Basqueing in flavor

The Basques boast many seafood dishes, often cooked with a sauce of sweet peppers, tomatoes, and garlic.

seafood 88 (photo credit: Yakir Levy)
seafood 88
(photo credit: Yakir Levy)
The seafood entrees at an opening party of a Spanish restaurant in Los Angeles last month reminded me of the flavorful fish dishes I tasted when my husband and I spent a month driving around Spain on a culinary research trip. Outside of the paella dishes, most of the fish we sampled was cooked simply but its good taste was due to its freshness and the fine olive oil used to flavor it. Restaurateur Frank Leon told me he named his new eatery Bokado, which means "little bites" in the Basque language. I wasn't surprised that he was inspired by the dishes of the Basque region of northwest Spain and southwest France. The Basques boast many lively seafood dishes, often cooked with a sauce of sweet peppers, tomatoes, garlic, onions sauteed in olive oil and sometimes a touch of hot pepper for extra spice. Cooks there also add asparagus, fresh peas and other seasonal vegetables to their seafood dish. Of course, Leon had to update classic Basque recipes to today's preferences. In old fashioned Basque recipes, such as those showcased in La Cuisine Rustique - Pays Basques by Huguette Couffignal, many of the fish dishes make use of salt cod, which requires prolonged soaking to be palatable. Even though the Basques were fishermen, before transportation became efficient people often cooked salt fish and acquired a taste for it. Couffignal gives a recipe for salt cod with white beans cooked with sautéed onions, garlic, fresh thyme and parsley. At Bokado we had a delicious and attractive variation, made with pan-roasted fresh cod, chickpeas and diced tomatoes, garnished with chopped herbs as well as thin strips of spicy chorizo sausage, which, Leon explained, is a popular partner for chickpeas in Spain. His menu will also feature fish on a bed of cassoulet, the famous white bean dish of southern France. Instead of the usual Basque pepper and tomato sauce, a dish of grilled seafood came topped with a tangy relish of the same diced vegetables, a bit like finely cut Israeli salad, and was enlivened with a basil puree, fresh basil leaves and baby yellow squash sauteed in olive oil. Sauteed artichokes, chopped parsley, lemon and butter enhanced another seafood dish. In form it reminded me of a Basque dish known as sautéed fish in green sauce. According to Teresa Bareenechea, author of The Basque Table, the sauce is finished with a little white wine and garlic, and the dish is embellished with cooked asparagus, fresh peas and plenty of parsley, a fine idea for any sauteed or baked fish. COD WITH CHICKPEAS, TOMATOES AND GARLIC Fish with chickpeas is a popular pair in several Mediterranean countries. You can sauté the fish and use it to top the chickpea mixture if you like, but this method, in which the fish is braised with the chickpeas, garlic and olive oil, is easier. 2 400-gr. cans chickpeas, drained 4 large garlic cloves, chopped 2 dried hot red peppers (optional) salt and freshly ground pepper 3 or 4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil 900 gr. cod or sea bass steaks, about 2.5 cm thick 4 small tomatoes, diced 2 Tbsp. finely chopped parsley Combine chickpeas with garlic, hot peppers, pinch of salt and 2 tablespoons oil. Add 1 cup water and bring to a simmer. Cover tightly and cook over medium-low heat for 5 minutes. Set fish on chickpeas and sprinkle it with salt and pepper. Drizzle with remaining oil. Bring to a simmer. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, turning fish once, about 10 minutes or until fish can just be flaked but is not falling apart. Add diced tomatoes and heat through gently. Taste sauce and adjust seasoning. To serve, spoon chickpeas into a dish and top with the fish. Spoon a few tomato dice on top and sprinkle with parsley. Makes 5 or 6 servings. BASQUE-INSPIRED BAKED HALIBUT WITH PEPPERS, TOMATOES AND GARLIC Adding the garlic at two different times gives a deeper flavor, and saving part of the peppers to add at a later point in the recipe preserves their texture. Serve this fish hot or at room temperature, with sautéed squash and with steamed potatoes, rice pilaf or crusty bread. If you like, bake two diced cooked potatoes in the sauce along with the fish. Instead of baking the fish, you can simmer it in a deep shallow pan, if the fish will fit in a single layer. 3 to 4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil 2 onions, chopped 1 fresh hot pepper, chopped (optional) 4 medium garlic cloves, chopped 2 or 3 sweet red peppers or mixture of red, yellow and green peppers, diced 700 gr. ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped, or an 800-gr. can tomatoes, drained and chopped Salt and freshly ground pepper 700 gr. halibut, cod or salmon fillets 1 to 2 Tbsp. chopped parsley Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a deep skillet. Add onions and cook over low heat until light golden. Add hot pepper, half the garlic and two-thirds of the diced sweet peppers and cook, stirring often, for about 5 minutes or until peppers soften. Add tomatoes and a pinch of salt and cook uncovered over medium heat, stirring often, about 10 minutes or until mixture thickens slightly. Stir in remaining garlic. Preheat oven to 220º. Lightly oil a large shallow baking dish. Reheat sauce if necessary. Spread half of sauce in dish. Arrange fish fillets on top in one layer. Season them lightly with salt and pepper. Spread remaining sauce over fish. Scatter remaining diced peppers on top. Sprinkle with remaining oil if desired. Cover and bake for 5 minutes. Uncover and bake for 10 more minutes or until thickest part of fillets is tender and has turned opaque; check with point of a sharp knife. Serve hot or at room temperature, sprinkled with chopped parsley. Makes 4 servings. Faye Levy is the author of the three volume Fresh from France cookbook series and La Cuisine du Poisson, a French fish cookbook she wrote with master chef Fernand Chambrette.