You’d think the longer a chef has cooked, the more elaborate the chef’s recipes might be. But that’s not the case.
“The longer you cook, the more you start taking away stuff,” says Alexandra Raij, author of the new cookbook The Basque Book. In fact, the concept of cooking food at its most elemental state is what drew the American-born Raij to the food of the Basque Country in the first place. “In an era where garnishes and condiments are often a substitute for substance,” she writes in her book, “Basque cooking stands out as a cuisine of subtraction, where fancy embellishment is stripped away…until you are left with the essence of an ingredient.”
Alex, who owns the Basque restaurant Txikito in New York with her husband Eder Montero, stopped into Williams-Sonoma headquarters to cook us lunch, and over traditional Basque staples like marinated red peppers and blistered shishitos, we talked to her about mystique of Basque cuisine, how it’s different from the Spanish food we already know, and why Americans should be eating more of it right now.
When you hear the words “Basque cuisine,” what comes to mind?
Alexandra Raij: A Basque person would say plainness and austerity, because it’s really unencumbered food. It’s not adorned, but it still has a lot of personality—like them. The food looks like the landscape, and the landscape looks like the food, and the flag looks like the food. Everything is red, green, and white.
Why should people know more about this cuisine right now?
AR: There’s no better time to explore Basque cooking, because it just reinforces things that people are embracing now: Meat as a condiment. Having an egg as a meal. Paying $15 per pound for a bean like you would a tenderloin. It’s very egalitarian.
Basques, in general, really love restaurants. It’s a privilege everyone is expected to be able to enjoy. People eat the same from every economic strata. They place such a high sense of entitlement in eating well. They have high restaurants and low restaurants, but they don’t have a high cuisine and a low cuisine. That’s Basque.
In your book, you talk about Basque cuisine having a very specific mystique. How so?
AR: It’s in that search to please yourself as a cook, and please the people you love, but to be incredibly modest at the same time. Which doesn’t mean you don’t have an ego—you just don’t want to express it in a way that anyone would notice—but you’re still trying to satisfy yourself, and you’ll go that extra mile. Sometimes it’s just how much you break the egg in the Russian salad. Are you the person who wants it neatly sliced on the top, or do you want it to be really mashed in there? Is something a garnish, or is it folded in to become one? That’s part of how you show your style.
What’s the biggest difference between Basque cuisine and overall Spanish cooking?
AR: Most of the cuisines of Spain I would categorize as Mediterranean cuisines, and the Basque cuisine is not Mediterranean. That’s the biggest difference for me. They use a lot of olive oil in Basque cooking, but that’s where the similarities end. We don’t use a lot of saffron, but people equate saffron with Spanish food. It’s that Moorish and Jewish legacy in Spanish cooking. I think that really shows through in the other cuisines of Spain, with the exception of maybe Galician. And it definitely has a lot of French influence.
Basque food falls into two categories: food you eat in public, and food you eat behind closed doors. How are they different?
AR: In public, tapas are one or two bites, and you eat them standing up. Then at home, people tend to eat more simply, more like straight product—they’ll slice a piece of ham and have a piece of bread, and it’s almost just nourishing yourself. If you’re making it for your family, fish a la espalda (butterflied). You would never eat a whole fish standing up. Or, around Christmastime, people really make a big deal: whole fish, oysters, clams, the whole nine yards.
You also wrote about the Basque idea that meals don’t require a meat, a starch and a vegetable—and that, if something’s in season, it’s totally acceptable to eat it many times a day.
AR: Sometimes it’s in one meal, like we did today: pepper, pepper, pepper and more pepper. The last time I was in Spain, it was mushroom season, and I had porcini five different ways at one restaurant. They were so proud! They cooked them dry on the plancha, with the fins still in them, confited them—but they’d never call it a mushroom tasting menu. It’s just what you’re eating in the moment.
What’s the most important thing to keep in mind when making Basque food?
