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Aste Nagusia 2014 – Cooking, The Basque Way

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After a vigorous Tortilla competition, the subsequent cook-offs for Txipirones en su Tinta (Squid cooked in its Ink) and Bacalao a la Vizcaina (Basque-style Salted Cod) were quieter affairs, receiving over 50 entries each, largely due to the higher costs of ingredients. For a large cazuela that serves 18 people, it averages about 200 euros (US$259) for the Txipirones and 400 euros (US$518) for the Bacalao. I was invited to guest judge the Txipirones cooking contest and, for the Bacalao cook-off, got to spend a morning documenting two teams cooking side-by-side.

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As Basque classics, these dishes have a standard list of ingredients and steps to follow. In both cases, slow-cooked onions augmented with green or red peppers are the primary ingredients in each sauce, which is then pressed through a chinois for a pureed consistency. The protein (fish or seafood) is seared and combined with the sauce over low heat for a period of time before serving. What’s fascinating to see is how one recipe materializes in a variety of ways depending on the quality and type of ingredients used (fresh vs frozen, for example), the addition of ‘flavor enhancers’ such as stock, and above all, the palate and skill of the chef. Participating in a competition like this requires more than just a passion for food – you’d need to have strong confidence in your tastes and cooking ability to participate. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ entry per se, instead it is a matter of whether you (and enough of the judges) like the blend of flavors presented in your entry.

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Judging 51 entries of Txipirones was certainly a much simpler affair than judging 400 omelettes, but nonetheless daunting for this novice. At first glance, the judging table presented as a sea of black stews, each entry differentiated only by the size and material of its vessel. Once we started tasting however, the characters of each entry started to stand out. As was the case with the omelettes, each dish was judged on its appearance, texture and flavor. The ideal entry would present a smooth and shiny sauce that was thick but not so thick that it would cling to the squid when lifted with a fork, and wasn’t too greasy (evidenced by small pools of oil on the surface). The squid had to be tender and firm, not overly chewy or paste-like – both indicators of over-cooking or of inferior quality ingredients. On the palate, there needed to be balanced flavors – not too sweet (from too many onions), or bitter (a sofrito that started to brown) – allowing the delicate notes of sweet squid to shine through.

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Going behind the scenes to observe the Bacalao cooking process the next day went a long way to inform my tasting of the day’s entries. I wasn’t officially a judge for this dish, but by that point I was simply handed an apron and a fork with the assumption that I would tag along the tasting train. The process of cooking Bacalao a la Vizcaina begins two to three days before serving by breaking down an entire Bacalao, cut in such a way as to fit nicely into the cazuela. The filets are then soaked in cold water for 24 to 48 hours, with a change of water every eight hours.

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Then, there are the red peppers to prepare. Dried Choricero peppers (Pimiento Choricero) are traditionally used, and feature in the dish by being soaked in water for 24 hours and the pulp painstakingly scraped off. Traditionalists will tell you that pimientos used this way taste much better than bottled, ready-to-use pimiento pulp, the same way that manually pureeing the sauce through a chinois yields better flavor and texture than using a blender. There were one or two entries which used tomatoes instead of pimiento, and the difference was stark. The tomato-based sauces were not as thick and flavors were less complex. In this dish, the goal is to balance the mild spiciness of Choricero pepper with the flavor of the salted cod.

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Despite the demands on one’s time and money to participate in a competition of this nature, the atmosphere was convivial and almost collaborative.  Pictured above are Guillermo (left, the 2013 Bacalao a la Vizcaina champion) and his friend Javi (from the tent next door), on one of their many taste tests. They went back and forth between their pots, tasting, reflecting and comparing notes of how their sauces were evolving. It was practically a party by mid-morning, when friends and families started to show up and help and crowds started to gather.

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The results: Guillermo and his teammate Luis placed sixth in this year’s competition (winning 70 euros/ US$90 and a trophy) while Javi won second place, winning 220 euros/US$285. The first-placed winner gets 250 euros/US$323. It was all in a day’s work for Guillermo and Luis, both of them 27-year veterans of Basque cooking contests. By the time the results were announced they had broken down their makeshift outdoor kitchen and were ready to head home to prepare for the next day’s cooking competition: Bacalao al Pil Pil - salted cod in an olive oil and garlic sauce. Sadly, that was the day I left Bilbao and didn’t get to try this dish. Next year hopefully!

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Travel Basque Country - We can’t wait to have you back next time — and will be sure to add bacalao a pil pil to the agenda. Great photos and story!

Aste Nagusia 2014 – Celebrating, The Basque Way

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In a serendipitous turn of events, I got to end my summer with two weeks in Europe at the end of August. This included a short stint in Bilbao, Spain, for one of the Basque Country’s biggest annual fiestas: Aste Nagusia (literally, “The Principal Week”). I was there at the invitation of my friends Margaret and Javi, the power couple behind Travel Basque Country, an online resource for information and custom tours to the Basque region in Northern Spain.

