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A very Basque Thanksgiving in Petaluma

One of the things we are most thankful for is the travel we have been able to enjoy over the past several years. We have met incredible people, basked in inviting cultures and have discovered some of the most delicious cuisine on the planet (always a prime driver when picking travel destinations).

Since the travel lockdown, we have been revisiting some of our favorite food cultures through our own home cooking, with the help of a vast array of available cookbooks. So, as we approached Thanksgiving, with no immediately travel plans on the horizon, we decided to forgo the American tradition and instead, visited some traditions from one of our favorite food-centric cultures: the Basque.

Considered the oldest European culture and one filled with mystery in its origin, the Basque people seem to have unique traditions at every bend in the road and on every plate that comes from the kitchen. Straddling the western border of Spain and France, the Basque Country is known as the birthplace of modern gastronomy, is it was no surprise to learn that its culinary capital, San Sebastian (also known as Donostia) has more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than any other city in the world. Rightly so, Basque cookbooks take up a good portion of our kitchen shelf.

“Life and Food in the Basque Country” by Maria Jose Sevilla is a classic, and “The Basque Kitchen” by Gerald Hirigoyen, owner/chef of San Francisco’s Fringale and Pastis American, represents the French Basque well, it is the tome from expat Marti Buckley that is our current favorite.

“Basque Country – A Culinary Journey Through a Food Lover’s Paradise” has vibrant photos and accurate and easy to follow recipes, but gives a respectable nod to Maria Jose Sevilla by including stories of Basque culture and culinary history. It is not unusual for us to spend a great deal of time flipping through the pages before deciding which recipe to try, based on the associated story.

Partially due to our lack of love for turkey and partially due to our love of the classic Basque cider house meal, and we were clamoring to find all the proper ingredients prior to our Thanksgiving day endeavor. Due to the differing climate, many of the ingredients we find available locally, such as peppers, have a very different flavor than the same exact pepper grown in the Basque Country. For this reason, we planned ahead and tried to source as many authentic Basque ingredients as possible.

One item which is hard to come by in the US due to import restrictions is Spanish-style chorizo. Just as the “New World” was the Wild West, so to speak, the chorizo of the Americas is a much spicier cured meat than its more-refined, paprika-heavy, less-spicy Spanish cousin. Thankfully, Thistle Meats makes a respectable Spanish chorizo. Available in such limited quantities because it’s handmade in-house, we usually buy at least two of these heavy hitters whenever we see them in the deli case as they seem to only get better with age.

The Basque sidreria (also known as a sagardotegi) experience is rustic in appearance yet refined to perfection thanks to its tradition being developed and passed down through the generations. Operating since Medieval times, this drinking and dining marvel celebrates neighbors, food, cider and local agriculture. And even though held during the later winter and early spring, the camaraderie among neighbors and hospitality shown to visitors makes a visit to Basque cider house one of the warmest experiences in which we have been lucky enough to participate.

Traditionally, when the apple harvest was abundant and cider production exceeds a family needs, each farmstead (caserìo) opened the bounty and offered surplus cider to friends and neighbors. These tastings (probateko) drew townspeople to sample the apple flavors mid-fermentation, directly from the cider vat (kupela). This was the ultimate potluck; neighbors brought fish, meat, eggs and vegetable side dishes from their own farms to share while tasting the cider house’s abundance.

These days, cider houses in the Basque country continue to highlight the neighborly nature of these samplings in their tasting rooms, giving visitors a taste of traditional fare like salt cod omelets (bakailao tortilla), grilled fish with roasted peppers (Bacalao con pimientos), dry-aged ribeye steak grilled over open coals (txuleta), sardines smoked on embers, and finishing out with a dessert of smoked sheep cheese (idiazabal – often available at Petaluma Market) with quince jelly and roasted walnuts.

Customers alternate between standing to visit and share stories, and sitting at long wooden communal benches to eat as each dish makes its way to the table. Whenever a tumbler glass is empty, patrons hear the call of the cider keeper “Mojón!” – as the txiri, a small wooden stick that seals the cider vat, is removed and the cider flows. Tasters line up to intercept the thin stream of semi-fermented cider. Holding their glass at the proper angle to catch the straw gold liquid, they hope not to get the evil eye if even a drop of cider is wasted on the cement floors of the sidrerìa. Sagardo (cider) is best enjoyed fresh from the cask, when the apple flavors shine, and the beverage retains its natural, light-catching effervescence.

Not yet brave enough to venture into the realm of preparing salted cod, which can make you sick if not prepared properly, we modified our Thanksgiving cider house menu, all the while remembering the great dining experience we had during our visit to Petritegi cider house outside of Donostia several years ago. We failed to warn them that we were English speakers but fifth-generation owner Ainara Otaño was not flustered in the least, even though she spoke virtually no English. Between our rudimentary Spanish, Basque and a bit of grade-school Latin, we enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime tour from one of the most respected cider makers in the Basque Country.

Although unrelated to Basque cuisine, before, during and after our meal, we enjoyed donuts, rolls and cakes from Pane di Vero, Petaluma’s newest cottage-kitchen bakery.

After several days of on-again off-again preparation, we finally sat down for our Thanksgiving lunch around a table full of flavors that took us directly back to our visits of the Basque Country.

