Marmitako (“from the pot”) is a classic Basque stew of tuna and potatoes that evolved on fishing boats. In typical fashion, just about all of the ingredients (apart from the fish) are New World imports; Basques were early and enthusiastic adopters of the potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes (and corn, and beans, and chocolate, and pretty much everything that returned with Columbus) and they quickly became indispensable components of the cuisine. Despite the seeming similarity with Italian preparations, the flavor is not at all Italian, due mostly to the peppers. The use of green bell pepper in the soffrito, piquillo peppers in the stew, and a finishing dust with piment d’Espelette all give this dish (and many others) a uniquely Iberian and specifically Basque slant that’s instantly recognizable.
Basques are also famous for their culinary flexibility and improvisation, which is a good thing, because I had Marmitako on the brain and was short a couple of major ingredients. First off, we had swordfish instead of tuna. This turned out to be better than OK, since the sweet, nutty flavor was an excellent match with the stew. And lacking piquillo peppers–which are easily found online, roasted, in jars–I used a couple of dried ancho pods instead, supplemented with a fat pinch of pimentón for some smoky depth. The rest was pretty standard: sautée onion in olive oil, add dried pepper, garlic, and some herbs, then sliced fingerling spuds and busted-up canned tomatoes with enough water to cover for a simmer. Once approaching tender, I added cubed fish, chiffonaded kale (nutrition trumps tradition) and let it simmer a few minutes more to firm up the fish. Then I took it off the heat and let it sit, covered, for about 15 minutes to marry the flavors.
The totally out-of-season ingredients made it but a pale imitation of what the real thing should taste like, and I plan to do this again in September when all of our very own personal nightshades are resplendently ripe and sweet. But having said that, this was very tasty and satisfying on a cold evening– all the more so for having used only one pot and taken about 40 minutes, including the 15 minute rest before serving.
I recently did a ton of research on Basque food for another gig, and it’s nice to have all the reading finally begin to work its way into actual cooking. Never having been there, it’s a slower process of assimilating ingredients, flavors and techniques into my regular practice, but it’s happening. We had our vaguely Basque-themed dinner a few weeks ago, there’s some salt cod in the fridge, and I’ve been messing around with the Espelette pepper recently, combining it with other spices with a nefarious purpose in mind. That post is just about ready. Don’t touch that dial.
Actually, if you need a break from frantically battering the refresh button on this page you could do worse than to read Jonny’s excellent post about hake in green sauce, another Basque standard.
Last week I went to a dinner and brought a nice apple tart. The brilliant, perfect crust I learned from my Grandmother, local apples, and a glaze made from apricot jam, honey, and local apple brandy were the whole thing, though I dusted it with 5-spice and a twist of black pepper before sliding it into the oven. It’s really all about the crust, and secondly about not oversweetening the fruit. Thinner is better; a slice held pizza-style by the outer edge should remain perfectly flat all the way to the point, even allowing for impassioned gesticulation without any deformation. Letting the fruit taste like fruit is the other key. Rolling the pastry out thin also obviates the need for blind-baking, so there’s that bonus as well. Thick, covered pies have their place, but it’s not often I eat one that’s much better than decent. Most of them are sickly sweet, starch-thickened disasters that make my teeth hurt while I’m eating them. A tart like this, though, is a thing of beauty, a timeless classic.
Notwithstanding the ebbs and flows of the kitchen modifications–three major steps crossed off the list (hood/backsplash, counter/sink, tile) with no major fuck-ups so far–I’ve managed to keep a working kitchen through most of it. We’ve had some takeout, true, but it’s been due more to abject fatigue than lack of functionality. And tonight, to celebrate the beautiful new Moroccan tile, we had some friends over to admire it, since they’re in the process of redoing their kitchen as well and they wanted to take a look at our sexy, sexy counters.
And they brought a chicken.
So we spatchcocked it, rubbed it, and roasted it, and served it with their pressure-cooked burdock and some steamed kabocha, sautéed collards, gravy, and it was freaking delicious. But what I want to talk about is the first course. We had a dozen oysters lurking in the fridge from last week’s order, but I hadn’t gotten to them yet (see above) and also because I had this idea and I needed a bit of time to get it together. See, I also still had the rest of the whey left from the cheesemaking, and that got me thinking about chowder, naturally, and so I curdled, simmered, and strained it to make a whopping two tablespoons of ricotta, which I ate. Then I took the resulting liquid and strained it through paper towels twice until it was truly clear and pale yellow.
I shucked the oysters and strained their liquor through a fine sieve into the whey and added the last four ice cubes of fish stock from the halibut skeleton we’d received as a gift last fall. I very gently poached the oysters in this, and then added in finely diced carrot, fennel stalk, and endive that I’d caramelized a bit with minced lardo in a pan until just tender. I let this all simmer barely for another minute or two, and then ladled it into bowls. The result was a sort of translucent chowder; there was the dairy richness of the whey, the cured pork element from the lardo (but not the overwhelming power of bacon) and the toothsome and colorful vegetables for sweetness and complexity, all in service of these gorgeous, plump, briny oysters. It was a lovely dish. Potato would have made it a bit more traditional, but I left them out for no particular reason; they just seemed like they’d be too heavy. As it was, the oyster liquor clouded my painstakingly clarified whey, so you can’t see these beautiful Wellfleet bivalves in their frilly splendor. But they’re in there, lurking below the surface like fat little dumplings. Next time I’ll strain it all one more time after combining.
The scallion garnish was more than mere decoration; it added a bright, alliumaceous tang that set off the oysters excellently. A little more tinkering, and this could be a thing.
Tonight I’m going out, so I made a quick dinner for the family: a kind of variation on saag paneer using tofu in place of the cheese. To compensate, though, I cooked the chard (and the last spoon of pesto) along with half an onion and spices in about two cups of whey to add stealth cheesiness and play wonderfully with the similarly tangy taste of the tofu. I puréed the greens and then added cubed tofu which I’d browned and seasoned beforehand, then let it all simmer for a bit to thicken and get acquainted.
Last night was a good one for soup, and we still had one last bit of thin-sliced Berkshire pork belly in the freezer, so the rest followed pretty naturally. A combination of fish and chicken stocks made the base, and I added wakame, pesto, and finely grated turnip to enrich and thicken it. Before cooking the udon, I blanched carrots and broccoli separately in the boiling water. Assembled with a dollop of homemade sambal and a sprinkle of togarashi, it was a handsome bowl of dinner that went very well with the better part of a growler of Gilded Otter IPA left over from my grueling research on local microbrews (see previous post).
Regular readers might be growing weary of the endless parade of noodle soups, and to them I say the following: this one was kinda different, on account of it had pesto in it, and big bowls like this are good in the winter, and I’m lazy/tired/short on time these days. And honestly, if you’re a regular reader of this drivel let’s face it: another post about noodle soup is the least of your problems.
The new Chronogram is out, with my rigorously scientific analysis of local microbreweries contained inside like the prize in a cereal box, or the toy in a happy meal, or the worm in a bottle of Mescal.
photo by Jennifer May