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Cooking Bilbao style

Sample some recipes from Teresa Barrenechea’s “Basque Table.”

The fine Basque cuisine is inspired by its geography, but the fish from the Bay of Biscay are just one of the many reasons this cuisine is so special. Teresa Barrenechea, author of “The Basque Table,” is a native of Bilbao, Spain. She now lives in New York where she is the chef of her own restaurant, “Marichu.” On NBC’s “Today” show, she shares the art of cooking this unique food. Read some of her recipes below.


Angulas a la Cazuela Serves 4

Although rare and very expensive, angulas, or baby eels, are a heavenly treat. It is traditional to eat sizzling baby eels with a wooden fork, which stays cooler than metal tableware.

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil

3 garlic cloves, sliced thin

Hot red pepper flakes

1 pound baby eels (see “Notes”)


1. In a 10-inch, flame-proof, earthenware casserole or skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and pepper flakes, and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until the garlic is golden.

2. Add the eels, sprinkle them with salt, and cook them, stirring, for about 30 seconds, until they are hot and sizzling. Serve immediately.

NOTES: If you can’t get baby eels locally you can order them from Northern Boulevard, a store in Queens, New York, that ships Spanish products all over the United States. Call the store at 718-779-4971.

Baby eels are sold frozen. Thaw them overnight in the refrigerator. In the morning, gently wipe them dry with a kitchen towel, and then refrigerate them, loosely wrapped, until you are ready to cook them.


Ancas de Rana al Ajillo

Serves 4

When my older brothers and I were young, we visited our aunts during the Easter holidays from school. They lived in Markina, a town with access to brooks and small rivers. My brothers, who preferred ocean fishing, nevertheless contented themselves with catching frogs and eels in these waters, and my aunts often prepared the frog legs in this way. I looked forward to this dish whenever we visited. When I serve frog legs today, I encourage my customers to use their fingers to eat them, because they are too tiny to bone easily with a knife and fork.

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil

10 garlic cloves, minced

1 pound small frog legs (see Note)


2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

1. In a 10-inch flame-proof earthenware casserole or skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic, and cook, stirring, for 3 to 4 minutes, until the garlic starts to turn golden.

2. Add the frog legs, sprinkle them with salt, and cook them, stirring gently with a wooden spoon, for about 5 minutes, until they are golden brown and cooked through. Garnish them with parsley, and serve immediately.

NOTE: Frog legs are sold skinned and frozen in some fish stores, specialty stores, and supermarkets. They may also be purchased fresh in some places, which of course is the best way to buy them. However, frozen frog legs are very good, particularly if they are thawed slowly in the refrigerator. Buy the smallest frog legs you can find; they should be about 3 inches long.


Almejas a la Bilbaína

Serves 4

Manila clams, increasingly available in the United States, are much like the clams I ate when growing up in Bilbao. Small and sweet, they are ideal for this dish.

I have always made this dish in an earthenware casserole, for several reasons: These casseroles hold heat beautifully and promote even cooking; they are attractive enough to bring to the table for serving; and, finally, I was taught to cook using them and so fully appreciate their value. However, you can use another shallow casserole. Be sure it is flame-proof.

3 dozen Manila, littleneck, or cherrystone clams, well scrubbed (see Note)

3 cups water

1/3 cup olive oil

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour


2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

1/2 cup dry white wine

1. Put the clams into a large bowl or pot, and cover them with lightly salted cold water. Using your hands, swish the clams through the water, and then let them sit in the water for about 30 minutes. Drain them, and rinse them well.

2. In a large saucepan, combine the clams and the 3 cups water, and bring the water to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook the clams for about 5 minutes, stirring them with a wooden spoon until they open. Drain the clams, reserving the cooking liquid. Discard any clams that have not opened.

3. Pour the olive oil into a shallow flame-proof casserole, and heat it over very low heat to prevent the casserole from cracking. Add the garlic, and cook it, stirring, for about 2 minutes, until it begins to turn golden. Sprinkle the flour over the garlic, and stir with a wooden spoon until the flour is well mixed with the oil and garlic. Add 2 cups of the reserved cooking liquid, the salt, and the parsley, bring the mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally, and cook for about 5 minutes.

