Basque cuisine has a long history in the western United States, but many chefs across the country have recently discovered the unique ingredients and storied history of the region that straddles northeastern Spain and southwestern France. Traditionalists will revel in the regional flavors that mark Basque cuisine while modernists will exult in new interpretations that are emerging from forward-thinking chefs around the country.
New York-based chef and restaurateur of three Spanish restaurants, Alex Raij, whose Basque restaurant Txikito turns eight this year, has a new cookbook out (with fellow chef-owner Eder Montero) called The Basque Book: A Love Letter in Recipes from the Kitchen of Txikito. The book — and the restaurant — are Raij’s ode to Basque cuisine. “Basque cuisine is remarkably elegant and the ingredient quality is exceptional,” said Raij. “Thanks to chefs like [Ferran] Adrià and [Juan Mari] Arzak, ‘Alta cocina‘-and ‘la vanguardia‘-style cooking put all eyes on Spain.” Cooks like Raij responded with a revived interest and rediscovery of regionally distinct cooking traditions. “Chefs like myself want to bring the same high standards and creativity to the traditional cooking of Spain. We have turned our attention to the distinctive features or each of Spain’s regional cuisines and to me the Basque is perhaps the least understood and yet so easy to love.”
Here are eight Basque-inspired dishes that celebrate the culinary flair of la cocina vasca.
The Gilda Pintxo, Bellota, San Francisco, California
Named for Rita Hayworth’s femme fatale character in the 1946 movie Gilda, this traditional skewered snack of Castelvetrano olives, anchovy, boquerones, and pippara pepper from chef Ryan McIlwraith is the perfect introduction to Basque cuisine. Rather than having to roam the neighborhood, trying snacks at numerous spots, the team at Bellota bring the pintxos, or small snacks, to you on a cart. Gilda pintxo is traditionally served at the start of the evening, a first taste of the heady flavors of Basque country. Make a reservation at Bellota.
Ma Premeire Foie, Teleferic Barcelona, Walnut Creek, California
Every year, the city of Barcelona invites its restaurants to compete for the title of Tapa of the Year. Just before opening their blended Basque-Catalan outpost in America, Teleferic Barcelona won with their tapa, Ma Premeire Foie. Grilled and caramelized foie gras swaddled with a bit of cherry jam in house made toast reaches nirvana with caramelized red onion and a slick of apple mousse. Refresh your palate with a hit of Basque cider, served as a special off-menu item, straight into your mouth from the traditional Basque porron. It’s enough to make a Euskaldunak swoon. Make a reservation at Teleferic Barcelona.
Chistorra in a Blanket, Cooks & Soldiers, Atlanta, Georgia
Its name a tip of the hat to the Tamborrada festival in San Sebastian and the citizen’s defiance towards Napoleon’s occupation, Cooks & Soldiers looks for ways to add contrarian flair to traditional Basque dishes. Pigs in a blanket, a.k.a. chistorra in a blanket, melds Basque and Southern ideas of dough-wrapped sausage. Basque chistorra sausage gets bundled into a cider-glazed croissant and served with a mustard-maple dipping sauce. Or swing vegan with tomato tartare. Chef Landon Thompson reimagined trendy tartare with in-season cured tomatoes, draining the bright red veg to give them a beefy texture and topping the tartare with a modernist, algae reverse purification carrot “yolk.” Once local tomatoes are gone, so too, this seasonal dish is gone. Basque food never had it so good. Make a reservation at Cooks & Soldiers.
Veal Tongue Bocadillo, La Cuchara, Baltimore, Maryland
Chef Ben Lefenfeld at La Cuchara loved the communal dining atmosphere of Basque pintxo bars and set out to recreate that vibe at La Cuchara, where a 40-seat square bar is the heart of the festive space. And, like traditional asadors in the southern Basque region, Lefenfeld does much of his cooking with fire. A signature, asador-inspired dish is his veal tongue bocadillo. Brined for seven days, the tongue is braised then sliced as thin as possible and served on a charred cumin roll with charred cabbage, pimentón aioli, and espelette pepper. The sandwich tastes of Basque food at its finest, an ideal blend of French, Spanish, and Basque flavors, reflecting the seasons and the flavors of the region. Make a reservation at La Cuchara.