In full concentration mode, I placed a dozen thumbnail-size quail eggs into a metal mesh strainer and then attempted to lower the strainer into a deep pot of boiling water. I recoiled slightly, as the steam instantly singed the hair on my right hand. My boss for the day (that is, the guy in charge of the aperitif/dessert area where I was stationed) immediately swooped in, grabbed the handle of the strainer and lowered it all the way into the water, saying, “No fear!” I started an electronic timer and after two minutes, plunged my hand back into the pot to retrieve the strainer cradling the now soft-boiled eggs (without fear!) and submerged them in a bowl of icy water. I repeated this process with two more batches of eggs and once all were cooled, I began peeling away their delicate, spotted shells, revealing teal blue inner shells, doing my best to tear just underneath the thin skin layer so that I could get a clean-swoop-peel around the egg. A few were just slightly undercooked and broke as soon as their shells were cracked – I made a mental note of the importance of cooking the eggs a full two minutes. Once peeled, I dipped the eggs, one by one, in a cool water bath to remove any lingering shell pieces and set them upon paper towel to dry.
Two guests arrived and were led toward the aperitif section of the restaurant’s open kitchen. Into the starchy powder (a cornstarch-flour mixture) went two quail eggs, which I rolled around to coat evenly, then placed in tempura batter. Using pincers, I lifted the eggs from the batter and lowered them into a shallow pot of boiling-hot oil. As the oil sizzled around them, I nudged the eggs gently to prevent them from melding together and forming conjoined-twin eggs. After 20 seconds, I scooped the eggs from the oil, placed them on a paper towel and using a scissor, trimmed off any excess crisp edges. I arranged the eggs on tiny square white cloth napkins on two separate plates and presented them to the guests, who popped them into their mouths in one bite, accompanied by a fresh-made sweet pea and basil aperitif.
That is just one snippet from Sunday, a very exciting and intense first day in the kitchen of Nerua. This week, I’ll be taking courses at the Basque Culinary Center. Next week, I’m beginning full time in the restaurant. Up until Sunday, however, I’ve had time to explore Bilbao and the surrounding area. So naturally, I want to share some about my new home – Bilbao. Pais Basco. Bizkaia.
Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim. You really can’t talk about visiting Bilbao without mentioning the Guggenheim. And no doubt, it merits all of the attention it gets. The first time I visited Bilbao in 2008, after spending hours on a red-eye bus from Madrid, I spent the first half of the day perambulating the museum’s exterior – looking at it from different perspectives; trying to make sense of it; taking it in. This is before even entering the museum and exploring its permanent collection and temporary exhibitions (note: Yoko Ono retrospective, now until September – very exciting).
You also can’t talk about visiting Bilbao without mentioning pintxos: the Basque version of tapas, usually consisting of a slice of baguette topped with a combination of meat or fish or cheese or vegetables. Favorites I’ve tried so far include: roasted mushrooms stuffed with garlicky shrimp; goat cheese, caramelized onions, strawberry sauce, balsamic redux and walnuts; tortilla stuffed with cod; shredded crab and basil salad with roe. And all of this should be consumed with the local wine: Txakoli (choc-o-lee), a white wine that’s a refreshing balance of fruity and dry, and always served very cold.