Like most of my fellow cooks, I have a fairly burgeoning spice cabinet. I love the fusty notes of turmeric, the Eastern European sharpness of dill, the nutty depth of sesame oil and surprising savory-sweet brightness of cardamom. I also love how a seasoning palette can come together, like the instruments of an orchestra, to create a symphony of flavor. Sure, if used with a heavy hand, they can become muddy. But at their best, they transform your basic building blocks, elevating them to something richer and better.
It turns out that not everyone shares my enthusiasms. And despite having a renown gastronomy, the Basque spice cabinet is... a little bare. If you don´t count each type of pepper separately, my friend Iñaki´s tiny shelf contains only the addition of thyme, cumin, saffron, and a dusty container of curry powder that´s probably never been opened. We´ve had lengthy debates about the benefits of seasonings, with Iñaki maintaining that they´re just a crutch of people who need to hide sub-par ingredients. Last week we rode the Artxanda Funicular to panoramic beauty on the top of BIlbao, and looked at a monument to the many groups that fought against Franco (where the expected socialists and communists were joined by batallions of local hiking clubs). As we looked down the lists of names, I asked Iñaki about his political affiliations. ¨I have no party,¨ he claimed. ¨I am only anti-spices.¨
And much to my surprise, I am gradually undergoing a similar political conversion. Despite the lack of seasoning (or perhaps because of it), the amazing local ingredients shine. Farm-grown vegetables and just-caught seafood really don´t need much adornment, beyond a drizzle of olive oil and salt. And lest you, like me, furrow your brow at the idea of a beloved dish composed of little more than fish in a garlicky vinaigrette, let me tell you: it´s great.
As with most simple preparations, the beauty of this is in the details. Needless to say, you start with great fish (we´ve prepared it with hake and horse mackeral, both locally-caught and fresh). What could just be a boring vinaigrette is given depth from sauteed garlic, then poured over the fish and back into the saucepan to emulsify with the fish gelatin, adding flavor and body to form a rich, cohesive sauce. I still maintain a love for the full symphony of complex, seasoned dishes (and even managed to win fans for this Moroccan herb jam, although it contains both smoked paprika and cumin). But the art of simple cooking, like a haunting solo performance, can be its own sort of perfection.
Fish a la Bilbaino
via Iñaki Guridi (with tips for sauce emulsification courtesy of his sister)
~1 1/2 lbs relatively mild-flavored fish
3 Tbsp olive oil
4 cloves garlic, thickly sliced
3 Tbsp white wine or sherry vinegar
1 handful parsley, finely minced
salt to taste
Bake or poach the fish until fully cooked (details of this will depend upon the source and size of the fish used).
While the fish is cooking, begin the sauce. Heat the olive oil in a small skillet over a medium-high heat, and saute the garlic until just begins to darken (we have made this with both golden and barely-colored garlic, and I think I prefer the former). Add the vinegar and parsley and boil for a minute, stirring to emulsify.
When the fish has finished cooking, pour the sauce over it. Let sit for a moment, then gently tip to sauce back into the skillet. Bring to a boil for a minute or two, stirring rapidly to emulsify, until the sauce has reduced very slightly (if your fish gave off a lot of liquid in cooking, this may take an additional minute or two). Transfer the fish to a serving plate, pour the sauce over the top, and serve. Add salt to taste.