Photo credit A Fuego Negro

I never anticipated recreating classy Basque pintxos with donated food in the cavernous kitchen of my Chicago apartment (In fact, two and a half years ago I hadn’t even anticipated living in Chicago). However, due to a reliable supply of free food and a bit of Spanish inspiration, it’s just one of those things that happened. Quite often actually, I find myself faced with the delightful problem of receiving donated groceries at work and wondering whatever shall I do with this ____              ____? (fill in the blank with: bottle of Bragg’s liquid aminos, jar of almond butter, bunch of bananas, etc.) I’m confronted with a table covered in boxes packed with donated food up for grabs at least once a week. The products and produce are cast offs from a retailer of natural and organic foods whom shall remain nameless. Let’s just say it’s a majorly expensive place to grocery shop on a non-profit salary. After peaking in boxes one afternoon, a particular piece of produce filled in the grocery blank: whatever shall I do with this
     cauliflower      ? Aha! I’ll cook you just like in Basque Country in Spain! A fuego negro!

Back up the tape to San Sebastian, Spain. I was Couchsurfing in Basque Country, and over the course of four days, I swam, hiked, and ate more than my fair share of pintxos. Couchsurfing and pintxos may need further explanation. Couchsurfing is an online network for travelers who wish to host other travelers in their homes and stay with peers while traveling instead of at a hotel or hostel. Not only do I love the community created by Couchsurfing, meeting awesome new people as hosts or surfers, and enjoying free lodging complete with creature comforts and sometimes even cute pets, but Couchsurfing often also provides you with a new pal and a tour guide. My host in San Sebastian (which is pretty darn close to France, so close that I actually SAW FRANCE…from a very tall hill) and a fellow surfer played parts as tour guides and helped to bring out the best flavors of the city. My host brought us on a pintxo crawl, if you will, through the historic district of San Sebastian, where the streets were full of people out enjoying the night and the restaurants shared this same kinetic human energy. Pintxos can be thought of as the Basque version of tapas, small plates of food you eat with a glass of wine and the company of friends, then mosey on to the next spot and repeat.  After having a small plate of luscious grilled octopus and a glass of txakoli, a refreshing and slightly effervescent white wine produced in Basque Country(and seasonally available for sale in at least two wine shops in Chicago, Red & White and Fine Wine Brokers) at the standing room only Cuchara de San Telmo(Saint Telmo’s Spoon), upon my fellow surfer’s suggestion, we headed to A Fuego Negro(Black Fire) and got seats at the bar. The food was more daring here than at the last bustling no frills restaurant (from a saint’s spoon to black fire, I guess I should’ve known it was going to get more elaborate). To start, I had crab, avocado and licorice ice cream- together. Yup, ate ‘em all in one bight. It was scrumptious, as well as the blackened codfish and mashed cauliflower. The cauliflower puree looked just like good old American style taters but had a much smoother texture and high powered garlic flavor.

Here’s what to do to make this cauliflower delight happen in your kitchen. Rinse a head of cauliflower, chop into hunks the size of golf balls, and submerge into boiling water. Keep the put bubbling on low until the cauliflower is tender, then mash by hand, mixer, food processor, Saint Telmo’s spoon, black fire, or what have you. Add a clove or two of chopped garlic, salt and pepper to taste, two tablespoons of butter, and a dash of milk or heavy cream. Keep mixing and add more of any of the above ingredients to suit your palate.

I also recommend checking out A Fuego Negro’s website to see the other creative dishes on their menu. Don’t be alarmed, the main page is in Basque(which is an incredible language, the last remaining descendant of the pre-Indo-European languages of Western Europe, and also has its own alphabet/Gilligan’s Island meets Tiki font) and you can switch to English. A Fuego Negro also has an incredible cookbook written in Basque, Spanish, English, and French.

I’m not sure when the food donation will show up with the makings of crab, avocado and licorice ice cream or grilled octopus, but until then, in the height of hearty holiday food and cold weather comforts, I’ll keep boiling cauliflower like the Basques.