San Sebastián, Spain. As the fishmonger lifted the day’s catch onto the scale, we both hesitated. The bonito with the sparkling eyes – an indication of freshness – weighed in at about three kilos, or 6.6 pounds. I had mentioned that I was cooking for two. And it was obvious that buying such a lovely specimen was really going overboard. Still, this merchant was not about to give me a hard sell.
Standing in the fish market in St. Jean-de-Luz – a picturesque French seaside town along the Basque coast about 30 minutes from where I had been living for the past two weeks – I had a decision to make. In Basque Country the bonito, a small albacore-type tuna, which is extremely flavorful and more delicate than other tuna with firmer meat (for example, yellowfin), is considered a prized catch. Only the cost that day did not reflect that fact: Nearly all the stands at the market happened to have it, and thanks to the laws of supply and demand, the price was less than half of what it would fetch the following week. At €5.50 per kilo (less than $3 per pound), it was an incredible bargain, any way you slice it.
But how do you slice it? All I really wanted was enough tuna to prepare marmitako – a Basque fisherman’s stew that I enjoy cooking and eating when I visit this region. I needed only about a pound of fish to generously feed my husband and myself. What the heck would I do with all the rest?
Sensing how much I wanted it, the fishmonger offered a solution: She could cut off what I needed for my stew, and fillet the rest for me to freeze. In a region where fresh fish is readily available, there was something ludicrous about eating frozen fish. Still, I couldn’t resist.
En route to our Airbnb rental, in San Sebastián, I had some buyer’s remorse. Cooking for ourselves is one way that we finance long-term travel, while eating better than we can at most restaurants. But in this case, I felt like a cooking show contestant faced with the challenge of creating multiple dishes from the same primary ingredient. Somehow I wasn’t ready for bonito sorbet.
Back at our apartment, I took stock of my €16.50 purchase ($18.85 at current conversion rates) and put up a fish stock. A lot of liquid goes into marmitako, and though one can use wine or water, a hearty fish stock adds to the flavor of the brew.
When preparing stock, I follow the basic technique, with a couple of tweaks, described in Julia Child’s magnum opus Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1, which I have on my Kindle. If I’m using a fish dissected in the market, I always start by soaking whatever fish parts are going into the stock (in this case, the head) in water for 15 minutes to remove the blood.
Next, I simmer the fish for 30 minutes in a cup of white wine and enough water to cover it. I add a sliced onion, a tablespoon or so of fresh lemon juice and six parsley stems (not the leaves, which will darken the stock), as Child advises. This time I also threw in a few sprigs of thyme and a couple of fresh bay leaves that I acquired during our travels, at a market in the Dordogne. Wrapped together, these three herbs form a bouquet garni, which is a classic seasoning for many French dishes.
While the stock cooked, I kept an eye on the simmering pot. This helps ensure that it maintains a happy bubble, and doesn’t reach a rapid boil. It also gives you a chance to skim off the scum that rises to the top during the cooking process.
Once it was done, I strained the stock and referred to the basic recipe for marmitako that I had developed, based on trial and error, during our previous visit to Basque Country. As it turns out, the results were greatly improved this time by a simple modification: The only liquids that I used were fish stock, made from the same bonito that I was cooking (this is a strongly flavored fish), and a homemade tomato sauce that I had prepared earlier in our journey, and brought with me, frozen. (You’ll find the revised marmitako recipe below.)
On subsequent nights, I baked the fillets at 400 degrees Fahrenheit, in a glass dish that I had rubbed with a clove of garlic. Apart from salt and pepper, they needed no other embellishment.
When we had leftovers from the baked bonito fillets, I turned them into pintxos (called tapas in other parts of Spain). Here I was inspired by what I had eaten at local pintxo bars.
Our favorite of these was a riff on a pintxo we enjoyed many times at Casa Bartolo, on Calle de Fermín Calbetón 38: tuna sandwiched in a sliced pepinillo, or sour gherkin, held together with a toothpick (€2, or $2.27 apiece). They garnish theirs with an olive. Instead, I threaded a guindilla (a skinny pickled green hot pepper) into mine. And while they use preserved tuna, of course I used fresh.
The other ingredients are readily available, in jars, at supermarkets in Spain and France, and can be found on ethnic food shelves at stores in the United States. I bought mine from Bretxoliva, an olive vendor at Mercado de la Bretxa.
We figured that what we saved in pintxos alone more than paid for our bonito, which fed the two of us for five dinners and a couple of lunches in between. As it happens, we found plenty of ways to use that fish without even coming close to making bonito sorbet.
Recipe for Marmitako (Basque Fisherman’s Stew)
This one-pot meal melds the flavors of tuna and vegetables in an immensely satisfying mix. The starch from the potatoes acts as a natural thickener. Using fish stock, rather than water, during the cooking process, greatly improves the result.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 large green pepper, cut in strips, or three long green sweet peppers, cut horizontally, with seeds removed
1 cup tomato sauce (use store-bought if you don’t have fresh)
3 medium potatoes, peeled
1 pound fresh tuna or bonito, cut in cubes
1 tablespoon Espelette pepper purée, or more if you like your food very spicy. (See note.)
3 cups (approximate) fish stock, water or a combination of the two
Salt to taste
Chopped parsley for garnish (optional)
1. In a saucepan large enough to hold all the ingredients, heat the olive oil over a medium flame. Add the onions, and cook until translucent. Add salt and stir.
2. Add the garlic, and sauté about two minutes until fragrant. Do not let it brown.
3. Mix in the sliced peppers, followed by the tomato sauce, stirring briefly after each addition to incorporate.
4. Cut the potatoes into chunks and add them immediately to the pan, stirring to coat with the other ingredients. Add enough fish stock or other liquid to cover the potatoes and bring to a simmer. Continue cooking, uncovered, adding additional liquid if necessary, until the potatoes feel soft when poked with a fork.
5. Add the tuna or bonito, mix gently with the other ingredients, and add a bit more liquid if it is necessary. Continue simmering for about 5-7 minutes until the fish is fully cooked. (It should be soupy.) Top with parsley and serve.
Total preparation time: 1 hour
Espelette pepper purée is available in the U.S. online or at specialty stores. I like the one by Pascal Massonde, though there are many other brands. Most have a bit of sugar and vinegar added, so be sure to taste it before adding it to your stew.
Deborah L. Jacobs is the author most recently of the five-time award winning book, Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home, about her adventures – and misadventures – living in France. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.