I’m working on how I can become an honorary Basque. I just love the spirit of this ethnic group that inhabits the rugged region that straddles the French-Spanish border in the Pyrenees mountains. In fact, they are the oldest surviving ethnic group on the European continent, persevering through 20 centuries – all without actually managing to have their own country. Their culture is colorful and rich and jovial. I love the music and the dancing and language. And frankly they just seem to know how to have a good time. A really good time.
The area around Boise lapping into western Oregon and northern Nevada amazingly has the highest populations of Basques outside of their European homeland. Although traditionally fisherman, they immigrated to the region in the late 1800’s and took jobs as miners and shepherds. There’s signs of Basque culture all over Boise from bumper stickers and flags as a proud nod to the heritage to an area dedicated to the people and their culture in downtown Boise. In the Basque Block there are ethnic restaurants, a cultural museum, a bar, events center and a market.
If I’m going to be an adoptee I figured I needed to learn more about cooking the food, because what brings people together more than that? So recently my husband and I took a paella making class at the Basque Market. We fell in love with this little place this summer when we were downtown on our bikes one afternoon and were looking for refreshment. Inside on the counter was a spread of tapas and a stack of shiny small white plates. Little sandwiches, crostini with garlic-y tapenade, deep fried balls of croquetta heaven, meatballs, olives and Marcona olives. Choose what you want and they charge you by the toothpicks when you’re done. Honor system all the way. And usually I’m not a fan of sangria but the slushy white beverage swirling around in Icee-type machines that was garnished with a handful of dark berries hit the spot on this hot day. We sat on their little shaded patio that maybe holds 4 or 5 small tables, and soaked up the European vibe of the purveyors with their friends spilling over from the table next to us. Big glasses of beer and chilled white wine bottles sweating in the heat. Lots of laughing and lots of food. At one point a cake appeared – not something on the menu but something homemade and tasting of almonds if I remember correctly. As the cake was served, a piece was passed over to us without hesitation. It’s just how the Basques roll.
The Basque Market makes paella in a ginormous pan set over a gas flame out on the brick lined sidewalk in front of the establishment a couple times a week. It’s beautiful and delicious and while I’m not sure I really needed a class to learn how to make it, we went more for the overall experience – a great outing with another couple – and to pick up the little tricks that make the difference (mainly, don’t stir it once you add the liquid – that’s how the coveted crusty bottom is attained).
But something that I did walk out of there with that I might not have discovered otherwise was a can of smoked paprika. If you’ve read my blog before, you already know I have a thing for smoke. Hot smoking, cold smoking… even liquid smoke on occasion. I had tasted the hint of smoke in the paella before but hadn’t really considered the source. When they passed the can around in class, I was really surprised by how much smoky smell and flavor it packed. Smoky with just a hint of sweetness. It was a lovely combination and one for which I knew I could find all kinds of uses. A small can came home with me that night.
Since then, that can lives right by my stove. Next to the kosher salt and the pepper grinder. I rubbed it on the skin of a chicken I roasted last weekend. A pinch went into a pasta sauce flavored with chicken stock, lime juice and a touch of cream last night. A couple weeks ago I added it to melted butter to top our Sunday night bowl of popcorn. I know it’s just one little ingredient, but I’m embracing it in the spirit of the passionate people that it represents. Now if only I could just muster up the same enthusiasm for kalimotxos maybe the adoption process could begin.