Spain's Basque Country is a foodie paradise. This region in Northern Spain, which straddles the border between France and Spain on the Atlantic coast, is home to an autonomous community that has its own culture, identity, and even language. But you don't have to travel to Spain to get a taste of their famous cuisine.
I spent part of a day with chef Justin Severino, in the kitchen of his restaurant Morcilla, in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighborhood. The restaurant specializes in Spanish-style charcuterie and traditional small plates. The first thing I noticed is Severino isn't wearing a chef's coat as I am, but rather a T-shirt with a diagram of the cuts of a pig, and jeans. I feel instantly out of place.
"We try to defeat all those stupid stereotypes that exist inside of kitchens like that coat; why would anyone wear that in a kitchen?" he said, pointing to my thick, long-sleeved chef coat, through which I am already sweating. "Do you know how hot it is in here? Doesn't make any sense."
I immediately became more intrigued about the man who has agreed to teach me, a student of culinary arts at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, to make a Basque-style dish that will show us why Spain is a champion in the art of small-plate cuisine.
Spain was always on the travel wish list for Severino and Hilary, his wife and business partner. However, they didn't visit Basque country because they were going to open a Spanish restaurant. They traveled to the region because they love to visit beautiful places with good food and drink.
"Most of the things that I cook are European, and the things that have always inspired me to cook are history and culture," Severino said.
Severino considers San Sebastian, a majestic city on the Cantabrian Sea full of mouth-watering food, beautiful buildings and white sandy beaches, to be one of the best places to eat in the world.
"It is fantastic. And it's different," he said.
Severino also loves Logrono, Rioja, in the center of Spain.
In the charming old city center, famous for its tapas area, which Severino said is probably the size of a football field, about 250 tiny tapas bars are stacked along the 12-foot-wide walking paths. Each restaurant serves only one or two menu options.
"Some of them have been there for the history of Logrono. They've been serving the same food and it's all great," he said.
Logrono embodies two things that inspire Severino.
The first is history. In Logrono, food and culture are intertwined, Severino said. You have to know a little about the history of northern Spain to understand why in Logrono, you can eat Merguez sausage and certain types of pita, yogurts and cheeses that you don't find elsewhere in Spain.
When the Moors invaded Spain in 711 A.D., the nomadic people who were a mix of Arab, Spanish, and Amazigh (Berber) origins originally occupying Mauretania in Africa, brought not only their religion, music, art and architecture with them but also their food. Although they eventually were driven out, 700 years of Moorish influence left its mark on Spain, making it different than the rest of western Europe.
Logrono was a trading post of the Moors moving from one side of Spain to the other and the presence of Israeli food in the town resulted from trade, Severino said. Moorish and Israeli food is known as Sephardic cooking, and Severino cooks a lot of it at Morcilla.
"I think that Israeli food is one of the best foods on the planet," he said. "So it's a really fun thing to combine traditional Spanish things with traditional Israeli things in a Spanish restaurant."
The second thing that inspires Severino is the culture. In Spain, people socialize after work by meeting for tapas and they don't stuff themselves, Severino said. Having tapas is just a way to meet and share good times with friends. Then they go home for time with their family, usually sitting down for dinner around 9 p.m.
"For me, that's what food is about. It's about community. It's about what happens when four people sit at a table, and the experience that they have," Severino said. "It's not about, like, my mind being blown away by the food or the superstar chef that's in the back. Because really, none of that matters, at least in my opinion."
Their experience in Spain made Severino and Hilary crave the food when they returned to the United States, Severino said. The small plate dining experience was lacking in Pittsburgh, and that was the inspiration behind Morcilla.
"There weren't many places where you could just go and casually eat a couple of simple things and walk out the door," Severino said. "So that's why we're sitting here (in Morcilla) right now."
Justin Severino believes food should stir memories. One of his favorite memories of Spain is the versions of gazpacho that he ate, depending on where he was, and the ingredients available in those places.
He chose to teach me to make tomato gazpacho – but with a twist. The garnish in the bowl is sesame yogurt, dehydrated falafel, black olives, and sesame seeds, Severino said. "It takes traditional gazpacho to a place I think that is like somewhere else, but there's still that memory, that place in your mind that you can touch and say, 'that's still gazpacho.'"
6 ounces olive oil
4 ounces day-old bread
6 cloves garlic
4 pounds tomatoes
1/2 red onion
8 ounces canned pasilla peppers
2 ounces sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
2 ounces sesame yogurt (source: Salems, Strip District, Pittsburgh, Pa. )
1 tablespoon dehydrated black olives
Dehydrated falafel (source: Pitaland, Brookline, Pa.)
1/2 teaspoon sesame seeds
1/2 teaspoon red chili oil
1) Heat the olive oil and add the garlic cloves. Cook the bread, a crucial step Severino said most people skip. The bread acts as a sponge, absorbing the flavor from the pan. Set aside the garlic and bread after both are a deep golden color.
2) Prepare the tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and peppers. "Get your salt and a little bit of sugar in there and then kind of like smash it up," said Severino, explaining this helps break up the tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and peppers to achieve a smooth soup texture.
Note: Severino said he doesn't mind Spanish canned food, such as the peppers. Unlike commercially canned food in the United States, Spanish canned food often use only the finest ingredients and are made by artisan producers who grow, process and preserve the foods in the region of origin according to strict rules that earn them the highly coveted Denominazione d'Origine Protetta (DOP) rating. This rating ensures that a product is authentic and helps consumers not get fooled by fancy bottles or labels.
3) The recommended time to marinate the ingredients is 30 minutes to a few hours. In the interest of time, however, we pureed the ingredients. Then we separated the pulp from the liquid. After a couple of dashes of salt and pepper, we moved on to plating.
4) Take the sesame yogurt and form a crater on the inner rim of the bowl using a spoon. Add chili oil to the bottom. As a finishing touch, add dehydrated olives, falafel, and sesame seeds. Our dish had refreshing natural flavors, a silky consistency, and a crunchy garnish that packed a lot of flavor from the falafel, olives, and sesame seeds.
5) Enjoy the dish and have good conversation with a group of people.
– Jake Granitto
ABOUT SMALL PLATES
TAPAS are appetizers, or snacks that (in Spain) are usually served free with a drink. Spanish tapas are presented on a plate, and the portion is usually big enough to share. A tapa may be cold, such as mixed olives and cheese, or hot, such as chopitos, which are battered, fried baby squid. In Spain, people typically eat dinner at about 9 p.m. or even as late as midnight. So Spaniards often eat tapas after finishing work. Since lunch is usually served between 1p.m. and 4 p.m., another common time for tapas is weekend days at about noon as a means of socializing before lunch at home.
PINCHOS which comes from the verb pinchar, and means "to pierce" in Spanish, is the name used for small bites in certain regions of Spain. Depending upon the location, they may or may not be free. They are typically too small to be shared. Traditionally, pinchos, were attached to a piece of bread with a cocktail stick, or toothpick. You would go to a pinchos bar, and the food options were laid out on the table. You get a plate and make your selections. When you are finished, you pay for the number of toothpicks you have on your plate. Today, however, as this cuisine has evolved, the food is now less likely to be speared to a piece of bread. Pinchos can be a plate of ham, a piece of cheese – basically anything on a plate, said Severino.
PINTXO is a Basque word that means a spike. When it refers to food, it refers to skewered food. So Pintxos is basically the Basque equivalent of Pinchos, except they are never free. No matter whether the snack is 'pinchado,' anchored to a piece of bread, or if it's a bowl of, well, gazpacho, it's still called a pintxo.
– Jake Granitto