AR: Pay attention to the point. The point of cooking is really important. If you’re going to make a fish, have people waiting for the fish rather than the fish waiting for people. Make a bunch of things that can sit at room temperature—which there are so many of in the book—and then just bring out the fish when it’s ready.
The other things is to probably cook your vegetables further than you’re used to thinking about cooking vegetables. Cook your onions until you can’t taste that sulfur anymore. To me, it’s more important to cook off the sulfur in an onion than it is to cook off the alcohol in wine. The alcohol in wine will cook off naturally and turn to vapor if your heat is high enough, but the vapors in the onion won’t cook off unless you cook them gently and slowly.
Even when you’re cooking something that cooks quickly, you have to have patience in that process. Which is nice, because it makes you slow down. If it’s something like an egg, take a minute to chip away at that part of the white that never gets properly cooked around the yolk, and splash some oil in there to get that lacey golden. It’s doing something nice for yourself.
What’s one thing everybody should make from the book?
AR: Make the pimientos riojanos, the roasted red peppers (Ed. Note: recipe below). I really like that recipe because I feel like people have abandoned red peppers lately; they’ve got ate way of sun-dried tomatoes, because people are buying the Trader Joe’s ones. Just because it’s in a can and cooked doesn’t mean it’s been completely cooked, so poach your peppers in oil again.
Roasted Red Peppers with Oil-Cured Anchovies (Pimientos Riojanos)
Serves 4 to 6
The sweetest, pepperiest, purest pepper you will ever have: That’s what Rioja Alavesa, the Basque region of Rioja where pimientos riojanos are grown, wants you to remember when you leave. That’s exactly what you will take away from this dish, which I hope will forever change the way you roast peppers and think of singular flavors. I have been chasing this flavor all the way from Rioja to this dish; for me, it’s every bit an amazing reflection of terroir as the Tempranillo grape with a little Garnacha and Graciano in it. And the best part is that I can make it at home. When you’re buying the red bell peppers called for here, choose bells that are large and meaty looking and feel heavy for their size. Once you have roasted and peeled the peppers, don’t worry if a few black bits of skin are still clinging to them.
12 roasted red bell peppers (recipe below)
Extra-virgin olive oil, for coating and to cover
2 cloves garlic, smashed
8 to 12 olive oil-packed anchovy fillets
Using your fingers, pull the roasted peppers apart into thirds. Place the pepper pieces in a small saucepan, add oil to cover and the garlic, and season with salt. Gently heat the oil to a bare simmer and poach the peppers slow and low for 10 minutes, until silky and flavorful. Remove from the heat, remove the garlic, and let cool in the oil.
Carefully drain the peppers, reserving the oil. At this point, the peppers can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 1 month. Store the oil in a separate container in the refrigerator. Bring the peppers and oil to room temperature or warmer before serving.
To serve, place the peppers on a plate, drizzle with some of their oil, and drape the anchovies on top.
Roasted Peppers (Pimientos Asados)
Makes 2 peppers
Sweet red peppers—jarred, stuffed, or topped—are a hallmark of Basque cooking. The flavor of wood-fired peppers in their own liquor is sweet and assertive, not unlike the Basques themselves.
2 bell peppers
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon kosher salt
Preheat the oven to 500°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Cut the bottom and the stem end off of each bell pepper, then seed the peppers. In a large bowl, toss the peppers with the oil and salt to coat evenly. Stand the peppers on the prepared baking sheet and roast, rotating the pan back to front at the halfway point, for 20 to 25 minutes, until the skins char and the flesh is tender.
Remove the peppers from the oven, place in a metal bowl, and cover with plastic wrap. When the peppers are cool enough to handle, peel them, discarding the skin and saving any juices that have collected at the bottom of the bowl for another use. Store refrigerated for up to 1 week.
Reprinted with permission from The Basque Book by Alexandra Raij with Eder Montero and Rebecca Flint Marx, copyright © 2016, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
Photographs copyright © 2016 by Penny De Los Santos
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