chipped” through a special technique we will learn called cascar, and it comes together as a complex, earthy stew through the additions of Riojan chorizo, white wine, pork ribs and broth.

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Paola helping test the recipe

Our second recipe — Salt Cod in Pil Pil Sauce with Piquillo Peppers — is one of the most emblematic of all Basque dishes. It is as simple as it is fascinating to prepare, with a technique that originated in the cazuelas of early Basque cod fishermen, as their boats rocked and swayed on the oceans.

Our third recipe — Pears in Red Wine — is a dessert known throughout Spain, particularly in the northern regions. As the pears poach, the aromas of sweet wines and spices will undoubtedly fill our kitchen with cheer as we look forward to the chilly weeks ahead, cooking elkarrekin. On egin! 

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Pears in Wine

First Things First: The Sofrito

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Let’s start with the base, the foundation, the essence of countless dishes across Spain’s many regions: the sofrito, as it is known in Castilian Spanish. The most typical Spanish sofrito is made from onion, green pepper, garlic, tomato and olive oil, yet there are many variations, depending on the region and on the dish the sofrito is destined for, from rich meaty stews to delicate seafood rices to hearty vegetable and legume soups.

The Catalan sofregit, beautifully explained in Coleman Andrews’ book, Catalan Cuisine, is perhaps the oldest known variation, having appeared in the Libre de Sent Soví (c. 1324), an anonymously authored medieval recipe book. Today sofregit is typically made from just onion, tomato and olive oil; however, Andrews points out, before the sixteenth century, when tomatoes were first brought to Spain from the Americas, the earliest sofregits were usually made even more simply, from onion and olive oil.

Across the Spanish regions, some sofritos incorporate additional aromatics (vegetables, herbs and spices) such as leek, bay leaf, paprika, salt pork, or bacon, but the basic principle is the same: elements are finely chopped and slowly sweated in olive oil over low heat to concentrate their flavors into an intense, viscous base that is then built upon, in the same pot or pan, to create a dish. In some instances, a sofrito is made and then stirred into a separately cooked element of a dish.

During the first two sessions of our class in the BCulinary Club at the Basque Culinary Center, we created several distinct sofritos. We sweated onion and garlic in olive oil for our Hake in Salsa Verde with Clams (Merluza en Salsa Verde con Almejas). To make Sukalki (Vizcayan Beef Stew), we created a base from red onion, garlic, leek, turnip and carrot. For our Creamy Rice with Squid in its Ink (Arroz Meloso con Calamares en su Tinta), our classic sofrito was made from onion, pepper, garlic and tomato. One of my students posted some great pictures and a fun overview of our experience making the Creamy Rice in her blog based on her semester here in the Basque Country. Here she is, working the rice!

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Beyond the sofrito, similar preparations of sweated aromatics form the foundations of cuisines around the world. The Portuguese refogado is nearly identical to the typical Spanish sofrito; the French mirepoix consists of onion, carrot and celery (similar to the Italian soffritto); Cajun and Louisiana Creole cuisines have their “holy trinity” of bell pepper, onion and celery; and many Indian dishes are built from a base of ginger, garlic and onion.

Many other cuisines rely on specific aromatics that are combined (but not necessarily diced and sweated) to form characteristic flavor profiles. Thai cuisine is perfumed by its kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass and galangal, and Greek cuisine by its garlic, oregano and lemon. There are many other examples, and great resources to explore on the subject, including this post at The City Cook and this post at Foodista.

This week we’ll be busy sweating another sofrito as we make Rioja-style Potatoes with Pork Ribs (Patatas a la Riojana con Costilla de Cerdo). Here’s a taste! On Egin!

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