As the tide slowly rolled into Yaquina Bay I looked down at my bucket in contempt. This was not the plan. This was not the plan at all.
The three of us, my long-time co-conspirator Ryan, and my middle son Cameron, had been digging for the better part of an hour and had about a dozen clams between us. I had managed to find a small number of immature gaper clams, all about four inches across, while Ryan and Cameron had gathered up a decent number of cockles.
Our efforts were extreme and our payoff light. I had dug probably 30 holes at this point, pilling sand in small hills over and over. The tide was at a -.7, not the best tide for the under the bridge section near Newport, Oregon, but a lot of sand, mud and clam holes were clearly in sight.
So bad was our catch that a local even examined my bucket, snorted, called me a baby killer and walked off. I asked him what I should be doing instead – he dismissively waived his hand at me, not wasting another word on the topic but exhaling loudly through his nose.
Basically, we didn’t know what the heck we were doing, and our bucket showed that.
At that point my determination set in. While what I had was not the largest number of clams possible, I was going to cook them the best way I knew how: Basque style.
The Basque culture is very seafood heavy. The Basque homeland sits on the Bay of Biscay, and they have access to some of the best seafood in the world. They are also known as the best pastoralists in the world. So, in the early 1900s, when Idaho needed a bunch of sheep herders and the Spanish Civil War was in the works, a large number of Basques immigrated to Idaho. There they found a lot of sheep and very few clams.
Now Idaho has one of the largest populations of Basque outside the homeland. We have cultural festivals, sheep shearing competitions and Basque food cooking classes.
One of the biggest culinary imports, and something that has become a Northwest staple, is the Basque chorizo, which is similar to the Portuguese chorizo but often dryer and includes the signature Basque pepper – the choricero. This sausage is a staple of the “clams and white wine” scene in a large number of fine dining restaurants. It is ubiquitous in Idaho. You can get them at curbside stalls with mustard and onions. I frequently compare it to the Midwest bratwurst in popularity.
Away from the ocean in Idaho, Basque cooking started to change. They began to rely more on lamb, beef and pig – instead of cod, clams and eel. The Basques also started to adapt to local Idaho “seafood,” aka the rainbow trout.
The Basque brought with them another tradition – the paella. Some claim paella to be Spanish, others think it might even be French, but in the Northwest, paella is clearly a Basque dish.
The history of the dish suggest that the Catholics mixed with the Moores in Spain (and the Basque homeland) to create a rice-based casserole dish. The dish is filling and can often be seafood only, keeping with Lenten traditions. Often these dishes are known as sacred cows for specific regions of Spain, where each area has its signature addition – saffron, muscles, shrimp, sausages, etc. The Basque dish is not paella without chorizo.
I am not a Basque. But I am always a fan of mixing my culinary metaphors. As such I knew I could not possibly improve on the traditional Basque paella recipe. So, I decided to make a “risotto” instead. With a risotto I can basically add whatever I want without criticism – and it will taste surprisingly like a Basque paella.
When we all returned from the clam digging adventure to our fishing shack in Waldport, I made lunch. We had caught a few small trout near La Grande Oregon on the way to the coast. I stretched our clams and trout into a filling meal for three. It could have fed four.
Basque “Risotto” with Grilled Choricero Trout
Ingredients: The Trout
- 4 each, 10-12-inch trout (headless)
- ½ tsp choricero pepper powder
- 1 tsp paprika
- Squeeze of lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
*You will want to start the risotto before you start the trout. Since I am recommending you marinate the trout first, this recipe is first. Recipe ordering conventions are weird, sorry.
- In a gallon Ziploc bag, mix the pepper powder, paprika, lemon juice and oil. Add the fish to the bag and coat evenly with the mixture. Let sit in the bag for up to 24 hours. At least one hour is best.
- Heat grill to medium-high heat. Scrape it clean and wipe the grill grates clean with a paper towel that has a little olive oil drizzled on it. (This is always best for fish, otherwise they might stick.)
- Grill the trout on one side for 4 minutes until the skin starts to blister and turn a little black. Carefully flip the trout and cook for an additional 2 minutes on the other side. Remove to a serving plate. Serve over the top of the clam and chorizo risotto.
Ingredients: The Risotto
- 4 tbsp butter
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 4 oz. Basque chorizo, diced
- ½ small onion, diced
- 1 ¼ cups Arborio rice
- ½ cup white wine
- 4 ¼ cups seafood stock
- 4 oz, bay clam meat (1 lb. Manila clams for a reference point, yields this much)
- ¼ cup shredded parmesan cheese
- 1 tbsp heavy cream
- 2 tbsp chopped chives
- Add salt and fresh cracked black pepper, to taste.
- Melt the butter in a medium-sized stock pot on medium-high heat. When the butter is melted, add the oil; this will seem like a lot, don’t worry it is the right amount for the dish. When the oil is almost smoking, add the chorizo and brown it on all sides. Next, add the onion, and cook it until it is translucent. Turn the heat to low and add the Arborio rice. Cook the rice mix together until the rice gets “toasty,” and then add the white wine and about ¼ of the seafood stock (see below). Stir the mixture a few times.
- When most of the moisture is evaporated, stir the mixture a few more times. Then add about another ¼ of the stock. Repeat this step until the rice is fully cooked and the broth has tuned “creamy”. Remember to stir, this breaks down the rice a little and allows it to cream out.
- Remove the risotto from the burner and add the clam meat, shaved parmesan and cream. Stir. The final product should be “pourable”. It should not be stiff like a pile of cooked rice. If it is to dry, add a little more cream or stock to the mix. Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed. Serve the risotto as either the base of a grilled seafood dish or as a starter for a meal. Enjoy!