I have a confession to make. This review should have appeared months ago, shortly after Pintxos was published.
On the face of it, it shouldn't have been hard to do so. After all, how long does it take to read a 200 page cookbook that's mostly recipes? Nor is it time-consuming, given Gerald Hirigoyen's notes and comments, to analyze his culinary frame of mind. On the contrary, even a superficial reading reveals where he's coming from.
Hirigoyen is a native Basque raised mostly in California. After a return visit to San Sabastian in 2003 he returned with a mission: To open a restaurant that captured the spirit as well as the tastes of the tapas bars he'd enjoyed both as a kid, and on return visits. The result was Bocadillos, which he opened in 2004. But there would be some other influences as well. "Today," he says, "Bocadillos has evolved into my kind of place. It's informal and comfortable, and serves food that is true to my Basque culinary heritage, yet incorporates the ingredients and culinary influences of California."
The subject isn't particularly difficult. We're talking about the Basque version of tapas. Often enough, there isn't much difference between a Basque and a Spanish version of a tapa, other than pronunciation. So, a small-plates freak such as myself goes in with a gestalt, even if specific ingredients or combinations are unfamiliar. Learning how to pronounce pintxos (it's peen' choose, for those who care) took a little time. But, overall, it wasn't the subject matter that led to my time-lapse.
With some modern cookbooks it's easy to get lost in the photos. I could claim that as an excuse for delaying my review. But it would be a lie. Maren Caruso's photos range from the mundane to the spectacular. But they are, on average, about what we've come to expect from the food porn that bombards us almost daily. So, while I enjoy looking at them, doing so doesn't take much of my time.
No, the fact is, what kept putting my review on hold was the recipes. There are just too many of them that sound intriguing.
As many of you know, we have a rule here at Cheftalk. Every reviewer must prepare at least two dishes from the book being examined.
Right from the start that wouldn't work with Pintxos, because of its organizational style---which essentially follows the menu arrangement at Bocadillos. Each chapter contains pintxos recipes based on how they are prepared and served, including A La Plancha (on the griddle); Bocadillos (little sandwiches), Fritos (fried bites) and Sopas (soups). In all, there are ten such categories.
Obviously, to get a feel for Hirigoyen's approach, more than two recipes would have to be tried. The problem is, because they all sound so good, it was hard to make choices. Every time I started assembling ingredients for one dish, another recipe would catch my eye. "Ooh, ooh," I thought. "I have to try that one."
So that's the real reason for the delay. I've been making far more of Hirigoyen's dishes than required. But here's another confession: I have no regrets. After preparing 11 of his pintxos, some of them several times, I have yet to find a bad one.
The first dish I tried was his Marinated Baby Octopus with Fennel Tomato Salad. I especially liked his comments on this, in which he points out that octopus is something home cooks typically shy away from, but shouldn't. "Baby octopus is actually no more difficult to work with that calamari," he says, "and is cooked in much the same way."
In this case it's essentially poached with aromatics until tender (bite into a tentacle to test, he advises), tossed with a Pernod-based vinaigrette, chilled, and tossed with the tomatoes and fennel just before serving. Initially I had some concerns that the Pernod and fennel would make the whole thing too licoricey tasting. But had no cause for worry. What results is a bright, lively salad that makes a perfect, albeit unfamiliar to most people, first course.
One thing I discovered is that the octopus can easily be bounced up to two pounds, and there's still plenty of vinaigrette to go around.
The really interesting thing is that the dish uses ingredients commonly found everywhere. The octopus, itself, might be hard to come by locally (I get it frozen in an Asian market), but everything else is found in your supermarket. Indeed, you could, in a pinch, substitute calamari if you had to, or even shrimp. But neither of them brings either the flavor nor texture to the table that baby octopus does.
This "locally-available" concept is by intent, and permeates the book. To be sure, there are a very few specialty ingredients you aren't likely to find in your nearest supermarket, one of which, piment d'espelette, is used often. But Hirigoyen includes a fairly comprehensive source guide, so you can order those on-line or by mail. I'd recommend doing so. Although you can substitute other chilis for the piment d'espelette, none that I've found really taste quite the same. While you're at it, may as well order some moscatel vinegar, as that's something I've never seen on store shelves.
If there is any problem with Pintxos it's one shared by many restaurant and chef-written cookbooks. The recipes were, apparently, not tested on typical home-kitchen equipment. This shows up primarily with non-seafood proteins. For instance, the second dish I tried was Lamb Loin with Kumquat Chutney. This is a spectacularly tasting dish that I wouldn't hesitate converting to an entrée. However, on my stovetop, the lamb needed considerably more than his suggested cooking time to cook through.
This was not an isolated case. Last night I made his Spiced Butterflied Quail Elcano. And, again, I have no kick about the taste, which is superb---the spices used actually accentuate the natural taste of the quail, rather than covering it. However, cooking the quail four minutes per side, resulted in birds that were rather on the rare side. To be fair, my quail were butterflied, but still had the bones in (laziness on my part). Even so, it shouldn't have made as much difference as it did, and I attribute the longer cooking time to the fact my stove doesn't run as hot as a restaurant type.
Still, this is a minor problem for any experienced cook. Cooking times are easily adjusted if necessary.
The small-plates genre is getting saturated with books from all cookbook publishers. Many of them are superficial at best, contributing little to the literature of the subject except bulk. Pintxos, however, is not merely part of that lowing herd. Rather, it makes a real contribution. As such, it should be part of every small-bites library.