4. Basque Cuisine
Mom and I share some Basque heritage. The likelihood is that it comes from her maternal side. From there, it is a crap shoot whether it is from my great grandmother’s family or my great grandfather’s. And then again it could come from her paternal grandmother’s side. We don’t know. We may never know, and that’s okay. We like a good mystery!
To be sure, the Basque are a mystery themselves. Established scholarship says they descend from early farming settlers from the northwestern region of Spain to parts of southwestern France―from Bordeaux to Bilbao―straddling the Pyrenees and nestled in the Bay of Biscay. And both bordering and within Basque country there are several forests—all of this influences a vast and rich mythology which survived the arrival of Christianity and even the Franco years.
Although geography allowed them to remain relatively isolated they were not exactly hiding either. The Romans found met them in the northern Iberian peninsula as far back as 200 B.C. The Basque had been in the area long before. Theories as to their origin are interesting―from claims that they are the 13th tribe from Israel to refugees from Atlantis.
One thing has always been clear. The Basque are different. Their language is one that matches no other. And while they live in a so-called autonomous region, the politics of it is a little more complicated, but no matter how you define it, it is unlikely that the Spaniards will ever truly rule them. The Basque are not prone to submission as such. They do what they want.
Basque contributions to the world have included luminaries from Ignatius of Loyola to Pablo Picasso, from Balenciaga to Saint Francis Xavier to Miguel de Unamuno… But perhaps the biggest contribution that the Basque have gifted the world is their amazing cuisine.
Basque country is blessed with coastal waters leading to the north Atlantic and fertile lands on her valleys—so the seafood is plentiful and the produce are magnificent. From Basque tapas (pintxos) to my beloved salt cod a la Vizcaína, to bacalao al Pil-Pil to the heavenly torrijas (French toast elevated to an art form).
A traditional Basque dish, which is easy to make and is also very adaptable is merluza en salsa verde (hake in a green sauce). You can have a simple and elegant meal on the plate in 20 minutes!
Hake is a lean white fish, part of the cod family, and relatively easy to find (including certified sustainable). You can substitute with fresh cod if whiting is unavailable. The seafood is lovely, but for my money the sauce is the real beauty of this dish. Certainly, this green sauce can be found in several dishes from the region—it is easy to make, very hard to foul up, relatively cheap, and it feels fancier than its preparation suggests.
Merluza en Salsa Verde (Basque Hake in Green Sauce)
2 fresh hake steaks
2-3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp flour (plus extra for dredging steaks)
½ - ¾ cup fish or vegetable stock (see note)
1-2 tbsp finely chopped parsley
Sea salt to taste
Lightly dredge fish steaks and set aside.
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil on medium high flame. Cook steaks 2 minutes per side (lightly browned to a golden hue). Remove fish and set aside.
Add remaining oil and chopped garlic, one garlic begins to crackle in the pan remove chili (if used), lower heat to medium low and add flour to pan, stirring constantly, and cook for about 1 minute.
Gradually add stock to pan and whisk until you get a smooth and velvety sauce. This may take a couple of minutes – make sure flour is completely incorporated and there are no lumps in the sauce. Adjust for seasoning and add salt to taste (a dash will do).
Add the fish steaks to the pan and cover to heat fish through for about a minute.
At this point, depending on your personal taste, you may add the parsley over the fish or you can add to the sauce as you serve (remove fish to plate, add parsley, mix into sauce over low heat. Pour sauce over fish and serve immediately.
1. Hake steaks can be substituted with haddock, grouper or mahi mahi. Each substitution offers a slightly nuanced change to the dish but they all work well.
2. Typically the dish can be made with clams, but shrimp are not an unusual addition. The dish may also contain kokotxas (pronounces co-co-chas and literally the fish throat—and I realize it may be a delicacy that some of you can live without).
3. This recipe does not include any heat element, but you may add white pepper to the garlic as it cooks—this will keep your sauce silky and smooth with just a little bit of heat. I’ve also seen recipes include thinly sliced dried chili (which may also be substituted with dried pepper flakes).
4. You can use ½ cup of stock (fish or vegetable) plus ¼ cup of white wine (use a good dry). Add the wine first to let the alcohol evaporate as it cooks.
5. If available, and if you wish, you may add about ½ pound of clams (buy cleaned, if possible, or soak at least 20 minutes to expel any sand). Add the clams as you have the sauce at about the right consistency and let them open over the sauce (remove from pan as soon as they open). Then add the hake and heat through before serving. The same principle applies if using shrimp (¼ to ½ pound of small/medium).
6. While this dish can accompany a nest of cappellini, rice, or couscous; it is also served with potatoes or with bread to soak up the delicious sauce.