Archive for the ‘Basque’Category

Backhouse realizes Niagara’s great potential

Ryan Campbell of Backhouse in Niagara-on-the-Lake

Too bad the great French gourmand Christian Millau didn’t live long enough to visit Ryan and Bev Campbell’s Backhouse in Niagara-on-the-Lake (242 Mary St.; 289-272-1242; backhouse.xyz). In 1968, Millau revolutionized the way the French (and, given the era, the world) regarded haute cuisine when he announced that he had discovered “the best restaurant in the world” in the provincial town of Roanne. He might have said something similar had he discovered this grill-centric, hyper-locavore restaurant in a shopping strip at the edge of this Lake Ontario resort village.

“Best restaurant in the world” is hyperbole, of course. But the comparison to Les Frères Troisgros is more than fair. Backhouse serves brilliant food far from the metropolitan restaurant scene. Asador Etxebarri in the small village of Atxondo in Spain’s Basque country might be an even closer comparison. Etxebarri’s chef Bittor Arguinzoniz cooks everything with open flame and coals. So does Ryan Campbell, one of the most talented and obsessive chefs we’ve ever met. He uses the trimmings from local peach and cherry orchards that would otherwise be burned as slash.

Light my fire


Campbell knows the appeal of the grill, and he places the five-foot cooking box front and center in the restaurant. Diners can opt to sit at conventional tables—or line up in seats along the bar facing the fire. We chose the bar for a tasting menu. We wanted to watch Campbell work the apparatus and poke the logs while wearing his heavy leather blacksmith’s apron. He is so organized and calm that his motions seemed almost meditative.

chicken liver purses at BackhouseThat’s probably because so much of the menu is prepared ahead. Locavore cooking in a cold climate means lots of smoking, drying, pickling, and even freezing products during their seasonal glut. Most of us associate open-fire cookery with quick roasting. Not Campbell. The chickens hanging in the back of the fireplace are cooking ahead for the first step in his “bird on a wire” dish. For our opener, we ate these pastry purses filled with chicken liver mousse and tomatillo chutney. He paired the dish with barrel-fermented sparkling hard cider.

As soon as we finished this earthy combination, we found ourselves looking at a small bowl of fresh curds and whey with just a dash of maple syrup and a beautiful viola flower floating on top. The milk came from Sheldon Creek Farms, a single-herd microdairy. The combination was ethereal and a bright counterpoint to the chicken liver starter. We thought we’d caught our breath, but immediately Campbell set out a tiny ramekin of fried egg white mousse with a confit egg yolk topped with trout caviar. We couldn’t help but think of the pintxos creativos of Spain’s San Sebastian. In effect, the liver purses, curds and whey, and “Meg’s Egg,” as Campbell calls it, formed a trio of canapes that hinted at the restaurant’s range.

Bread and veggies


After a short pause, another trio of dishes appeared in a sudden flurry. Campbell treats his sourdough breads with house-cultured butter as a course unto itself, as well he should. His sourdough starter, affectionately known as “Roxane,” has been with him for years. The bread and butter clean the palate for the intense vegetable dishes that follow.

wild leek and potato soup from BackhouseThe first was a wild leek and potato soup, thick and green, served with a sourdough brioche toast float, a dab of crème fraiche, and thin matchsticks of homemade prosciutto. (Campbell buys only whole animals and does his own butchering. Nothing goes to waste.) Since local asparagus was still in season, he completed the trio with a plate of wood-roasted Niagara asparagus, a smear of black garlic aioli and another smear of garlic mustard. (He makes his own condiments, of course.)

The meat of the matter


First Ontario shrimp at BackhouseWithout getting too precious about it, Campbell treats animal proteins with an almost religious regard for the creatures. He said it took him two years to rise to the top of the wait list to be allowed to buy First Ontario farmed shrimp. The farm only produces about 300 pounds per week, and Campbell gives each Pacific white shrimp a place of honor atop local grits in this small bowl.

bird on a wire from BackhouseOur tasting menu moved on to a variation of the “bird on a wire” dish—so called because Campbell slow roasts heritage chickens strung on a wire in the back of a firebox. He then picks the meat and presses the smoky flesh into a tubular sausage. Thick slices are quickly grilled over the open fire before he plates them with a chicken leg, wood-roasted locally foraged wild mushrooms, and homemade gnocchi. The dish might be the apotheosis of poultry. The glass of Gamay Noir from a local virtual winery (13th Street) didn’t hurt either.

