Magazine article Sunset

Pil-Pil ... It's a Basque Classic in Which Fish Simmers in Olive Oil

Magazine article Sunset

Pil-Pil ... It's a Basque Classic in Which Fish Simmers in Olive Oil

Article excerpt

Pil-pil . . . it's a Basque classic in which fish simmers in olive oil

In the Basque language, pil-pil has many meanings. It may refer to the rhythmical beat of the heart. It may describe the steady sound of bubbles bursting in a simmering sauce. And it is also the name of a classic Basque dish in which fish is simmered in a bath of olive oil flavored by garlic and mild peppers.

The oil and peppers are pureed to form a remarkably light and delicate emulsion sauce--like a thin, clinging mayonnaise --that is poured over the fish. The dish is served hot or cold.

We first observed the making of pil-pil at Alambique, a Spanish cooking school in Madrid, where a shallow clay container is used for cooking. In Spain there are several species of fresh fish that give off juices that will form a thickened sauce just with the oil. However, when vegetables are included, they give the sauce stability and expand the choice of fish you can use, making traditional results possible with fish available in Western markets.

Fresh fish pil-pil is often served with clams, as suggested here. Consider tiny boiled peas and potatoes to accompany. A more robust version of pil-pil, bacalao al pil-pil, made with salt cod, also follows. You can sometimes create the sauce just by whisking the oil as the fish cooks, or simply whirl the liquids in a blender to thicken.

Salt cod is available in several forms. Italian delicatessens are the best source for the dried cod; it usually has skin and bones and works best for pil-pil.

Wet salt cod can be found in the refrigerator case of many supermarkets; it is skinned, boned, and packed in 1-pound wooden boxes.

Both forms of salt cod need to be first soaked in water to get rid of as much of the preserving salt as possible.

Fresh Fish Pil-Pil in Red Sauce

About 2 pounds of steaks (cut 1/2 to 1 in. thick) or fillets of halibut, lingcod, haddock, or rock cod (thaw, if frozen)

2 tablespoons dry white wine or clam juice (from steamed clams-- recipe follows--or use bottled clam juice)

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/2 to 1 teaspoon crushed dried hot red chilies

3/4 cup olive oil

4 cloves garlic, halved

1 small red bell pepper, seeded and cut in thin strips

Steamed clams (optional); directions follow

Have fish steaks cut in serving-size pieces at the fish market (or at home use a knife and mallet to cut through bone).

If fillets are thick, cut in 1/2- to 1-inch slices. If fillets are thin, stack or fold to make at least 1/2 inch thick. Then cut fillets in serving-size pieces; handle the stacked pieces of fish as single units when cooking. Set fish aside.

Combine wine, lemon juice, and chilies; set aside.

Pour oil into a 12- to 14-inch frying pan on medium heat. When hot, add garlic and pepper. Cook, stirring, until the garlic is golden and pepper is soft, 4 to 6 minutes; remove pan from heat. With a slotted spoon, lift garlic and pepper from pan and let drain separately on paper towels.

Lay fish pieces in pan and return to low heat. Gently shake the pan to mix the fish juices with the oil. Adjust the heat, if necessary, to keep the oil slowly bubbling. Cook until bottom edges of fish turn white, 2 to 4 minutes.

With a wide spatula, carefully turn fish. Add wine mixture and immediately begin to shake and gently swirl the pan to keep the oil and wine mixture blending as the fish cooks. Adjust heat to maintain slow bubbles. …

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