4. Add the wine and clams, and gently shake the casserole to distribute the ingredients evenly and to coat the clams with the sauce. Add a tablespoon or so more of the reserved cooking liquid, if necessary, to maintain a saucelike consistency. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes longer, until the sauce thickens slightly and the dish is heated through. Serve the clams and sauce immediately, spooned into shallow soup bowls.

NOTE: A reputable fishmonger should be able to supply you with Manila clams, although you may have to call ahead to order them. If they are not available, substitute littleneck or slightly larger cherrystone clams. Cockles are a good substitute, too, although they may be hard to find.


Espárragos Blancos de Navarra Serves 4

Anyone who has sampled the canned white asparagus from Navarra, the autonomous community to the east of the Basque Country with which we share a gastronomic heritage, will agree that this asparagus is among the best in the world. As a chef, I nearly always prefer fresh produce to anything canned, but in this instance I demur. The tender, young spears are so good that I serve them regularly at the restaurant. You can substitute fresh white asparagus, of course, just as you can use pimientos instead of the piquillos. Piquillos are mild red peppers, also from Navarra, that are available canned at many specialty-foods shops in the United States.

I always think of my mother when I make the vinaigrette for this dish, not because she invented the dressing but because she prefers it to any other. It goes with many dishes, but none so exquisitely as this one. Keep in mind that the ingredients must be chopped very, very fine, until nearly the size of rice grains. The result, however, is worth the work.

For the vinaigrette:

1 hard-cooked egg, minced very fine

3 piquillo peppers (see Note), minced very fine

3 scallions, white parts only, minced very fine

10 pitted Spanish-style green olives, minced very fine

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon minced flat-leaf parsley

For the salad:

8 canned piquillo peppers (see Note) or pimientos, cut in half lengthwise

16 canned white asparagus spears, preferably from Navarra, or cooked fresh white asparagus

1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley

1. To prepare the vinaigrette, put the egg, peppers, scallions, olives, vinegar, and parsley into a small bowl, and stir gently to blend them. Add the olive oil in a slow, steady stream, stirring gently. Use the vinaigrette immediately, or cover it and refrigerate it for up to 2 days. Stir it gently before using it.

2. Open out the pepper halves, and arrange four of them in a semicircle on one side of each of four salad plates, so that the tips of the peppers point outward.

3. Cut off the thick bottom third of each asparagus spear, and slice these sections 1/2 inch thick. Lay an asparagus spear on each pepper, so the blunt ends of the spears meet near the edge of the plate and the tips fan outward.

4. Distribute the chopped asparagus at the base of the fan, where the spears meet. Drizzle the vinaigrette on the peppers between the asparagus spears, and garnish with parsley. Serve immediately.

NOTE: If you can’t find piquillo peppers locally, order them from Northern Boulevard (718-779-4971). Northern Boulevard also stocks Navarra canned white asparagus.


Pimientos del Piquillo Rellenos de Bacalao con Salsa Vizcaína Serves 4

Piquillo peppers are a delicacy that we in the Basque Country indulge in whenever we can. The peppers are grown in neighboring Navarra, where the climate and soil are favorable for their cultivation. They are hand-picked, roasted in brick ovens, peeled by hand, and then packed in glass jars or cans. Look for them in specialty-foods stores. In this recipe, they are stuffed with salt cod for a typical Basque taste treat, and served with Biscayne sauce, which is made with sweet, dry choricero peppers. The salt cod must be soaked for 24 to 36 hours to reduce the saltiness, so allow yourself plenty of time.

1/2 pound skinned and boned salt cod

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour

3 cups milk, heated

12 canned piquillo peppers (see Note); canned pimientos; or roasted, peeled, and seeded red bell peppers

2 cups Biscayne Sauce (recipe below)

1. In a shallow bowl, cover the fish with cold water. Refrigerate the fish for 24 to 36 hours, changing the water every 8 hours or so. Drain the fish on paper towels, and shred it with your fingers.

