Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Marmitako

Marmitako ("from the pot") is a classic Basque stew of tuna and potatoes that evolved on fishing boats. In typical fashion, just about all of the ingredients (apart from the fish) are New World imports; Basques were early and enthusiastic adopters of the potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes (and corn, and beans, and chocolate, and pretty much everything that returned with Columbus) and they quickly became indispensable components of the cuisine. Despite the seeming similarity with Italian preparations, the flavor is not at all Italian, due mostly to the peppers. The use of green bell pepper in the soffrito, piquillo peppers in the stew, and a finishing dust with piment d'Espelette all give this dish (and many others) a uniquely Iberian and specifically Basque slant that's instantly recognizable.

Basques are also famous for their culinary flexibility and improvisation, which is a good thing, because I had Marmitako on the brain and was short a couple of major ingredients. First off, we had swordfish instead of tuna. This turned out to be better than OK, since the sweet, nutty flavor was an excellent match with the stew. And lacking piquillo peppers–which are easily found online, roasted, in jars–I used a couple of dried ancho pods instead, supplemented with a fat pinch of pimentón for some smoky depth. The rest was pretty standard: sautée onion in olive oil, add dried pepper, garlic, and some herbs, then sliced fingerling spuds and busted-up canned tomatoes with enough water to cover for a simmer. Once approaching tender, I added cubed fish, chiffonaded kale (nutrition trumps tradition) and let it simmer a few minutes more to firm up the fish. Then I took it off the heat and let it sit, covered, for about 15 minutes to marry the flavors.

The totally out-of-season ingredients made it but a pale imitation of what the real thing should taste like, and I plan to do this again in September when all of our very own personal nightshades are resplendently ripe and sweet. But having said that, this was very tasty and satisfying on a cold evening– all the more so for having used only one pot and taken about 40 minutes, including the 15 minute rest before serving.



















I recently did a ton of research on Basque food for another gig, and it's nice to have all the reading finally begin to work its way into actual cooking. Never having been there, it's a slower process of assimilating ingredients, flavors and techniques into my regular practice, but it's happening. We had our vaguely Basque-themed dinner a few weeks ago, there's some salt cod in the fridge, and I've been messing around with the Espelette pepper recently, combining it with other spices with a nefarious purpose in mind. That post is just about ready. Don't touch that dial.

Actually, if you need a break from frantically battering the refresh button on this page you could do worse than to read Jonny's excellent post about hake in green sauce, another Basque standard.

11 comments:

Ken Albala said...

It sure does look succulent despite the season. Is this the recipe for the BAsque article? Lush!

peter said...

It's not really the recipe, since I had no tuna, green pepper, or piquillos, but it captured the spirit well enough.

Jo said...

I adore basque flavors. I know if I ever make it over to either Spain or France, that will be the region i hit first....and maybe the one where I remain the whole trip. I've been cooking quite a few things form the region over the last year and have been in love with all of them so far.
This sounds close one I make a sort of piperade base, but I use cod. I like the idea of swordfish. I'll have to try that next.

Julia said...

Glad you mentioned your research; I was wondering why you knew so much about your subject. Thinking: should I know so much about my meals? And yes, why not, but there's only so much time in the day. That said, this looks just perfect for these cold days.

peter said...

Jo: I've been to both countries, but never to Basque territory. It's top of the list for whenever I get back. Honestly, pipérade is basically marmitako without the fish and potatoes. There's a lot of overlap with basic ingredients; the trick is in the subtleties. This is why we need to go there.

Julia: Time permitting, it's good to know things about stuff.

cook eat FRET said...

beautiful food, peter. no doubt. i wish i knew a third of what you know. i feel like a total hack when i read your blog... can you say intimidating? despite that, i like you.

peter said...

You like me?!? You really like me?!?

racheleats said...

I have just bought the beautiful Phaidon book '1080 recipes' and I have read Jonny's post so I feel very basque at present (we are going this summer). This looks like delicious stuff and rather like a recipe I have from Vincenzo's family in Palermo, will look.
I always appreciate your writing and your food (and wine, oh your wine).

peter said...

That book sounds intriguing... I'm very jealous that you're going in the summer. I used to go to Europe all the time for work, but no longer.

MAS said...

Peter - (it's Jonny from WANF - stupid google account gah) thanks for the link, most kind. It's interesting you mention the rapid absorption of new ingredients etc of the Basques, given their having given birth to the Spanish food revolution. I hadn't thought of it until now but there is a fascinating duality there: the willingness to explore (Basque fisherman and whalers are supposed to have been visiting the Canadian coasts long before Columbus bumped into the Caribbean) and the tenacious grip on their traditional culture. Thought-provoking, indeed.

peter said...

Hey Jonny- It's true; there's a really interesting contrast between their exceptionally tenacious culture–which centers around food–and the extraordinary flexibility and openness of their cooking.