We started with bean and fig salad in walnut oil vinegar (leka eta pikuen entsalada intxaur olio-ozpinetan) which was fresh and vibrant and probably one of our best “first try” recipes ever. Over the rest of the weekend, we tried this dish both warm and cold, both equally good. (This recipe was from “The Basque Kitchen” while the rest come from “Basque Country.”)

Next up was a classic Basque dish – potato tortilla (patata tortilla). Not to be confused for our flat burrito-wrapping bread, to the Basque and Spanish, a tortilla is crust-less quiche type dish. (Tortillas and frittatas are similar in composition but in general, the tortilla is finished on the stovetop while the frittata is finished in the oven.) This is a simple dish, containing just eggs, grilled onions and potatoes, but a staple of Basque cuisine. We used the flavorful Bodega Red potatoes, an heirloom coastal variety, which we find at Jupiter Food’s pop-up markets several days a week in downtown Petaluma.

Because we had extra potatoes, we tried another simple looking dish called garlic potatoes (patatak baratxuriarekin) even though the preparation was a bit intimidating at first. It did require the potatoes to be cooked three way, including deep frying. However, we have found that our high-sided cast iron Dutch oven handles this work well, allowing few oil spatters to escape. Other than the potatoes and oil, the only other ingredients are sautéed garlic, a touch of minced parsley during the final minute of cooking and then a sprinkling of paprika while plating. I normally find parsley to be a nuisance, however we used Italian parsley, which has a nice hint of citrus.

With a foundation of green veggies, followed by two starchy dishes, it was time to get into some meat. Although a potato-based stew (we again used Bodega Reds), Riojan potato-chorizo stew (patatak errioxar erara) is heavy on chorizo flavor, especially when using a quality Spanish-inspired chorizo. Packed with incredible flavor, it is amazing that this dish calls for so few ingredients: potatoes, chorizo, white wine, paprika and Basque pepper is basically it.

Originally reserved to Basque cider houses, but now enjoyed in many restaurants, Txuleta is the Basque word for “steak” and tastes like no other. It helps that they start with grass-feed, bone-in ribeyes, usually dry-aged for 30 days, although sometimes available in 60 and 90 day variants. As soon as I read that the recipe called for grass-feed, dry-aged, bone-in ribeyes, I knew exactly where to turn – Stemple Creek Ranch. Although not listed on their website, their dry-aged ribeyes are often available at their farmers market booth or by special orders. Theirs produced the closest result we have ever experienced to authentic Basque Txuleta and explains why we have been preparing Stemple Creek Txuleta weekly ever since discovering their dry-aged steaks. For comparison, we did several other ribeyes but the only one that could even come close was Stemple Creek’s regular ribeyes from Petaluma Market, and although more affordable than the dry-aged version, those extra couple of weeks of dry-aging is what gives Txuleta its distinct flavor and texture.

As is the theme with many Basque dishes, the preparation appears simple on paper, yet requires an almost art-like execution. That said, dishes like Txuleta are already starting with great tasting ingredients so even if you blunder slightly, you are still going to have a great steak.

The traditional txuleta grills are coal-fired and have a tilted rack so as to control the cooking as new steaks are added to the grill as fast as the finished ones are removed. Coals are brought up to very high temperatures but once ready, are never allowed to flame up under the txuletak (steaks). The txuleta is charred by indirect, not open-flame heat. Because we have a gas-flamed grill, we add a low-sided cast-iron pan to our barbecue in order to avoid the direct flame. It takes quite a bit of time to bring it up to max temperature, but once there, has no problem staying hot as we add the room temperature steak.

The txuleta receives no pre-cooking preparation, other than letting it come up to room temperature, which is one of the main tricks to cooking a great steak. Once the grill is good and hot (in excess of 500F, if possible), you simply slap the txuleta on there and let it sizzle. A mere five minutes later, you heavily salt the meat before flipping it over. So long as you are paying good money for a great steak, you may as well invest in good quality salt as that is the only other ingredient to this preparation. We use hand-harvested salted from Petaluma’s Nomad Botanticals.

Once flipped, we generously salted the steak again. So much so, that it requires a dusting off when it is pulled from the grill just five minutes later. It is then cut perpendicular to the bone, and is served with the bone on the plate. The flavor is phenomenal and due to the dry-aging, so is the texture.

Thanksgiving would be nothing without dessert and we just so happened to luck into some locally made Basque cheesecake (gazta tarta). The key difference between American and Basque-style cheesecake is that we wrap ours in a crust and cook is slow and low, while the Basque use no crust and bake at a super high temperature for a short amount of time. The cake at the side of the pan caramelizes, giving it a crust-like exterior. The most famous Basque cheesecake maker is La Vina, an unassuming pintxos bar along the oldest street in old-town Donostia-San Sebastian. We have it just about nightly when we visit so can say with confidence that this local version, produced as a recent special by Ayako Masuda down at Sake 107, is on par with the original.

With so much food for just the two of us, we easily had leftovers throughout the holiday weekend, all of which improved with age due to the combinations of ingredients. We may go back to a traditional turkey dinner next year, but just as likely might try another favorite cuisine as a way to refresh our palettes and our memories, especially if travel is still restricted in 2021.

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