Desserts at Backhouse are seasonally inspired. We were dining in late spring, and maple was Campbell’s inspiration. (We never asked if he uses sugar, but we suspect that maple is his sweetener of choice because it’s local.) He presented a sweet potato custard, a melt-in-the-mouth shortbread, and a crumbly spice cake—all scented and sweetened with maple. Alas, we were too sated to try the plate of Ontario cheeses.


For an overview of attractions, restaurants, and lodging on the Niagara Peninsula, see Visit Niagara (visitniagaracanada.com).

Harvest brings Battersby’s big tastes from small kitchen

Walker Stern of Batersby signs cookbooks at Harvest
A few times a year our neighborhood restaurant in Harvard Square, Harvest (harvestcambridge.com), holds a Sunday supper in its “The Book & the Cook Series.” These 6 p.m. suppers remind us of being back in Europe, gathering for a less than formal meal at the end of the weekend, often around a big table.

Tyler Kinnett, Harvest executive chefMind you, the meals are far more elegant than our Euro repasts. They invariably feature a cookbook author who is also a chef. With input from the author, Harvest’s executive chef Tyler Kinnett (right) and pastry chef Joshua Livesay oversee a meal compiled (or sometimes adapted) from the cookbook. Their realizations are invariably spot-on. They demonstrate both the skill of the Harvest staff and their willingness to step into the background and let the visiting chef take the spotlight. Dinners usually include a signed copy of the book and some fascinating wine or beer pairings at a very reasonable price.

This most recent dinner featured Walker Stern (at top) from Battersby (battersbybrooklyn.com) in Brooklyn. The cookbook is called Battersby: Extraordinary Food from an Ordinary Kitchen (Grand Central, $35). The so-called ordinary kitchen is not much bigger than our own galley setup. Two or three cooks work in a tiny spot with a six-burner stove, one oven, and a narrow prep counter. They serve 70 covers a night. We never manage more than four.

unloading fish in San SebastianThe secret of that productivity is extreme prep. The cookbook reflects that. Recipes are divided into two parts: “To Prep” and “To Serve.” Frankly, it’s the way we love to cook. More to the point, the food is what we like to cook and like to eat. Stern and co-chef Joseph Ogrodnek were CIA classmates who trained with a number of top chefs, most notably Alain Ducasse. Their taste palate skews Mediterranean, with a stronger French accent than Spanish or Italian. But one of the dishes served at the dinner was a purely Basque bowl–seared tuna served on a stew of red peppers and onions called a piperade. As the Battersby cookbook points out, Basque chefs take great pride in their idiosyncratic recipes for piperade. The Battersby version juices the pepper trimmings and adds them to the stew, which intensifies the sweetness. The flavors catapulted us back to San Sebastian. The picture at left above, in fact, shows fishermen unloading the ground fish catch at the San Sebastian docks.

Battersby tuna piperade at Harvest

GRILLED TUNA WITH PIPERADE AND SPANISH HAM


Serves 4

TO PREP

Ingredients


6 red bell peppers
1 medium Spanish onion
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 thin slice Iberico ham (or prosciutto di Parma)
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
Kosher salt
1 teaspoon smoked paprika

Directions


Trim off the tops and bottoms of the peppers, reserving them. Peel the peppers, cut them in half, and remove and discard the seeds and ribs. Cut the peppers into julienne strips.

Peel the onion and cut it into julienne strips. Set aside.

Juice the tops and bottoms of the peppers. If you do not have a juicer, put them in a blender, blend with just enough water to engage the blender’s blade, then strain through a fine mesh strainer into a small bowl. You should have 1/2 cup pepper juice.

Heat the oil over medium heat in a pot that will hold all the ingredients comfortably. When the oil is just shimmering, add the onions and ham and cook, stirring occasionally until the onions are softened but not browned, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook over very low heat, stirring often, until the garlic and onions are very soft but not browned, about 15 minutes. Add the julienned peppers and season with salt and paprika.

Cover the pot and continue to cook over very low heat. After about 5 minutes, check to see if the onions and peppers have given off a lot of their liquid (if not, continue to cook a few minutes more), then remove the cover, raise the heat to medium, and bring the juices to a simmer. Cook until the juices have almost completely evaporated, about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, add the reserved pepper juice, and cook, uncovered, until the peppers are very soft and the mixture is saucy, about 30 minutes.

