23 March 2012

Basque Cod ... and Elena Arzak

Basques had been crossing the ocean since the Middle Ages, voyaging to the rich cod fisheries of the Grand Banks and pursuing whales into the treacherous sub-Arctic waters off Greenland. Indeed, John Cabot's celebrated discovery of Newfoundland in 1497 was greeted by the Basques with something approaching wry bemusement, for it was hardly a new-found-land, two of their own captains having dropped their anchors off the very same coast over a hundred years before.  - Mark Mills in Amagansett
This week, I have had my nose in a couple books. In one particularly good mystery novel, I came across this quote. It reminded me of reading Mark Kurlansky's book, Cod - A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World. Kurlansky writes extensively about the importance of the Basque fishermen's discovery of the Grand Banks. The codfish became such an important sea harvest that it played a dominant role in the development of the European rush to colonize the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Salted cod became a staple of naval stores and fed many a sailor, as countries like Spain, France, and Great Britain made their marks on the world beyond their countries' immediate political borders. To this day, salted cod is an important ingredient in Basque and Catalonian cuisine.

"Food should be humble and relate to every single person." - Elena Arzak

This strange coincidence of reading is piggybacked on other research reading that I've been doing on Elena Arzak - #40 on the list of 50 Woman Game Changers. This long list of women was put together by Gourmet Live magazine back in May of 2011 and several bloggers have been faithfully doing each woman the honor of preparing foods inspired by them and posting tributes to each. Well, everything that I have read about Elena Arzak has just impressed me so much.

Elena Arzak has earned her place. Period. Her family has deep culinary roots in the Basque culture of northern Spain's city, San Sebastien. Yet, she has gone farther afield to earn her stripes, studying in France, Switzerland , and England before returning to home. In returning, she has formed an alliance with her father, renowned Basque chef Juan Mari Arzak. Together, they have brought Basque cuisine to the world stage, creating dishes that border on food theater. Dramatic food that is really very basic ... simple ingredients presented in imaginative ways. She is a force to be reckoned with, although her modesty and almost reclusive nature would lead one to believe otherwise. Suffice it to say, she is inspired, creative, and artistic.  She has been credited with bringing an art nouveau approach to the traditional Basque cuisine ... and believe me, some of her dishes are involved and clever. The ingredients, however, tend to be basic staples of northern Spain and she has stated that she likes to stay true to her food roots.

I am no chef ... so I am staying true to this basic Basque recipe - Bacalao Fresco en Refrito. The recipe comes from a moving tribute to the regions of Spain that Frank Camorra and Richard Cornish gave us a few years ago ... Movida Rustica - Spanish Traditions and Recipes. It may be a roundabout tribute to Elena Arzak, but it is a solid and tasty tribute with all the flavours of northern Spain packed into a simple dish.

This is a roasted cod. It begins by being simply rubbed with some salt and black pepper and drizzled with olive oil. It goes into a hot fry pan and is left for a few minutes per side,  then popped into a hot oven for a few more minutes to roast to a finish. While the cod finishes, a hot olive oil dressing is made with garlic cloves, red hot peppers, and fresh parsley. It is served with crusty bread (or in our case, roasted potatos to slather up the garlic dressing) and simple steamed green beans. Crisp white wine and sparkling water and Basque Cherry Pies for dessert. A simple feast right from the heart of Basque country ... and one that I think Elena would be very familiar with! 

Roast Cod with a Hot Garlic and Chili Dressing
a recipe from Movida Rustica


2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
2 lb. 9 oz. fresh skinless cod, groper, or blue-eye trevalla - cut into two pieces
salt and black pepper


5 ¼ fl oz. extra virgin olive oil
6 cloves garlic, sliced
2 hot spicy red chili peppers, finely sliced
2 tbsp. chopped parsley
Making the Dish:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Farenheit.

2. Heat an oven proof frypan over medium high heat. Rub the fish fillets with salt and black pepper. Drizzle them with oil and add a bit of oil to the hot pan. Lay the fish into the hot pan and let it sear for three- six minutes per side (this depends on the thickness of the fillets).

3. Place the pan into the pre-heated oven to finish ... another 6 to 8 minutes.

4. Heat the olive oil for the dressing in a small heavy saucepan over medium-low heat. When it's hot, add the garlic and stir constantly until the garlic begins to become golden - then add the chili peppers. Continue to stir for one minute.

5. Remove from the heat and stir in the parsley. Let the dressing rest while the fish finishes.

6. Reheat the dressing when you plate the fish, drizzle it over the fillets and serve hot with crusty bread for soaking up the dressing. 


  1. Yum Susan, you picked a great recipe this week. I am glad you shared this with us.

  2. Susan, this sounds wonderful and Elena, herself, would approve. Your photos of the dish are amazing and their pops of color are riveting. Thanks so much for this one. Blessings...Mary

  3. What a great tie-in! This dish is visually stunning and sounds DELICIOUS!

  4. Love this tribute to Elena with a little culinary history thrown in. The Grand Banks have been supplying us with cod for over a hundred of years.

  5. This recipe goes to the heart of Spanish cooking; simplicity of ingredients, and technique, leaving you with an absolutely delicious dish.,

  6. this is amazing!... I absolutely love this dish, it's just so me and have to make it... off to purchase the cod now... wow, I can even smell it!

  7. This Basque Cod sounds fantastic - love how simple it is. Perfect way to honor Elena Arzak by this week.

  8. Your dish turned out beautifully! Love the cod information (I had some on St. Patrick's Day!) and you've done a super write-up on Elena!

  9. This looks so good my mouth is watering! I'd heard about Kurlansky's book in passing, as it were, and haven't really checked it out. Now that you raise it, saltfish is a staple in all the Caribbean islands thanks to the history you mention which means I need to check out the book.

  10. This is absolutely delicious in its simplicity Susan - the flavors really resonate with my and such a great name for the dish!

    chow:) Devaki @ weavethousandflavors

  11. I just bought some cod yesterday, and seeing as how I have all of these ingredients, this is the perfect recipe!


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