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Ash Mair was the winner of BBC's 2011 Masterchef: The Professionals competition. Hailing from Tasmania, the Australian chef has worked in a number of prestigious restaurants in his home country and in Europe, including London's famous Westbury Hotel. He fell in love with Spanish cooking during his travels there in 2000 and subsequently spent lots of time in Northern Spain, learning about the particular cuisine of the Basques. This book is a collection of recipes - some modern, some traditional - inspired by the time Ash spent there.
'The Basque country' actually extends over two countries - the north eastern part of Spain and part of south western France, where those areas meet on the north Atlantic coast, but in this book Ash covers recipes from Basque Spain and northern Spain in general. When I think of this part of the world I think of deep, rich flavours, of hearty soups and stews and of seafood. I'm guessing that food purists who know the Basque region will criticise Mair for the book's title because in truth there's not much here that's specifically Basque, and there's more stuff that's associated with others parts of Spain.
'My Basque Cuisine' is a hefty tome but it doesn't need to be. Even short recipes are presented over several pages with the first page giving a short description of the dish, perhaps suggesting an alternative type of fish or explaining how the dish is generally eaten in Spain (for example what's served with it). Another whole page is given over to a photograph and the recipe can take up to two pages. As the paper is thick and dense, this makes for a very heavy book which, although I have now used mine several times, just will not stay open on my kitchen worktop; at least the red ribbon allows me to mark my place and turn back quickly though I am loathe to touch the book when my hands are covered in garlicky marinade.
The number of recipes in this book is satisfactory so it's not the case that the publisher has tried to pad the book out. There's a lot of blank paper and it would have been possible to produce many of the recipes, along with the short note, on one page, with the opposite page being given over to a photograph. This would have made it much easier to follow a recipe from the book as you cooked.
Stylistically the book has the look of a rustic notebook packed with recipes. The food stylist has used lots of rustic, much used bowls, pans and utensils to display the food for the photographs and the lack of pretension is refreshing. The photographs of the dishes show the finished article so if you are the sort of cook who wants to see preparation in stages then this isn't the book for you.
The recipes are split neatly into sections such as soup (the potato and leek soup with salt cod bunuelos is wonderful!), tapas and pintxos (the Catalan style of tapas named after the little wooden stick that secures the topping to the small slice of bread it's served on), poultry, fish and seafood and desserts. Some of the tapas dishes could easily be made to be eaten as a main course if you desired. What I think is a bit lacking in this cookbook is the information to put meals together. Only a few of the recipes have a note suggesting what you would serve a given dish with. Most recently I cooked Ash's chicken cooked with garlic and sherry and was a bit stumped as to what to have with it. My instinct was to serve it with rice, but all the rice dishes in the book seem more like one pot rice based meals than something suitable as an accompaniment.
I'd say that the recipes included here are aimed at cooks with a little experience. While the instructions are clear enough to follow for the experienced cook, there seems to be an expectation that the reader has mastered certain basic skills and there's not a great detail of detail in the methods. It would have been really helpful to have the estimated cooking/preparation time stated at the beginning of the recipe because some meats and poultry require marinating for several hours before cooking and lazy people like me who look at the ingredients to make sure they have them in the fridge, but don't look at the instructions for cooking, will get a nasty surprise when they assume dinner will be made in an hour.
As well as using some techniques that are more suited to an experienced cook, many of the recipes call for marinades or vinaigrettes which can be made separately and stored in the fridge. There's a certain amount of effort required to make some of Ash's food but it's worth it. In the past I've been put off by recipes that asked for a couple of spoonfuls of something like aioli, the recipe for which is found in a separate section but when following the recipes in 'My Basque Cuisine' it doesn't seem like so much hassle; maybe it's because I didn't want to make those dishes as much as I want to make these ones?
The tapas and pintxos dishes are truly spectacular and photograph brilliantly. The ones Ash has included do, I feel require a bit of effort and need attention to presentation. They aren't the sort of thing you might knock up in a hurry. That said the ones I have tried have been truly worth the time and effort. The grilled octopus with smoked paprika is sensational (even if I say so myself).
So far I've made a couple of the chicken dishes (the aforementioned chicken with garlic and sherry, and chicken braised with cannellini beans, tomato and chorizo) both of which turned out well. There were none of those awful moments when an ingredient is listed but you can't see what you're meant to do with it, or the ones where they tell you to do something with an ingredient that wasn't listed. Both of these dishes involve braising the chicken, a technique that uses only a little liquid. I frequently find that the amount of liquid stated in a recipe isn't enough and I start to panic a little but I was very strict to follow Ash's instructions to the letter and all went well.
From the fish section I've made the hake and clams with salsa verde and serrano ham. Actually I used cod because my local fishmonger doesn't get hake that frequently (at least he has it sometimes which is still pretty good); one of the great things about this book is that alternatives are suggested and there's no feeling that a dish is incomplete or not authentic if you make substitutions. Again the recipe worked to the letter.
There is a section for Vegetables but this is a very short section that includes a few dishes you might serve as a main course and a couple that would be more suitable as an accompaniment. Naturally this being a Spanish cookbook the meat section is fairly extensive with an emphasis on pork and meat does feature in the rice dishes, soups, and tapas and pintxos sections. 'My Basque Cuisine' is definitely more geared towards carnivores than vegetarians.
I can see that this is a book I'll keep using. This kind of hearty flavoursome cooking doesn't go out of fashion and the ability to substitute ingredients means I should always be able to prepare most of the dishes at any time. Though it is cumbersome and heavy because of its 400 pages (in hardback) I find that I plough on regardless because Ash Mair's recipes are inspiring, exciting and generally well presented.