The Glories of Basque Food

Last winter during a short visit to New York, I discovered another example of the marvels of food and beverages from the Basque regions in Europe.  The restaurant is named Txikito.  It’s a small place in Chelsea, and the food is amazing.  The chef, Alexandra Raij, is a young woman who grew up in Minneapolis in a family of Argentine Jews.  Her husband and co-chef, Eder Montero, is Basque from Spain, and the culinary world is far better from this pairing.

I bought Alexandra’s book the night I was in the restaurant.  Tonight I finally made the first dish from it, and the results were wonderful.

The first step was to roast (really char) a whole eggplant.   I did this on the gas grill, and it did a very good job.  After removing the skin, I let the eggplant cool.  After draining it well to remove bitter juices, I was left with tender pulp, which I could use for this and other dishes.

Three other key ingredients were needed:

  • high quality canned tuna fillets
  • sweet onions to be lightly pickled
  • plum tomatoes to be grated

Idylwilde Farms provided the last two items, and I had a tin of very good Spanish Ventresca tuna fillets in the pantry.  Here’s how it went together.  A Spanish white from Eileen at Social Wines was a good accompaniment.

This iOS app by Tinrocket 1.0.2 (101)
1. Grated plum tomatoes | 2. Add roasted eggplant puree | 3. Add canned tuna fillets | 4. Top with pickled sweet onions |

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Bruschette — one with Anchovies and another with Eggplant Purée

Now that I am back from Spring travels in Italy, I will resurrect those memories with a visit to Eataly Boston.  This emporium is a good source for many of the ingredients I use at home.  Two weeks ago I was shopping there and decided to have a bite to eat, not a meal — but just enough.  In fact, Eataly has just such a restaurant in the heart of the store, La Piazza.   I can be very selective for a snack like this.  Fortunately, they had just what I wanted — bruschette.

ACCIUGHE E BURRO | 5     Agostino Recca anchovies, butter, parsley

MELANZANA | 7      Roasted eggplant, raisins, pine nuts

These two small plates and a glass of Italian rosé were perfect.

These dishes can be pedestrian, or if executed well as done here — ethereal.  I finished the meal, went back to my shopping, and returned home.  As a result I was inspired to replicate the experience at home as best I could.

You know me well enough by now that each food incident comes with a story, and it is sometimes a long one.  Such is the case here.

So a week later I took out two salt-packed anchovies from the Gustiamo jar I always have in the refrigerator, carefully rinsed, de-salted, and de-boned them.  I pan-fried slices of Tuscan pane in olive oil, layered on sweet butter and anchovy fillets, snipped some chives from the herb garden, poured a glass of white wine, and mmmm, enjoyed a fair approximation.

My fascination with the magic of grilled bread and various toppings goes back many years.  I won’t go into all the other combinations, but I will concentrate on these two specifics — anchovies and eggplant purée.

Burro e Alici

About the same time as Marcella Hazan’s first book was published (1973). I was learning about Italian cooking from a couple in Boston, Margaret and Franco Romagnoli.  They had a cooking show on WGBH, the local PBS station, and they had a small restaurant in downtown Boston.  Here was their first cookbook (1974); it was followed two years later by the Meatless cookbook, very useful for Lent (and other purposes):

Some years later I found this recipe in the second book:

Simple, charming and delicious.  For about twenty years it was one of my favorite snacks at our summer home in Nantucket, made with a fresh slice of Portuguese White Bread from the Nantucket Bake Shop, sweet butter, anchovy from a jar (I had not yet discovered the salt-packed variety which are far superior).  Always a cold glass of white wine was the accompaniment.  So far, no one in Rome has asked me “How’s it going”, but I have my answer ready when one does.

Eggplant Pureé

Roasting eggplant properly is an art.  In one of Ottolenghi’s cookbooks there is a recipe which was transformative for me on this topic.  The ideal (and inelegant) method is to place the whole eggplant in among the embers and ashes of a smoldering wood fire.  Rotated occasionally, it lies there until deeply charred on the outside and fully deflated as most of the moisture steams out of fissures in the skin.  After removing from the fire, you peel it carefully, strip out the pulp on the inside (removing excess seeds), drain it of accumulated bitter juices, and then mix it with olive oil, garlic and herbs.  We’ve done it a few times, and it’s an amazing treat.  Sometimes on toast, or as a salad.  Occasionally topped with pomegranate seeds.

Given that background, we now return to the melanzana bruschetta from Eataly.

Note the moist, greenish brown purée.  That’s a tender, sweet eggplant, and it’s treated Sicilian style with pine nuts and golden raisins.

