This fish-enhanced garlic soup is the humblest soup in this chapter and also one of the most flavorful. It calls for pan sopako, a nearly burnt, hard bread that is made especially for thickening the garlic-and-water base, much like a ship’s biscuit would. Revived by the broth and salt cod, this baked-to-be-stale bread is transformed into the Basque answer to chowder. At Txikito, in spring, we amplify its garlicky goodness with ramp greens; the rest of the year, we use Chinese garlic chives or flowering chives. It also benefits from the addition of a rich yellow pastured egg yolk, stirred in at the end for a velvety effect. It is a pantry meal par excellence, one that has inspired many an elevated dish at the restaurant, like the monkfish recipe.
Line a plate with paper towels. In a small saucepan, combine the oil and garlic over medium-low heat and cook, stirring, for about 40 seconds, until the garlic is golden brown and crisp. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the garlic to the towel-lined plate. Raise the heat to medium-high, add the baguette slices to the oil remaining in the pan, and toast, turning once, for about 3 minutes total, until medium-dark brown on both sides. Set the bread aside with the garlic chips.
Turn down the heat to low, add the garlic chives, and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 3 minutes, until wilted. Whisk in the paprika and pepper paste, mixing well. Stir in the stock and season with salt. Add the cod and poach for about 40 seconds, until white and flaky.
To serve, place a toasted bread slice in the bottom of each bowl. Pour the garlic broth around the bread and top the bread with some fried garlic. Working quickly, separate the eggs one at a time and place a yolk on each piece of toast. Discard the whites or save for another use. Ladle more broth over the top, garnish with parsley, and serve immediately.
Choricero Pepper Paste
Pure de Pimiento Choricero
Makes 8 cups
Any Basque sauce that is red and appears to contain lots of tomato but doesn’t taste like it is probably choricero sauce. The bittersweet choricero pepper is one of the hallmarks of Basque cooking: its pulp adds body and flavor to many typical Basque sauces, and its sun-scorched red hue is immediately recognizable—and was the inspiration for the primary color of the Basque flag. Choricero peppers are dried in the sun but aren’t smoked like some paprika peppers favored in other parts of Spain.
Many Basques buy the pulp of the choricero, but Eder’s grandmother taught me how to use the tip of a spoon to scrape the flesh from the hydrated peppers and pass it through a food mill. It’s an arduous task but yields sauces and soups with a more traditional finish. At the restaurant, we put the pulp in a blender, which creates a smooth paste. Still, when I want to produce a “grandma” dish, I take the trouble of pulling out a spoon to make the paste the old-fashioned way, just as sometimes you want to use a mortar and pestle to make a more traditional aioli or pesto.
If you can’t find choriceros, I recommend substituting Mexican guajillos. Their heat level can vary from batch to batch, so be careful not to inhale as you’re pureeing them. You can also adjust the amount of peppers you use based on their heat level. I like a little heat.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Arrange the peppers on a baking sheet, place in the oven, and toast for 2 to 5 minutes, until fragrant and pliable. While the peppers are still warm, remove their seeds and stems.
Fill a large saucepan about two-thirds full with lightly salted water and bring to a boil. Add the toasted peppers, then turn off the heat and cover with a lid. Leave the peppers to steep for about 20 minutes, until very soft.
Drain the peppers, reserving the soaking water. Working in batches, process the peppers in a blender using only enough of the soaking water as needed to form a puree. Pass the puree through a fine-mesh strainer and then store in airtight containers in the refrigerator for up to a week or in the freezer for up to 3 months. Freeze any remaining soaking water to use as a flavorful vegetarian stock.
Caldo de Pescado
Makes 4 to 5 quarts
This stock could be the textbook definition of the old proverb “waste not, want not.” You can toss in shellfish shells, fish bones, and fish heads (be sure to cut away the gills, as they can turn the stock bitter); whitefish bones, for the record, yield a particularly flavorful and clean-tasting result. I do not recommend using the bones of oily fish like mackerel. We do not add vegetables or wine here to keep the stock more neutral and flexible. You can add shrimp shells, but keep in mind that they are stronger flavored and not as versatile as fish-bone stocks.
When you make this stock, be careful never to let it boil hard. Think of the cooking process as steeping tea. The finished product has many uses, from a base for fish soups to the cooking liquid for the white rice served with Squid in Its Ink.
In a large stockpot, combine the fish and shellfish remnants with cold salted water to cover and let soak for 5 minutes to remove any excess blood. (If using only shellfish shells, you can skip this step.) Drain the contents of the pot through a strainer and return the solids to the pot. Add the parsley sprigs and water to cover and bring to a bare simmer over medium-low heat. Cook for 10 minutes, skimming off any impurities that rise to the surface. Turn off the heat and let the stock steep for 20 minutes.
Scoop out the large solids with a slotted spoon and discard. Strain the stock through a fine-mesh strainer into a container, being careful not to allow any of the solids that have settled at the bottom of the pot to pass through the strainer. Let cool, then use immediately or transfer to airtight containers and refrigerate for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 3 months.
Quick Salt-cured Cod
Makes 5 to 7 pounds salt cod
Bakalao is such a versatile and pragmatic ingredient that it can serve as a metaphor for the Basque people, whose brutishness, material ambition, and adaptability have meant that they are among the longest surviving cultures in the world. Following cod to faraway seas says as much about their tenacity and need for adventure as it might about their simple love of fish. Most of the cod we get at Txikito is not exactly the same species that Basques prize the most, but it is what we have come to know from head to tail and is ever present in our cooking.
To avoid unwanted scales on the cod flesh, be sure to always work with the cod skin side down, so any errant scales are touching the cutting board. Once you have removed the skin from the fillet, rinse the cutting board thoroughly before placing the cod flesh on it.
Line a baking sheet, cutting board, or surface large enough to accommodate the length of the cod fillet with parchment paper. Sprinkle one-third of the salt over the parchment paper and place the cod, skin side down, on the salt. Sprinkle the remaining two-thirds of the salt directly onto the cod flesh, piling it up more aggressively on the thicker parts (the loin), and more lightly on the thinner parts (the tail and belly). Don’t be shy with the salt. The cod must be visibly covered with it even in the “lightly coated” parts. Cover the cod with parchment paper or plastic wrap and apply even pressure with a few heavy items, such as 5-pound bags of rice or gallon containers of water. Allow the cod to cure for 2 1/4 hours at room temperature.
Uncover the cod and check the flesh. It should be notably tight and its surface should be a bit leathery. The salt will have extracted enough water from the fish that it will weigh about 60 percent less. Rinse off the salt and pat the fish dry.
Reprinted with permission from The Basque Book by Alexandra Raij with Eder Montero and Rebecca Flint Marx, copyright © 2016, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.