2. In a skillet or sauté pan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the fish, and sauté it for about 5 minutes, until it is lightly browned. Add the flour, and mix well. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes, adding the milk a little at a time and stirring until the cod béchamel is smooth. Set the pan aside, and let the béchamel cool.

3. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

4. Using a teaspoon, stuff the peppers with the béchamel. Arrange the peppers in a casserole just large enough to hold them snugly. Spoon the Biscayne Sauce over the peppers, and bake them, uncovered, for about 5 to 10 minutes, or until they are heated through and the sauce is bubbling. Serve immediately.

NOTE: Piquillo peppers are imported from Navarra and sold in cans or jars. Buy them in specialty-foods stores, or order them from Northern Boulevard (718-779-4971).


Salsa Vizcaína Makes 3 cups

Anyone who has travelled in the Basque Country has sampled this lovely sauce, since it is probably the most famous of all our sauces. But when I sat down to write this book, I debated including this recipe, despite its importance to Basque cuisine, because choricero, the sweet, dried red peppers necessary for it, are not imported to the United States. I tried making the sauce with other mild, sweet dried red peppers, which are easily available all over the United States, but although flavorful, these do not produce a sauce that tastes so authentic to me. Still, I finally decided that it is better to tell you how to make a good approximation of the sauce than to deprive you of the recipe altogether.

8 dried red choricero peppers, or 6 dried red California (Anaheim) or ancho peppers (see Note)

1/2 cup olive oil

2 medium yellow onions, chopped

1 medium red onion, chopped

1 garlic clove, sliced

2 tablespoons serrano ham or prosciutto, chopped, (optional)


About 1/2 cup Tomato Sauce (recipe below)

1. Put the peppers into a bowl, and soak them in cold water for at least 8 hours. Transfer the peppers and soaking liquid to a saucepan, and heat them over medium heat until they are simmering, but not boiling. Drain the peppers, reserving 1 cup of the liquid. Slit the peppers open, and scrape out the seeds. Discard the seeds.

2. In a skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic, and sauté them for about 5 minutes, until they are softened. Add the peppers and ham, if you’re using it, and cook for about 5 minutes, until the peppers begin to soften. Reduce the heat to low, add the reserved cooking liquid, and season to taste with salt. Cook, stirring, for 20 to 30 minutes, until the peppers are very soft and the sauce is slightly reduced.

3. Add the tomato sauce (you may want to add a little more or a little less than 1/2 cup, according to your taste), and cook for about 5 minutes, until the sauce is hot. Pass it through a food mill, and serve it immediately, or store it in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

NOTE: Because California and ancho peppers tend to be a little larger than choriceros, I use fewer of them.


Salsa de Tomate Makes about 3 cups

I nearly always have this easy sauce on hand in the refrigerator at home as well as at the restaurant. Because it is a basic ingredient in so many recipes, it has saved me a number of times when I had to cook something without much warning.

I highly recommend using a food mill for this recipe. It produces a sauce with a more authentic, robust consistency and a redder color than does a blender or food processor.

If the fresh tomatoes at the market are not fully ripe, substitute canned tomatoes.

1/4 cup olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

3 pounds (8 to 9) tomatoes, cut into small pieces (see Note)



1. In a skillet, heat the olive oil over low heat. Add the onion, and cook it, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, for about 10 minutes, or until the onion is softened.

2. Add the tomatoes, and season to taste with salt and sugar. Stir well, and cook for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally with the wooden spoon.

3. Pass the sauce through a food mill, or purée it in a blender or food processor. Serve the sauce immediately, or store it in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 6 days.

NOTE: If you can’t find good ripe tomatoes, substitute about 3 3/4 cups of drained, peeled (not crushed) canned tomatoes. Canned tomatoes are not as good as seasonal ripe ones, but they are far better than dry, mealy, out-of-season tomatoes.


Chipirones en su Tinta Serves 4

This is among the most typical of Basque dishes. The squid ink turns the dish completely black, which may look a little strange to the uninitiated, but the delicate flavor of the ink makes the dish an immediate winner. When I was a girl, we spent the summers in the fishing village of Mundaka. My father, who loved to fish, often caught so much that even our large family could not eat all his catch. I recall waiting at the port for my father’s boat, and then taking buckets of squid and fish to distribute to my father’s numerous friends. I was often tipped very generously by these friends, who provided a secret income that I did not declare to the “paternal IRS.”

