Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"Piperade" My Restaurant Review and Journey into Basque Cooking

IT WAS OUR SIXTH WEDDING ANNIVERSARY... and I did not have any restaurant reservations. It was a Saturday night and I knew it would be tough to secure reservations at the last minute in San Francisco, but I was determined to find a good restaurant, with a romantic atmosphere and food worth spending a lot of money on. If it had not been for my natural inclination to procrastinate, this task would have been completed easily, weeks prior. So onto I went, searching for highly rated restaurants that would fulfill my desires. It seemed that all of the favorites were booked until I stumbled onto the site of Piperade. There was one spot open for an early reservation at 5:30. Based on the immediate reviews that I scanned over and the 4 star rating out of 350+ reviews, I figured I couldn't go wrong and took the reservation.

Piperade is a restaurant owned and operated by Chef Gerald Hirigoyen. The restaurant features what Hirigoyen calls "West Coast Basque Cuisine." A native of the Basque Region, Hirigoyen has twice been named Best Chef in the Bay Area by San Francisco Magazine and was one of Food & Wine Magazine's Top New Chefs in America. He has also received numerous write ups and recommendations from publications such as the New York Times, Bon Appetit, SF Examiner and many more.

The Basque Country is a nation that runs along the border of Spain and France. The Greater Basque Country also includes some areas in both aforementioned countries. Naturally, the cuisine in this region has strong Spanish and French influence, but there are also many regional specialties unique to the Basque country influenced by the mountainous regions on one side and the ocean on the other. Fresh and Salted Seafood, Cured Meats, Peppers, Lamb, Ciders, and Sheep Cheeses are staples of the Basque diet.

We started of our meal with two of the small plates: Piquillo Peppers stuffed with Goat Cheese, Pine Nuts and Golden Raisins and the Calamari "A La Plancha" with cantaloupe, mint and lemon confit

Piquillo Peppers stuffed with Goat Cheese, Pine Nuts and Golden Raisins

Calamari " A La Plancha" with cantaloupe, mint and lemon confit
They were both fantastic and had us eagerly anticipating our main course. We took the recommendation of our waiter and paired a Basque white wine with our meal and ordered a bottle of Txomin Etxaniz. The wine had a slight effervescent quality to it and was a perfect companion to the meal. For my main course, I had the Sea Bass with Brussel Sprouts and Frothed Butter with herbs. It was simple and perfect. The Bass had the texture of lobster and melted away in my mouth the instant I bit into it. I could not have been happier.

Sea Bass

For Dessert I had the Orange Blossom Beignets, which were crispy, light and perfect. In the photo there is only two of them, but originally there were three, I just couldn't wait to eat one. They were the perfect end to a wonderful meal.

Orange Blossom Beignets
The other interesting thing is the classic Basque dish section on the menu. There is one specialty everyday of the week that you can order. Perhaps I will try to go on a Tuesday next time so that I can try the Sauteed Calamari in Ink Sauce "Txipiroa." Overall the restaurant provided a perfect atmosphere, wonderful food, courteous, attentive service and Beignet so delicious, I do not feel that I could overstate their case. Or maybe I was just really hungry!? We will see as I will certainly be returning to this spot in the near future.

Here you can see by the expression on my face how satisfied I am with the stuffed pepper.
I started to study Basque Cuisine and Chef Hirigoyen in particular. I found that he had a few cookbooks out and went to my local Barnes & Noble to look for one. It was my lucky day and the nice lady behind the customer service counter walked over to the regional cooking section and pulled out a book called "Pintxos: Small Plates in the Basque Tradition"

"Pintxos: Small Plates in the Basque Tradition"
Pintxos: Small Plates in the Basque Tradition
Exactly what I was looking for! So I got right to work. I started off by going to the store to see what was fresh. I ended up getting some Sea Scallops and Calimari tubes and tentacles. I decided to make the Scallops with Lychee Gazpacho and the Fried Calamari with Romesco Sauce. Both recipes turned out to be very satisfying and have me looking forward to trying our more recipes from this book. The mistake I made was trying to make the Lychee Gazpacho when Lychees are not in season. I used canned Lychees, which I can only imagine, could not compare in flavor or texture to the fresh fruit. Do not make this mistake. The Calamari turned out wonderful, though Milana said I put too much salt (I did not agree).

