Posted by: tomciocco | June 1, 2008

A VIRTUAL VOYAGE TO EUSKADI

Even to a “lapsed Catholic” like me, eating fish on Fridays still seems like the right thing to do somehow. And you’ve got to think that since there are still lots of other folks that also keep this tradition, (at least here in the NJ/NY area) that you’re more likely to see better fish on Friday. Well, maybe not necessarily, but since fish mongers do sell more fish on Fridays than any other day, the chances of getting something that’s been helping to create a seafood snow cone are definitely lower… 

The Basque Country (“Euskadi” or “Euzkadi” in the Basque language, Euskal) is a very Catholic country, and the Basques may be THE best fish cooks in Europe, so maybe subconsciously I made these connections to a fishy Friday dinner (though there was another element as we shall see), but by any means that’s the way I went.

Here’s how the menu got chipped from the blank…I had always wanted to make a batch of the classic Basque fish dish bacalao a la vizcaina (Biscayne-style salt cod) . I have eaten it on many occasions in restaurants both here in the U.S. and in the Basque Country, but one element had always put a kink in actually carrying out the plan at home…Bacalao a la Vizcaina is a baked fish dish generously napped with a long-cooked and strained or pureed sauce of peppers, tomatoes, onions, garlic, et al. The usual hurdle for most cooks are the peppers. Though Ancho chiles make a fair substitute, the Choricero  pepper is truly the lynchpin of this dish. As you might be able to glean from the name, this particular pod is the same one used in making chorizo sausages, but despite the ubiquity of chorizos both good and bad, the peppers that get ground and stuffed into those casings are sadly very scarce, even here in NJ/NY.

Recently however I had gotten wind of a place in NYC called Despana (“tilda” over the “N”) – Visit them here: http://www.despanabrandfoods.com/ This great little shop’s original location is found in Jackson Heights, Queens, but the one I visited is at 408 Broome Street (between Lafayette and Centre) in Manhattan. This location is just as much chic sandwich shop as it is Spanish larder, but most of what one would expect to find in such a place is here…So I’m guessing that by now you’ve figured out that Despana had the choriceros? If there is still any doubt, Despana had the choriceros, but I didn’t buy them…WHAAAAAAT?

Let me specify…When I got there and asked after said peppers, one of the  workers showed me both a plump bag of dried choriceros (which is what I expected to leave with) but then also pulled down a small glass jar of a very high quality choricero paste (though not explicitly labeled as such). Being that I had had to jump a few trains and walk a good ways to get there, and had to do the same in reverse (tick, tick, tick), after careful examination and consideration, I opted for the paste. What won me over (aside from the time factor) are the double factors of that the paste was made in a little town in Guipuzcoa province, and that the one and only content of the jar was peppers…Here’s a photo of the jar:

 

As I alluded to above, there was another immediate “material” reason for these particular dishes on this particualr day. Months ago I had special ordered a case of an EXCEEDINGLY rare RED Txakoli (a.k.a. Chacoli) wine, and I was down to my last bottle – smoke ’em if you got ’em!

Many of you might be familiar with the tart and fizzy WHITE Txakoli wine that is THE match with the plethora of pintxos (tapas) for which the Basques are so famous (BTW, the photo on the blog’s header is a shot of me taken by my wife Jennifer at a pintxos bar in Donostia (San Sebastian), Euskadi (Spain)), but few know that red Txakoli even exists, fewer have tried it, and even fewer still actually like it, but more on that a bit later…

The main grape(s) that comprise Txakoli wines are the exceedingly strangely monikered Hondarribi zuri and Hondarribi beltza varieties (along with Folle Blanche and another Basque-named grapes Txori Mahatsa, Izkiriota, and Izkiriota Ttippia [sic!] that may have more common and pronounceable aliases). In Basque “zuri” means white, and “beltza” means black, so clearly the former vine’s berries are white-skinned and the latter vine’s are black. There is some notion that Honadarribi zuri is none other than than the rare SW French variety called Courbu, and that Hondarribi belzta is the nearly extinct Courbu Noir. Others postulate that the Hondarribi family is the result of a very old hybridization of vitis vinifera wine grapes and some other less domesticated vitis species, but the genetic jury is still out on this matter…This particular wine, called Gorrondona, is extra special because it is made from the fruit of 100-150 year vines that sit right on the sea in the town of Bakio in Bizkaia province. The wine is imported by the very cool De Maison Selections – read more about the producer of Gorrondona here: http://www.demaisonselections.com/gorrondona.html Here’s a couple of photos and my tasting notes on this wonderful oddity:

 

Gorrondona Bizkaiko Txakolina 2005

Very deep cimson/purple color. Intense and fascinatingly rustic nose of blackberries, sap, pencil lead, rose, violet, sea brine, and kirsch liquor. The palate is quite big and well-structured with flavors of soy sauce, black licorice, apples, and wild, meaty flavors in a pulpy texture. The wine a has a nice balance of zippy acidity and grippy tannins. I think this a wonderful wine, but it’s definitely not for everyone, and I dare say that some will find it downright repugnant. Probably the way it should be.   

So the final menu ran as follows:

APPETIZER: I threw together a Basque-inspired salad of tuna, Great Northern beans (called “pochas” in the Basque country), a hard-boiled egg, parsley, and a cooled saute` of Italian frying peppers and leeks, all dressed with olive oil and lemon juice.

MAIN COURSE: The previously described fish dish…sort of…though this dish is traditionally made with bacalao, I hadn’t seen to the requisite planning and 36-48 hours’ soaking time that bacalao demands, so I went with another super Basquey fish, Hake.

SIDE DISH: Oven-roasted asparagus. Saw some nice ones, and asparagus (especially the white ones from Navarra) are truly one of the vegetal pilars of Basque gastronomy.

So after all of this blab, how did it all turn out, you ask? First, I was really happy with the Zubia pepper paste. Choriceros have a deep, sweet flavor that are very difficult to duplicate with any other pepper, and the sauce really strongly evoked my memories of the dish. The wine paired well with the first course, picking up nicely on the rich/earthy combination of the tuna and beans. And despite the fact that this is a deeply colored (though by no means heavy) wine, it, like the people who make it, are so much OF the sea – tart and briney – that the fish seemed as comfortable with this liquid as it was with salt water in which it was born. Not really, but it sounds nice… All in all a successful dinner. I’m always looking for new Basque recipes, especially family recipes (in my experience, the same 10-15 recipes appear over and over again), so recipes posted here, as well as criticisms and comments are strongly encouraged…If I knew how to say “Bon Appetit” in Basque, I’d write it here, but I don’t, so I won’t, but I will write Ikusi arte which means “until I see you again”

TOM CIOCCO

 

 

 

  

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