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Hannah - Fascinating! But after all that, now I really must know: What was the winning recipe?!

Danielle - @Hannah: There is a standard recipe for this dish (eggs, potatoes, onions, olive oil, salt). So the entries are judged on flavor and texture (which reflect the quality of ingredients used as well as technique), and presentation, then scored on a card. The entry with the highest score wins.

Natasha Venzke - This looks amazing. Food is one of the main reasons to travel for me.

Aste Nagusia 2014 – Cooking, The Basque Way | Beyond [the Plate] - […] a vigorous Tortilla competition, the subsequent cook-offs for Txipirones en su Tinta (Squid cooked in its Ink) and Bacalao a la […]

Miami Through The Lens

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I was in Miami last month to photograph this year’s BlogHer Food and arrived ahead of the conference to get a feel for this city. Over two days, I spent an afternoon in Little Cuba with this Walking Tour as my guide. I found the neighborhood underwhelming overall, with little to offer in terms of street life. However there are delicious cafecitos and refreshing coconut juice to be had on Calle Ocho, and if you’re lucky, the friendly locals at Maximo Gomez Park may offer you a share of their Colada while they wait their turn at dominoes.

Little Cuba, Miami FL
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El - Looks like you had a great time. Thanks for sharing the beautiful photos!

Celebrating With A Pig Roast

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We learnt, around this time a year ago, that our third offer on a house was accepted. If all went well, we would be homeowners in a matter of weeks. What began as a preliminary exploration into the possibility of home ownership had, after two unsuccessful bids, countless open houses and even more Negronis, become a very real and serious prospect. We were about to own OUR FIRST HOME. An actual spot of land on this massive earth. It all felt very GROWN UP and momentous, due in large part to how quickly everything came together. Between our first conversations with the mortgage broker and the day we got the keys, a mere ten weeks had passed – a blink of an eye when house-hunting in a highly competitive real estate market.

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Sheri - It was a great party, fantastic pig, and a perfect way to celebrate your new home! So glad we’re neighbors. :)

Danielle - Me too!!

William @News4Foodies - Looks amazing – I wish I was your neighbor too! :)

I have heard some real culinary horror stories about first time whole-pig roasting, like underestimating lengthy amount of time it takes, as you mentioned. But also even worse things like not cooking evenly or all the way through.

A pig roast is definitely on my culinary bucket list. Someday, someday.

In your opinion, what was the most difficult part of the whole thing? Did anything else in particular catch you off guard?

Danielle - Yes there were parts of the pig that needed to be finished off in the oven, mostly the areas close to the bone/joints. I just realized that I never really addressed the question of actually roasting the pig, because my husband did that bit. He kept a grill of live coals on the side which fed the rotisserie throughout the 7+ hours of cooking.

The most difficult part was prepping the pig – we didn’t realize how heavy the final stuffed and trussed pig would be and how challenging it would be to thread it onto the rotisserie rod. An alternative way of cooking this would be to butterfly the carcass and lay it flat over a bed of coals, flipping it over halfway.

William @News4Foodies - Hi Danielle, thanks for the reply!

“Yes there were parts of the pig that needed to be finished off in the oven, mostly the areas close to the bone/joints.”

That makes sense. Good to know.

“He kept a grill of live coals on the side which fed the rotisserie throughout the 7+ hours of cooking.”

Wow, very smart!

Silk Road Teas

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To the inexperienced palate, tea is a complicated business. Or not, depending on your preferences. Up until a few years ago, I was perfectly content with heapfuls of Mariage Freres’ Earl Grey Imperial for an afternoon brew. Sure, I’d drink any tea if you put it in front of me, but if I had to brew it myself? That stout black tin would be the one I’d reach for. I’m a simple girl with simple tastes, after all.

Things changed after I did a piece for Etsy about a two-generation, family-owned artisan tea shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Over a leisurely tasting of oolong, white and green teas, I discovered the delicate beauty that is Taiping Houkui, from China’s An Hui province, ranked as one of the top ten teas in China and a common choice for diplomatic gifts. Whereas my beloved Mariage Freres earl grey derives most of its character and aroma from bergamot oils, the fragrant nose of a cup of Taiping Houkui is entirely reflective of the quality of the leaf. Good leaf, good flavor. It doesn’t get any simpler than that.

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El - I’m a huge tea fan aso I love this article. Great photos and good to know about Silk Road.

Laurente Clavio - Everyone should be extra carefull when looking for the silk road as the cops are watching it like a Hawk. I found a pretty good site with heaps of tips to hide yourself and ghuide with the url and everything http://silkroaddrugs.org/

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