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.

AN 2014-133 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.

AN 2014-368 AN 2014-317_stpGoing 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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AN 2014-323Then, 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.

AN 2014-490_stpAN 2014-519_stpAN 2014-732AN 2014-802_stpAN 2014-844AN 2014-535_stpAN 2014-858The 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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