1 cup olive oil

2 medium onions, chopped

1 red onion, chopped

2 leeks, white part only, sliced thin crosswise

1 garlic clove, minced

1 medium tomato, peeled and chopped

24 small (baby) squid (no more than 2 1/2 inches long, measured without tentacles), cleaned


2 tablespoons squid ink (see Note)

3 cups cooked white rice

1. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over low heat, and cook the onions, leeks, garlic, and tomato for about 10 minutes, until the onions and leeks soften and turn almost transparent and the tomato releases its liquid.

2. Turn the squid inside out, and insert the winglets, heads, and tentacles of the squid into the body cavities, making small packages.

3. Add a few squid to the pan, and cook them for about 5 minutes on each side, sprinkling them lightly with salt. Using tongs, gently lift the squid from the pan. Drain them in a strainer, pressing gently to remove excess liquid. Transfer them to a flame-proof casserole. Cook the remaining squid in the same way.

4. Add the squid ink to the pan, and boil the mixture over high heat, stirring, for about 10 minutes, until it is blended and black. Transfer the contents of the pan to a blender or food processor fitted with a metal blade, and blend until the sauce is smooth.

5. Pour the sauce over the squid, and bring the squid and its sauce to a simmer over medium heat. Cook for about 5 minutes, until the dish is heated through. Serve it with the rice.

NOTE: Squid ink is sold frozen in plastic bags in good fish markets and some specialty-foods stores. You can, of course, use the ink from the squid, but you will need more squid — perhaps twice as many. A more practical substitute might be cuttlefish ink, which is very similar to squid ink. For 1 tablespoon ink, you’ll need just one or two cuttlefish.


Tarta de Arrese Serves 8

This crustless tart is typical of my hometown of Bilbao. Its traditional name, tarta de arroz, is misleading, since the tart doesn’t contain rice. So I have renamed it in honor of a bakery in Bilbao, Pastelería Arrese, a favorite haunt of mine that makes a delectable version. When I make this tart at the restaurant, I serve it with fresh fruit, a berry coulis, or ice cream.

2 cups whole milk

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

3 large eggs, separated

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled

1 to 2 cups Sweet Basque Cream (see recipe below; see Note)

1. Preheat the over to 350 F. Lightly butter a 9-inch pie plate.

2. In a blender or in a food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine the milk, flour, egg yolks, and sugar. Blend just until the contents are mixed. Transfer to a bowl.

3. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites with a wire whisk to the “snow point” — just until they start to thicken to soft peaks.

4. Gently fold the egg whites and the melted butter into the milk mixture until the whites are almost completely incorporated. Scrape the mixture into the prepared pie plate, and bake it for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the custard is golden brown and a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool the custard on a wire rack until it is just lukewarm. Cut the custard into wedges, and serve them warm or cool. Spoon the Sweet Basque Cream onto the dessert plates, spreading it to cover the plate. Set a wedge of custard on top of the sauce.

NOTE: The amount of sauce you’ll need depends on the size of the dessert plates.


Natillas Makes 5 to 6 cups; serves 6

At the restaurant, we offer this sweet, liquid custard as a dessert in itself, served in small custard cups. But natillas is also used in countless Basque recipes as a sauce. Although we in the Basque Country claim this sauce as our own, the French make a similar sauce and call it crème anglaise — thereby crediting the English as its inventors.

1 quart heavy cream

2 cinnamon sticks

6 large eggs

3/4 cup sugar

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Ground cinnamon

1. In a saucepan, combine the cream and cinnamon sticks, and bring them to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low, and cook gently for about 10 minutes, until the cream is well infused with the cinnamon. Set the pan aside so the cream can cool.

2. In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, and vanilla until they are well mixed. Add the cream and cinnamon sticks, and whisk well.