That’s what I wanted to produce last weekend at home.  We had fired up the pizza oven, so I knew I could use the hot coals to roast the eggplant when the oven cooled down a bit.  I asked Barbara to be sure to save the larger of our two eggplants for this purpose.  She did that, but unfortunately she got confused by an eggplant tapa I sometimes make in our electric oven, and she sliced the vegetable in half lengthwise, destroying any chance of roasting it whole in the coals.

Glumly, I made do as best I could.  I scored the eggplant flesh, brushed with olive oil, placed the two halves open-side up on a roasting platter, and placed in the oven.  The eggplant was partially-cooked but starting to burn, so I removed and cooled it, and left it in the refrigerator overnight.

The next day I peeled, tugged, sliced, etc. the partly-cooked skin off and then chopped up the cooked flesh.  It was still pretty firm.  Cooking that pulp slowly, with olive oil and salt in a ceramic bowl with a heavy top for almost an hour produced the effect I was seeking.  Here is the version I made yesterday.

Buon appetito!


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Signs of Spring

This past week has shown definite signs of Spring.  These include frequent rain spells, the greening of our surroundings, and a man’s need to play with fire (while cooking on the gas grill and the wood-fired pizza oven).

Trees turning green while sucking up the rain

The male Rose-Breasted Grosbeak on our feeder

Fresh asparagus on the grill

Fresh Porcini all the way from South Africa to our grill

Memorial Day weekend was pleasantly warm and sunny, so Barbara and I agreed that it was time to start the pizza season.  We decided to make four pies, just for us — two to eat that night and two for the freezer.  It was fortunate that we did not have guests this time because the oven took a couple of extra hours to get to full temperature.  This was necessary to drive off the moisture that had collected in the oven structure, but eventually we got there.

Pizza Plaza


Roasting mushrooms in preparation for adding them to pizzas

Roasting fresh ramps for pizza topping

First pies of the season ALWAYS taste good

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Spring Travels — Puglia – part 2

This gallery contains 25 photos.

After staying in Lecce for 5 nights and touring on the Adriatic coast, we switched to Gallipoli on the other side of the “boot”.  Here are some photos from that area. In Gallipoli we wanted plenty of vegetables to counterbalance … Continue reading

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Spring Travels — Puglia 2019

This gallery contains 20 photos.

In April we took another trip.  This time is was Barbara and me, in Puglia.  It was her first time there, and I was eager to show her many of the things I enjoyed in my previous two trips.  This … Continue reading

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Spring Travels — Rome

Aaron flew home from Portugal, and I continued on for another 10 days — first to Rome, then to Hungary.  I had no specific itinerary in Rome.  I decided to go there next for two main reasons, (1) central location, en route to Budapest and returning to Boston, and (2) the meat-centric cuisines in Spain and Portugal (and in Hungary shortly) are a challenge for this partly-vegetarian/pescatarian, and I was eager for the pastas and vegetables which I love in Italy.

My first visit to Rome had been in 2007.  During the week I stayed in the city, I frequently went to the restaurant, La Matriciana, favored by the woman whose apartment I rented.  It’s a family-run restaurant, and I always felt at home with the brothers, Fabio and Mauro, who run it, along with their father, Fortunato.  I became such a regular during that week that we memorialized the friendship with this photo of the brothers and me, along with Luigi, one of the regular waiters.

During my trip this March, one of my first meals was at La Matriciana.  You can imagine the surprise and delight when I showed up with this photo on my iPhone and showed it to them.  Everyone is a little “more mature” now, but the restaurant is ageless and as good or better than ever.  I ate there 3 times in my four days in Rome in March.

Eating and walking were my main activities in the city.  Another “must-do” stop was for rectangular, thin-crust pizza at Antico Forno Roscioli.

I stayed in two different hotels.  One was a former favorite, Hotel Mancino 12.  I stayed just one night to begin, because they were full after that.  However, that disappointment quickly reversed itself, for I then found IQ Hotel Roma, a much younger, hipper place — and one with excellent breakfast included AND self-service laundry facilities, of which I was by then in great need, since my three-week trip was carry-on only.  For even more serendipity, I quickly realized that IQ Hotel Roma was less than one block away from La Matriciana!

There were plenty of other good meals and splendid discoveries as I wandered around the little neighborhoods.  I also had a great deal of fun with the young barbers in town, as I definitely needed a haircut — though not quite ready for the modish styles prevalent in the area.  I loved Rome more than ever.

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Spring Travels — Portugal, Porto and the Douro Valley

We flew from Barcelona to Porto, Portugal, as a base from which to explore the wines of the Douro Valley.  The physical beauty of the Valley, the proliferation of grapevines everywhere, and the quality of the wines were astonishing. I would rank the Douro as one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever visited.

As a bonus, I enjoyed colorful Porto quite a bit, as well.  Good hotel, very good food (including a great vegetarian restaurant), a visit to the Taylor Fladgate Port winery across the river, and a fine place for walking and exploring — Porto exceeded my expectations.

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