August means that the good stuff starts showing up in quantity out in the garden. It’s the season for all the shiny tomatoes and peppers, and fat potatoes, and glossy eggplants in white, lavender, and midnight purple. The basil is rocketing skyward. Even in this year of half-assed planting and rodent ravage, there’s still a ton of food out there. It makes dinner so effortless.
The Basques have been seafaring explorers since before recorded history. There’s evidence of Basque settlers in Newfoundland long before Columbus arrived; they traded with Vikings, who taught them about George’s Bank, centuries before the age of exploration. As a function of this curiosity, and also their profound cultural passion for food in all its forms, they were early and enthusiastic adopters of all the crops that came back from the Americas, especially the nightshades; tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes became fundaments of their cuisine.
So when the good stuff starts coming in, my thoughts wander to Basque food. And when such thoughts coincide with a blessedly cool spell, then I get to make stewy things that anticipate the rich comforts of fall but nimbly avoid excess weight. I wanted to make marmitako, the classic Basque tuna stew, but I didn’t have time to go out and get tuna. There was a duck breast that needed eating, so I used that instead.
Since duck is best rare, though, I made the stewy part without it and just fanned slices out on top. To begin, I scored and seared the breast, then removed it. I used some of the rendered fat to soften a soffrito of red pepper, onion, celery, and garlic, then added potatoes and carrots plus a generous shake of smoked paprika. Once everything was browned, I added three ears’ worth of corn kernels, cider vinegar, and a little stock and covered it so everything could cook through.
Not perfectly traditional, sure, but then the great genius of the cuisine has always been a willingness to experiment and remix based on what’s available. We did wash it down with a very nice Basque rosé, for added authenticity: the 2011 Ameztoi Rubentis Txakolina. Most Txakoli is white, and made from the white Hondarribi Zuri grape, but they blend in some juice from the red Hondarribi Beltza as well. Gently effervescent low (10.5%) alcohol, delicately berry-scented, and vibrantly acidic, it was an excellent foil for the summer stew and meat.