The piperade can to used right away or refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 days.

TO SERVE

Ingredients


4 (6-ounce) tuna steaks, ideally 1 1/2 inches thick
Kosher salt
Korean chili powder
Sherry vinegar
Extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
8 thin slices Iberico ham (or prosciutto di Parma)

Directions


Heat a gas grill to high or prepare a charcoal grill for grilling, letting the coals burn until covered with white ash.

Season the tuna with salt and chili powder. Grill the fillets until the bottoms are lightly charred and the fish is just starting to turn opaque on the bottom, 2-3 minutes or a bit longer for well-done. (The Battersby chefs like the fish rare in this dish.) Turn the fillets over and grill until cooked on the other side, 2 or 3 minutes more.

Meanwhile, gently reheat the piperade. (You can do this in a pot set on the grill.) Freshen it with a drizzle of vinegar and a drizzle of olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

Divide the piperade among four plates or wide, shallow bowls. Top each serving with a tuna fillet and finish by topping each fillet with 2 pieces of ham. Serve.

02

07 2017

Everyday squid in Basque country

Those of us who aren’t Basque have a hard time imagining just how well they eat. Good food and a love of cooking seem to be central to the culture. When we sat down with Elena and Juan Marí Arzak for the Robb Report story about the seasonal special dish of angulas (see the Dec. 21, 2011 post), they emphasized that love of good food was a Basque birthright that extends to every meal–not just special occasions.

That certainly seems to be true. When we later met professional guide Ana Intxausti Gardeki, she took us to the San Sebastian market and told us all about the various kinds of fish available. (She had worked for a seafood broker before changing careers.) She even gave us a recipe for calamari that she makes at home. It’s a Basque home cooking standard that even superchef Martín Berasategui serves in his restaurants. Ana calls it “Chipirones encebollados,” or “calamari with onions.”

CHIPIRONES ENCEBOLLADOS

Serves 4

Ingredients
4 tablespoons of olive oil, divided
8 spring onions, sliced (shallots will also do)
1 cayenne pepper, crumbled
2 cloves of garlic, minced
32 whole squid, cleaned and cut into tentacles and rings (about 2 lb.)
brandy or Armagnac
1/2 cup of dry white wine
salt to taste

Directions

1. In a sauce pan, mix 2 tablespoons olive oil, onion, cayenne, garlic, and a pinch of salt. Set heat on lowest setting and cover pan. Cook very slowly until the onion becomes golden brown, about 90 minutes.

2. Set a large sauté pan over strong flame and add remaining olive oil. When is it hot, add squid and sauté quickly, about 2 minutes. Add a splash of brandy and set it afire, turning pan to deglaze. Do not crowd the pan. Cook squid in 3 or 4 bunches if necessary. Pour the calamari and any remaining liquid into the onion.

3. Add white wine to the pan of squid and onions. Simmer for 30 minutes. Season with salt before serving.

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17

01 2012

Basque treats: angulas for Christmas

Nothing says Christmas in Basque country like a nice plate of angulas, i.e., baby eels, also known as elvers, glass eels, or ”spaghetti with eyes.” Threatened by overfishing and by Asian buyers who purchase the live elvers to raise on fish farms, angulas nonetheless remain a touchstone of Basque traditional cuisine. They are, however, expensive. We have a piece in the December 2011 Robb Report about fishing for and preparing angulas. We should note that we had a lot of help to research this story, especially from chef Fernando Canales of Etxanobe in Bilbao, eel fisherman and all-around outdoorsman and gourmand Txetxu Oliver, and chefs Juan Marí and Elena Arzak, who were good enough to sit down and talk with us at Restaurante Arzak about angulas in Basque tradition. You can find the whole piece on our Sample Articles page. Watch for coming posts that share some recipes from Basque home cooking.

We refer you to the Robb Report article for the details on angulas, but wanted to give readers a peek at some of the photos that didn’t run with the magazine story. First up is a shot of Fernando with his angulas salad in the kitchen at Etxanobe.

And then there’s the stunning version of angulas served at Restaurante Arzak in San Sebastian. The Arzaks plate the eels on a buckwheat toast and add a seaweed salad. The whole thing is served on a plate of wet black slate.

And, finally, here is Juan Marí Arzak himself cooking the angulas over a wood fire in a perforated frying pan as fellow chef (and daughter) Elena Arzak looks on.

21

12 2011