In a time when chefs and food lovers are delving ever deeper into the distinctive regional cuisines of great food countries like France, Italy, China, and even Mexico, it seems that the rich, sophisticated, and highly regional culinary traditions of Spain have been unjustly overlooked, despite the excellent efforts of great explorers of Spanish cuisine like Penelope Casas. But a wonderful new book on the cooking of the Basque region of Spain might just help to make up for some of that lost ground. In The Basque Table, Teresa Barrenechea takes the reader on a fascinating culinary and cultural tour of this unusual region, whose culture has historically been so distinct from that of neighboring Spanish and French provinces that the Basque language shares no common roots with any Romance tongue. As the chef and owner of the acclaimed Marichu restaurants in Manhattan and Bronxville, New York, Barrenechea was the first restaurateur in the area to open an establishment dedicated solely to Basque cuisine. Born and raised in the region's largest city, Bilbao (of Guggenheim fame), she's uniquely qualified to introduce Basque cooking to American home chefs.
Like its language, the cuisine of the Basque region is also quite distinct from that of its neighbors, although the traditional cooking draws on impeccably fresh ingredients common to its coastline along the Bay of Biscay and the bordering Pyrenees mountains. Known throughout Europe for their intense dedication to food, Basque natives consider the rituals of cooking and eating to be at the center of everyday life. Many meals start with pinchos, the Basque version of tapas. Barrenechea includes recipes for traditional pinchos like slices of hard-cooked egg topped with shrimp and homemade mayonnaise; toothpick skewers of pitted green olives, anchovy fillets, and hot pickled peppers; and mushrooms stuffed with chopped parsley and garlic and cooked with vinegar, paprika, and salt. Main courses are simple and highly flavored, like a hearty white-bean stew made with bell peppers and leeks, pork loin cooked in milk, or tuna steaks served with caramelized onions. Collected in a chapter called "Basque Basics" are unusual gems like Breakfast Sponge Cake, Cornmeal Skillet Cakes, Piquillo Pepper Salsa, and a potato puree enriched with lashings of olive oil and heavy cream. Desserts like Creamy Walnut Puree, Almond Tart, and Grandmother's Creamy Rice are by turns elegant and comforting. The Basque Table is an engaging introduction to one of the great undiscovered regional cuisines of Europe, and Teresa Barrenechea is a knowledgeable and passionate guide. Curious cooks will have a great time exploring with her.
Kate Murphy Zeman, barnesandnoble.com