The Basque are a remarkable people. They have dibs on whale hunting and on a language which lack of relation to any other language makes me wonder whether there’s a Stargate somewhere next to Bilbao. Also, they have dibs on mad culinary skills.
Basque men tend to organize themselves in gastronomical societies, housed in so-called txokos. That’s supposedly because the Basque are very matriarchal in organisation and no Basque “amatxo” will let anyone else command her kitchen (she will hand out copious amounts left-overs, though). Another, more international, reason is that a group of cooking men will generally invent Michelin stars and white puffy hats, while a group of women cooking has invented “keeping everyone sated and happy on a budget without making a fuss about it” somewhere in the Stone Age already.
But no matter who is cooking, the Basque are a culinary force. Of particular fame are the so-called pintxos – small, often very elaborate bites that go by the name of “tapas” in the rest of Spain. Only that pintxos are different, in ingredients and also in preparation.
One of my favorites are these stuffed peppers (bakailo piperrak). They take some improvisation when prepared away from the motherland, but so far, they’ve been the hit of every party.
Stuffed Piquillo Peppers in a Cognac Sauce (makes about 12, feeds 6 as an appetizer)
- 1 glass (380ml) of whole, roasted, peeled Piquillo peppers in water. They have a special sweet taste that can’t really be replaced, but you can also prepare the recipe with another kind of red, roasted, peeled bell pepper. If our stock from the motherland runs low, I buy the glasses that say “whole roasted peppers Hungarian style”.
- 250g cod filet
- 2 tbsp. olive oil plus 1tsp. of olive oil
- 1 small onion
- 200-250ml milk (I haven’t tried the recipe with skimmed milk yet)
- 1-2 tbsp. flour
- 1 spring onion
- 1 small glass of cognac (5cl)
- 150g tomato puree (not concentrated)
- The original recipe calls for stock-fish (dried cod) – a Basque specialty – that needs 48 hours of watering and de-salting. Once a poor man’s dish, it has become pricey and hard to come by, so I use normal cod filet (MSC or bio, cod is dangerously overfished and I’d really like to pass this recipe onto another generation or two).
- Steam the cod filet for 5-10 minutes. Set aside, allow to cool off.
- Cut the onion into very, very, very fine pieces. Or put it into the kitchen machine and give it a twirl or two – it’s not supposed to be a liquid, but really fine pieces.
- In a wide pan, heat 1 tbsp. olive oil.
- Meanwhile, pluck the cod apart into small flaky bits and salt it lightly. (Basque kitchen tends to work without a lot of spices. It’s about bold, pure flavors from really good ingredients).
- Add the onion to the pan, reduce heat to medium and simmer until transparent.
- Add the cod flakes and simmer for another two minutes.
- Push cod and onion to one side, add the remaining tbsp. of olive oil to the pan and turn up the heat a bit again.
- When the oil is hot, add a tbsp. of flour and stir it into the oil, lower temperature again.
- Then, bit by bit, add milk, always stirring it into the oil/flour mixture so that it is a smooth sauce (and doesn’t break apart into thin milk and yellow lumps).
- If you have this bechamel under control more or less, begin to stir in the onion and the cod that have been waiting at the other side of the pan.
- Stir constantly, adding a bit more flour when the sauce is to thin or more milk when the mass is too dry.
- Stir and stir until you have a thick, bubbly bechamel mixture.
- Bubble on low heat for five minutes, until some more liquid has evaporated. When you scoop the mixture up with the spoon, it should fall down and tear, no flow like water. Another way to check the consistency is to see whether in stirring, there appear gaps where you move the spoon that only slowly close again.
- When you’ve reached the desired consistency, transfer the sauce to a bowl and allow it to cool a little. That will make the mixture more solid yet.
- Rinse out the pan, dry, add the tsp of olive oil and heat again.
- Chop the spring onion very finely (or use the aid of the kitchen machine again) and add it to the pan, simmering it gently for a couple of minutes. It’s supposed to turn translucent and soft, without browning.
- Add the cognac and, almost immediately, the tomato sauce. Season with black pepper.
- Allow to simmer and reduce for a few minutes.
- Take the sauce off the stove and allow it to cool for a minute, then blend it until smooth.
- Now comes the tricky part: drain the peppers well, then take one into your hand, gently maintain it open and fill it with a good spoonful of the cod-onion bechamel that by now should be pretty solid. Be careful with the stuffing since the peppers tend to tear at all possible ends.
- Fill all the peppers that way and set aside.
- When you serve them immediately, just reheat the cognac sauce and pour it over the peppers as your serve them.
- You can keep these babies in the fridge for a day or two. In that case, reheat them on gentle heat in a pan without oil before serving, turning them once. Also reheat the sauce (it can take some more heat) and drizzle it over the peppers just before serving.
- On egin!