3. Heat 1 to 2 inches of water in the bottom pan of a double boiler, and transfer the custard mixture to the top pan, or set the bowl over a saucepan containing 1 to 2 inches of hot water. Bring the water to a boil, and cook the sauce, stirring constantly, for about 30 minutes or until it thickens, adding more hot water to the bottom pan if necessary. Remove the top pan or the bowl from over the hot water, and let the custard cool.

4. Strain the cooled custard through a fine-mesh sieve into a glass or ceramic container, and refrigerate the natillas for at least 4 hours, until it is cool. Stir before serving, adding a little more heavy cream if necessary to smooth the natillas. Divide it among six custard cups or transfer it to a pitcher to use as a sauce. Serve the natillas sprinkled with cinnamon.


Tostadas de Crema Serves 4

This truly delicious dessert, sometimes called leche frita, in some ways resembles what Americans call French toast. However, similarities end with appearance. The method for making Fried Milk is completely different — for one thing, there is no bread! — and requires far more skill and perseverance. Mostly, you must stand at the stove stirring the milk mixture for at least 20 minutes, until it is creamy and smooth, or the dessert will fail. And then you must be patient and not try to cut the mixture into squares until it is completely cool. If it is even a little warm, it will fall apart when you cut it. Tostadas de crema are very good served with caramel sauce.

3 cups whole milk

2 cinnamon sticks

2/3 cup sugar, plus a little more for sprinkling

1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 cup olive or other vegetable oil (see Note)

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

Ground cinnamon

1. In a saucepan, combine 2 cups of the milk with the cinnamon sticks, and bring the milk to a boil over high heat. Immediately reduce the heat to low. Gradually add the sugar, stirring constantly, until it is dissolved. Remove and discard the cinnamon sticks.

2. In a blender, combine the remaining 1 cup milk and 1/3 cup of flour, and blend until the mixture is smooth. Transfer it to the saucepan, and cook the mixture over medium-low heat, stirring continuously, until it is creamy and smooth. This will take at least 20 minutes. Pour the mixture into a greased jelly-roll pan of about 8 by 10 inches. (The mixture should fill the pan to a depth of about 1/2 inch. If it is shallower, use a smaller pan; if it is deeper, use a larger pan.) Let the mixture cool.

3. When the milk mixture is completely cool, cut it into 2-by-2-inch squares.

4. In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat until it is very hot. Spread the remaining 2 tablespoons flour in a shallow bowl, and put the eggs into another small bowl. Carefully coat both sides of each square with flour, and then dip it in the eggs. Fry the squares in the hot oil, immediately reducing the heat a little as soon as you put the squares into the hot oil. Fry them for 1 minute on each side, and then drain them on paper towels. You will have to do this in batches; reheat the oil between batches.

5. Serve the squares warm or at room temperature, sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon.

NOTE: I use olive oil at home, but you might prefer a more neutral-tasting oil in this sweet dessert.


Peras al Vino Tinto de Rioja Serves 4

When the weather is warm, serve the pears and sauce cold or at room temperature. When the weather is cold, serve both pears and sauce warm. For a decorative touch, make several parallel incisions along each pear half, leaving the base intact, and then fan the pieces. Garnish with mint leaves placed under the stem end of each pear.

4 large, firm pears, such as Bosc or Bartlett, peeled, halved lengthwise, and cored

4 cups red Rioja wine

2/3 cup sugar

1 cinnamon stick

2 tablespoons strawberry or raspberry preserves

1. In a saucepan just large enough to hold them comfortably, combine the pears with the wine, sugar, and cinnamon stick. Bring the contents to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low, and cook for about 30 minutes, until the pears are fork-tender. Lift the pears from the pan, and set them aside to cool.

2. Remove and discard the cinnamon stick. Add the preserves to the pan, raise the heat, and boil for about 5 minutes, stirring constantly, until the preserves melt and the sauce is smooth.

3. Serve two pear halves on each plate, and spoon the sauce over them.

Reprinted from The Basque Table, by Teresa Barrenechea with Mary Goodbody, Copyright © 1998, with permission from Harvard Common Press, 535 Albany Street, Boston, MA 02118, 888-657-3755,