Caracoles en Salsa Bizkaína
Basques love caracoles, or garden snails, as much as they love caracolillos, or periwinkles. They buy them in net bags, purge them, and then cook and anoint them with amazing sauces. Fortunately, in the United States you can buy them cleaned and ready to go. All they need is a quick braise.
Basques eat snails directly out of the shells: they pick them up with their fingers or with a special instrument at fancy places, suck out the tasty sauce, and use a pick or needle to remove the earthy meat. They then sop up the delicious sauce with chunks of soft baguette. The sauce used is a variation of salsa bizkaína, my favorite thanks to the bacon, onion, chorizo, and red pepper flakes it contains. It’s ideal served with snails. This stew is wonderful on its own, but it is also great spooned over polenta or stirred into a simple risotto. Calculate a dozen snails per person, and plan on serving them with plenty of bread to sop up the sauce.
A note on buying snails: You can buy canned wild Burgundy snails online or at gourmet stores. They usually come in counts of three dozen large snails (5 ounces drained) per tin.
In a saucepan, combine the onions, oil, bay leaf, and 1/2 teaspoon salt and sweat over low heat for about 10 minutes, just until the onions soften. Raise the heat to medium, add the garlic and bacon, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 8 minutes, until golden. Add the chorizo, turn down the heat to low, and cook for 3 minutes. Add the pepper flakes and the pepper sauce and simmer for 2 minutes. Add the snails and one-third of their liquid, raise the heat to medium, and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat to low and braise for about 20 minutes, until the flavors are mingled and the snails are tender but still a little snappy.
Remove the pan from the heat and let the snails rest for 5 minutes. Divide the snails among small bowls and serve with bread.
Sweet Pepper Sauce
Makes about 6 cups
This is one of those sublime sauces that changes in each cook’s hands. There’s a lot of discussion about whether salsa bizkaína should have tomatoes; I use tomato but judiciously, as too much cheapens the sauce. You can use this sauce on potatoes, oil-poached salt cod, or tripe, but my favorite way to enjoy it is with snails, because the snails are just an excuse to eat the sauce, which is doped up with bacon and chorizo.
Heat a dry frying pan over medium heat, add the peppers, and toast, turning once, for about 30 seconds total, just until pliable. Remove from the heat, trim away the stems, tear the peppers open, and shake out their seeds. Place the peppers in a heatproof bowl, add boiling water to cover, and top with a weight to keep them submerged in the water. Let the peppers soak for about 20 minutes, until they are plump and you can scrape their pulp from their skin with a spoon. Scrape the pulp into a bowl, discard the skin, and reserve the pepper pulp and soaking water separately.
In a 3-quart saucepan, gently heat the oil over low heat. Add the onion, bay leaf, and garlic, coating them with the oil, and cook for 5 minutes, stirring. Add the salt, cover, and cook over low heat for 10 minutes. Uncover, stir well, add the chorizo and jamón, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Re-cover and continue to cook for another 20 minutes, until the onions are sweet and wilted.
Uncover the pan and continue to cook over low heat, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until the onion is very sweet and uniformly golden but not brown. The goal here is to melt the onion. Add the reserved pepper pulp and paprika and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes. Raise the heat to medium-high and add the tomatoes, crushing them with your hands as you drop them in. Cook, stirring, for about 8 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool and rest for 20 minutes.
If you have used choricero peppers, you can add some Cheyenne chile for punch; if you have used guajillos, the sauce should have plenty of punch. Working in batches, transfer the sauce to a blender or food processor and puree while it is still warm but not hot. If the sauce is too thick, thin it with the reserved pepper soaking water. Use immediately, or transfer to airtight containers and refrigerate for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 3 months.
Reprinted with permission from The Basque Book by Alexandra Raij with Eder Montero and Rebecca Flint Marx, copyright © 2016, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.