Monday, October 18, 2010

Beyond 52 Cuisines: #53 Basque

Hey-ho, told you we're not finished with these cuisines! The world is a huuuuuge place and its foods and flavors, practically unlimited.

This month we set our sights on the cuisine of the Basque country, the region of southwestern France and northwestern Spain that loves bullfighting, gourmet club and Basque autonomy. The least volatile of these three things to talk about is gourmet club, so we're in safe waters here. The Basque not only love to eat and drink, but they enjoy doing all the planning, gathering, cooking and cleaning together as well.

For our anniversary earlier this month, Himself and I decided to stay in and cook a feast, sort of our own private Basque gourmet club. I've been toying with the idea of visiting Harmony Farms in La Crescenta once a month to pick up some sort of wild game or exotic meat that I can't find in the local market, something I don't often cook--perhaps some meats I've yet to try cooking. This looked like a good time to begin that enterprise while indulging in the next cuisine. So we toddled on up to Harmony Farms to peruse our options. In addition to hormone-, pesticide- and radiation-free meats and soy products, they carry a dizzying array of meats that you don't find just anywhere. It's a great place to rummage and plot and scheme over your next special dinner menu.

We've fixed pheasant a few times before, always with the extra ingredient of buckshot. It's so nice not to have that component this time. Dinner should never be capable of setting off a metal detector!
The mélange of flavors in the Basque pheasant recipe I found in a book called Dressing and Cooking Wild Game blends the zing of green olives and capers with the rich sweetness of prunes and brown sugar. Sounds odd, but this combination works. I cut up the pheasant and gave it an all-day soak in a marinade of white wine, white wine vinegar, olive oil, brown sugar, prunes, green olives, capers, garlic, bay leaf and basil. This combination of flavors reminds me of what is known as "Old California" cuisine with its Spanish influences, in which a single dish might include olives, onion, raisins and oregano, giving the dish a happy intensity of aromatics, umami, saltiness, sourness and sweetness. Essentially, all parts of the tongue get something to excite them.

While pheasant is more or less the same size and shape as a chicken, cutting and eating it is more of a challenge, because pheasant is much leaner and more muscular. Its flesh clings more tenaciously to the bone, even after it has been cooked sufficiently. It was quite tasty, and our sofa lions all paraded in, trilling, leg-rubbing and kneecap smooching, eager to convince us they hadn't eaten in many days. There was plenty of pheasant for everyone, and the pusses didn't seem to mind the bits of caper and herbs clinging to their allotment.

The cuisine of the Basque territory contains a lot of potato dishes and features a dish called pipérade, a blend of cooked sweet peppers and tomatoes (by the way, the three primary ingredients in this dish show just how ingrained the foods of the Americas are in this region). The potatoes are baked in a pipérade of red and yellow bell peppers, shallots and lots of fresh herbs, which season the creamy fingerlings and give them a glorious aroma as well. It's a good idea to make this dish in a generous quantity so you can enjoy it for several days. Himself suggested using the leftover potatoes the next morning in a frittata. That would have been a grand idea if we hadn't gobbled them all up with total abandon. Next time we'll make more than we can eat in a single sitting.

We topped our salad of baby spinach greens with a creamy and intensely garlicky dressing and some chopped hard-cooked egg. I want to try some of the leftover dressing over cooked spinach sometime. It should be quite good. You can fine tune the amount of garlic you use--this recipe calls for both fresh garlic and garlic powder. But the Basque way is to use a heavy hand when adding garlic to the mix. I have no problem with that!

A favorite meal finisher is some fresh fruit with a local cheese, such as idiazabal. If I hadn't been too lazy to go to the cheese store, that's what we'd have had (and then there's the fact that to save my life I can't leave a fromagerie with only one cheese). While the Basques aren't huge on dessert, they do have a fondness for custard and custard-filled tarts. So for dessert we made Basque crème, a.k.a. natillas. It is essentially a cooked crème anglaise, made with generous use of cinnamon. The resulting crème is quite thick, and the instructions say to thin it out at service by stirring in more heavy crème. Considering how much heavy crème, along with eggs and sugar, is already in there, I choked. I just couldn't do it. Probably a good thing. Himself and I have enjoyed a spoonful each after meals the past couple of days. It's so rich that that's all we really want or need. Natillas is certainly made to savor, it's so rich and flavorful.

The nice thing about all these dishes is that they can be enjoyed as part of a regular meal. It's not like you have to announce that you're having a specially-planned Basque dinner to enjoy them.

Following is the recipe for Basque pheasant. If you can't lay your hands on a pheasant, chicken works just fine, too. You'll still get the distinctive blend of flavors that speak of this region:

Cut up one bird, arrange it in a single layer in a 13-by-9-inch baking dish, and pour over it the following marinade: In a medium-sized bowl stir together 3 Tbsp. brown sugar, 3 oz. white wine, 1/4 cup olive oil and 1/4 cup white wine vinegar. Then stir in 2 minced cloves of garlic, 1 bay leaf, 1 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley, 2 Tbsp. dried basil leaves, 1/2 cup pitted medium prunes and 1/2 cup pitted medium green olives. Pour this mixture over pheasant pieces and cover the dish with plastic wrap. Refrigerate overnight--or all day--turning the pieces a couple of times.

Preheat oven to 350°F, remove plastic wrap and bake bird uncovered until it is tender, turning once. Baking should take about one hour, depending on the size of the bird. Remove bird, olives and prunes to a serving dish and, if desired, spoon pan juices over it before serving.

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