Basque Country specialties

Basques have always been quick to adopt new ingredients and techniques from immigrants and from their own trade and exploration links.

Thick Basque lentil soup (photo credit: AYA MASSIAS)
Thick Basque lentil soup
(photo credit: AYA MASSIAS)
On a recent tour of San Sebastian in the Basque Country I was served the most amazing thick lentil soup. It is a fantastic dish for cold winter days and quickly became my absolute favorite.
Basque cuisine is influenced by the abundance of produce from the sea on one side, and the fertile Ebro Valley on the other. The mountainous nature of the area has led to a difference between coastal cuisine dominated by fish and inland cuisine consisting of cured meats, varied vegetables and legumes. French and Spanish influences are strong, with noted differences between the cuisine on both sides of the Basque Country’s modern-day borders.
Basques have always been quick to adopt new ingredients and techniques from immigrants and from their own trade and exploration links. (Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal created a chocolate and confectionery industry in Bayonne – still famous today – and part of a wider confectionery and pastry tradition across the Basque Country.) In the 1970s and 1980s Basque chefs were influenced by the nouvelle cuisine of France and they created nouvelle cuisine Basque, a lighter and less rustic version of traditional dishes and flavors.
Juan Mari Arzak, chef and owner of the famous Arzak restaurant in San Sebastian – one of the first three Michelin-starred restaurants in Spain – began a movement that in a few short years swept across Spain, becoming the country’s default haute cuisine.
In more recent years young chefs such as Martin Barasategui have given new impetus to Basque cuisine.
This tiny Basque region of Spain has more than its fair share of delicious treasures – pintxos (Basque tapas), Rioja wines and wonderful cheese and fish.
The writer, an eighth-generation Gibraltarian from a Spanish and Portuguese Sephardi family, is a London Savoy Hotel-trained chef and former owner of various high-end restaurants in Jerusalem and New York. He and his wife live on a farm in Andalusia and run Yaya Food and Travel, specializing in kosher Jewish heritage culinary tours in Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Sicily and Provence ( Email:
Serves 4
■ 2 cups small brown lentils
■ 1 liter water
■ 4 chicken wings
■ 1 medium onion
■ 10 chard leaves with the stems (chop each leaf into 4 pieces)
■ 3 cloves of garlic
■ 2 Tbsp. virgin olive oil
■ 1 medium potato chopped into medium-sized chunks
■ 1 small red pepper chopped in medium-sized chunks
■ 1 cupcooked chickpeas
■ 1 bay leaf
■ 200 gr. pumpkin chopped medium size
■ 1 big ripe tomato, peeled, chopped into small pieces
■ 1 tsp. paprika (I like it spicy)
■ Salt and pepper to taste
Place the water in a medium-sized pot and start boiling, add the chicken wings, olive oil, lentils and bay leaf.
After 15 minutes of boiling, take out the chicken wings and start adding the rest of the vegetables by order – onion, garlic, red pepper, tomato, chick peas and pumpkin. Boil for another 30 minutes and then add the chopped chard, paprika and salt and pepper to taste. I like to add half a teaspoon of cumin.
Keep boiling for another 30 minutes.
You will notice that the soup is becoming thicker and thicker, so you have to keep tasting it and checking that the lentils are soft. You might have to add a little water as it cooks. Once the soup is ready to eat and before serving, take out all the chicken and place it on each bowl before you serve the soup on top.
Serve the soup with fresh bread.
Serves 4 people
■ 4 bluefin tuna steaks, 200 gr. each (2-cm. thick)
■ 250 gr. couscous
■ 250 ml. vegetable stock
■ Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
For the roasted Provencal vegetables:
■ 2 leeks (remove outer layer and cut into 2-cm. slices)
■ 1 large red pepper cubed into 2-cm. pieces
■ 1 large zucchini cubed into 2-cm. pieces
■ 1 large red onion cubed into 2-cm. pieces
■ 1 small eggplant cubed into 2-cm. pieces
■ 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
■ Handful of fresh coriander and mint Preheat oven to 220°.
Mix cut vegetables in a bowl, adding olive oil, balsamic vinegar, a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Mix and place in an oven tray. Bake for 20 minutes, or until vegetables are soft and are crispy around the edges.
Tip: Place couscous into a bowl, add a dash of olive oil and pour boiling hot stock over it. Then cover the bowl with cling film and leave for 15 minutes.
Season tuna steak with sea salt and freshly ground pepper and cover with olive oil. Heat a frying pan. When hot, add your steaks 2 at a time and fry for 2 minutes on each side.
Fork through the couscous to separate the grains. Add chopped fresh coriander and mint.
Divide the couscous onto 4 plates, spoon some of the roast vegetables on top and finally slice each tuna steak diagonally and arrange on top of the vegetables. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil and a few drops of balsamic vinegar around each portion.
A good vegetable stock is really easy to prepare and makes a huge difference to the taste of recipes that call for it.
The good news is that you can use almost any vegetable and fresh herb you have around, and it is a great way to use up your remaining vegetables. Each vegetable and herb adds its own flavor and characteristics.
So what’s my ideal vegetable stock? One that isn’t too sweet, which unfortunately is what I find a lot of times in commercial stocks. I want a stock that will work well in whatever I’m cooking it with, providing background and structure to the dish, without taking over.
Unlike meat-based stocks, there’s no skimming of fat or any of the mess. You don’t need to keep the pot on the stove for hours either. But it does require a little bit of advance planning.
■ 1 bouquet garni: 1 bay leaf, parsley, coriander (and I like a little tarragon)
■ 2 medium onions cut into 2½-cm. pieces
■ 2 large carrots cut into 2½-cm. pieces
■ 8 celery stalks cut into 2½-cm. pieces
■ 1 small fennel bulb cut into 2½-cm. pieces
■ half a head of garlic
■ 2 medium-sized zucchini cut into 2½-cm. pieces
■ 2 medium-sized leaks cut into 2½- cm. pieces
■ 2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
■ salt and black pepper to taste
Place a big pot of water, ¾-full, on a high flame and add all the vegetables, the bouquet garni, olive oil, salt and pepper, and boil for 1 hour. Once you have a nice broth going and the taste is to your liking, strain the broth, and your stock is ready.
I don’t throw away the vegetables after I strain the broth; instead, I serve them on a little tray drizzled with good olive oil and a little lemon juice. They are delicious.