Coating the Calamari in Rice Flour
Broiling the Tomatoes and Peppers for the Romesco Sauce
Scallops with Lychee Gazpacho
Fried Calamari with Romesco Sauce

Of course, I had to make a few substitutions for ingredients I could not immediately find, like the Pimente D'Espelette, which he specifically says there is no suitable replacement for. Regardless, I used another smoked Spanish Paprika in its place. For the most part I followed the recipes exactly and so I will not post them here, but I encourage everyone interested to go pick up this cookbook or have a meal at Piperade. As I learn more about this type of cuisine, I will undoubtedly figure out my own way of doing things and have variations of classic recipes that will be mine that I can post here for your reading enjoyment.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Beef Braciole

Many countries all over the world have a roulade type of dish. A piece of thin meat, pounded out, stuffed with all sorts of things, tied up and cooked. France has their Paupiettes (veal stuffed with sweetmeats, fruit and vegetables) Germany has Rouladen (bacon wrapped beef rolls, stuffed with pickles, onions and mustard), and Northern Italy has Involti, which means, Little Bundles and could be made with a variety of different meats and stuffing. Beef Braciole is also in the Roulade family. This is the Southern Italian version. Now apparently there is some controversy over what to call these things. Other common names for very similar dishes are bruciuluni, farsumagru, rollatinis, etc...Regardless, this was a very popular dish amongst Italian-American immigrants and I don't think it mattered what they called it or who named it what. Like many recipes that made the trek across the Atlantic, modifications and improvisations were made to suit the available ingredients and culture. The flank steak became a popular cut, because it was cheap and easy to stretch into a large family meal. Made much in the same way as Sunday Gravy, the meat flavors the sauce and the sauce flavors the meat and it is best when you take all day to cook it. I have been reading up on several other similar recipes and I am very interested in trying out some of the variations. Especially some of the thinner versions made with veal that are cooked quicker, in white wine, without tomato sauce and so on and so on.

My adventure with Braciole (normally pronounced bra'zhul) began while speaking with a friend about his Grandmother's recipe. My mouth started watering and I couldn't stop thinking about it until I tried it out. I searched though a variety of recipes in my cookbooks and on the internet, but ultimately decided to trust my instincts and keep it as simple as possible. I found the basic common ingredients, techniques and attributes and began to cook without a map. 


A pound or two of Flank Steak
Sea Salt
Red Wine
Canned or Fresh plum tomatoes

A few cloves of garlic
As much Olive Oil as you need
A handful of Basil
A handful of Flat Leaf Parsley
3 ounces Prosciutto
3-5 ounces of Fresh Mozzarella
Fresh Parmesan


Let the meat come to room temperature and pound it out as thin as you can get it. Sprinkle with sea salt. 

A Beautiful piece of Grass Fed Flank Steak I purchased
Place the stuffing ingredients in a food processors and make it into a paste. Don't use too much olive oil in the paste, you want it to be pretty thick and sticky. The cheese provides the thick base.

Rub the herb/cheese paste across the meat.

Slice the meat into strips, about 3-4 inches wide. Roll them up and tie them off on the top, bottom and around lengthwise. Put some olive oil in a dutch oven or another heavy pan that can later be covered and placed in the oven. Brown the outside on all sides, top and bottom as well, quickly in the pan on high heat.

Once they are browned well, pour in about 3/4 bottle of your favorite red wine (drink the rest). I used a Cab, because I like the deep rich fruity flavors.

Let the wine reduce for about 20 minutes and then add in a large can of Plum Tomatoes. Crush them up with your hands as you put them in, pour in the reserve sauce in the can as well. Cover it up. At this point it can be saved and cooked later. Let it cool and put it in the fridge for the night. The next day at about 3 o'clock put it in the oven at 300 Degrees and it will be ready in time for dinner OR place it in the oven right away and let it cook for about 3-6 hours. The longer the better, as long as it doesn't dry out. Keep the lid on until you are ready to eat to keep all the moisture in. Cut the strings and put sauce, fresh Basil and Parmesan on top of it and enjoy. I like to continue putting the sauce from the pan on it the whole time I am eating it. As you cut it open, pour more sauce on it to make sure it is thoroughly saturated.