Inspiration from Tocino and Spring

On my short walk to work, through the historical village of Ezcaray (La Rioja), I pass by a fresh and seasonal selection of products. First, in one of the alleyways that interweaves through the town centre, there is an array of fresh vegetables displayed right on the street. Now that spring has peeked around the corner, new ingredients have started appearing in vegetable stalls. I have noticed the arrival of white and green asparagus, spring onions, garlic, and leeks. Seeing these ingredients causes ideas to formulate in my head. Also, right before Hotel Echaurren there is a pescadería (fish monger), and a carnecería (butcher). I am amazed that in a small mountain town with less than a few thousand people, there is such a selection of fresh ingredients available. These different shops, each with its own specialties, demonstrates a culture with a dedication to food and gastronomy.

While in Echaurren, sautéing baby vegetables in tocino (cured pork fat) for a dish on the tasting menu, I noticed the excess, outer layer of fat from a Joselito cured jamón, cleaned off and about to be discarded. Realizing that this fat is the same product as tocino, just not as neatly ‘presented’ because it comes from the leg instead of belly, I stopped the cook and asked if I could take it home.

This was the beginning of a recipe. I could imagine the sweet roasted flavor of the asparagus I saw earlier, sizzling away in the tangy, salty, jamón Ibéricofat. My mind continued to ponder other parings for this combination. What form of protein would best suit these flavors? All the while, I was trying to keep it simple due to my “less than basic” home kitchen. Maybe, some sort of lightly flavored fish – so not to mask the asparagus and to bring out its natural sweetness?

I woke up early on my day off to get a good selection of produce. I picked up some of the asparagus, spring onions, garlic, and leeks. Then I headed over to the fishmonger to see what they had and found amazing, whole European sea bass. I started to get excited. Where I live in Canada, it’s hard to get a good selection of fresh, whole fish for your house – especially in a town that size – unless you catch it yourself!

I stopped by the restaurant’s herb garden to pick up some chives and a unique type of thyme-like herb named Santolina (in the aster family).

1 Whole lubina (European sea bass)
Fish stock
Saved fish carcass (remove and discard the gills)
1 of each; carrot, onion, and leek
Braised leeks
2 each of spring leeks, garlic and onions (use only the white part)
2Tbsp heavy cream
1 cup fish stock
1Tbsp Onion Oil
Juices from roasting pan
Onion Oil
1/2 cup diced spring onion tops and chives
1/2 cup olive oil
White and green asparagus
Tocino (cured pig fat)
Spring Herbs for garnish

Start by filleting the fish, chopping up the fish carcass and rinsing it under cold water. Meanwhile, largely dice an onion, leek and carrot. Place into a pot with a little hot olive oil, sauté lightly before deglazing with a little white wine and then add the fish bones and fill the pot with water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove, letting the stock infuse for an hour before straining.

While waiting for the fish stock, remove the green stems from the spring leeks and garlic. Roughly chop with some chives. Quickly blanch them in boiling water and then chill in ice water. Remove and squeeze out any excess water, place in a blender with some olive oil and puree (for the best results, do this a day before straining). Let the oil drip through a coffee filter.

Dice the white part of the leeks and garlic; add to a pot with some of the fish stock and salt. Simmer until just tender and then finish the braised leeks with a touch of heavy cream.

Simmer the strained fish stock on the stove, concentrating the flavor. Place and cook the white asparagus in the simmering stock. Start to render some of the diced tocino in a heavy pan. Then, add the raw, green asparagus. Roast the green asparagus over medium heat. When almost tender, take the white asparagus out of the stock and add it to the pan for a few seconds before removing. Leaving the fat in the pan, place the fish skin side down and sear it until crispy. Flip over, add just a little of the reduced fish stock and lower the heat, lightly poaching the fish until done. Remove the fish and add the juices to the braised leeks along with a tablespoon of the infused oil.

Garnish with some of the garden herbs and sliced tocino.

Miles' inspired dish: Sea bass with spring vegetables and tocino Ibérico

Miles’ inspired dish: Sea bass with spring vegetables and tocino Ibérico

Miles’ inspired dish: Sea bass with spring vegetables and tocino Ibérico

I was amazed that it was so easy to buy such high quality ingredients in a small ski town like Ezcaray. Both having had this experience and sensing future culinary possibilities has revealed a country rich in food, history and culture. This makes it possible for ‘great gastronomy’ to surpass modern industrial regulations, permitting small businesses to sell artisanal and small-scale products!

Text: Miles Pundsack-Poe, participant in 2012 ICEX Young Chefs Culinary Scholarship in Spain.

Photos: Miles Pundasack-Poe, ICEX.

Restaurants: Echaurren (Ezcaray, La Rioja), from March 14 – June 14 and Nerua (Bilbao), from June 14 – September 14.


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