Mina sits right next to Nervion, the river that runs through Bilbao. The front of the restaurant has ceiling-high windows facing the river. The dining room has six tables and a rustic-clean aesthetic: wooden tables and floors but clean lines and no fear of splinters; pendant lamps that are industrial-looking but not so obviously repurposed. And no mason jars. (Anyone else sick of the mason jars?) Then there’s the open kitchen, which is separated from the dining room by a bar where people can sit and eat and chat with the cooks. There are six of us in the kitchen, including the chef.
My first day, it’s 10 AM, light is pouring in through the windows and into the kitchen and one of the guys turns on the music. I begin chopping onions and carrots and leeks (which I will cook in a huge pot until golden brown, add a bottle of white wine, then dump in a bucket of mussels to steam until they open) and the Americana album by Neil Young is playing and I have one of those moments where I feel like I am in the right place, and all of the details of my surroundings, through cosmic forces, are assuring me of this.
As of today, I’ve been at Mina for just over a week. And the benefit of working in a small kitchen is that I get to do a lot more, a lot sooner.* Day one I was deboning rabbits and making chicken stock. Day two I was breaking down crabs and digging through their cavities to remove every last bit of meat. Day three I was making the staff meal, marmitako, a typical Basque stew made with tomatoes, onion, potatoes and bonito, aka tuna.** Day four, cleaning cod intestines, which would later be served in a sofrito sauce, topped with kumquats and cured cheese.
I’m not just learning kitchen skills – these are survival skills. If I should ever be stranded on the coasts of Maine, I will know how to crack open a crab and remove its sweet meat. If I can find a way to gently steam the crab first (about 7-8 minutes per pound), great, but if not, I’ll still survive… And now you can too.
For this post, I decided to make crab rolls, using crab from the Cantabrian Sea (Spanish: buey del mar)… then I thought, how can I give this a Spanish touch? Aioli. Give it a kick of fresh herbs? Parsley aioli. Add a splash of color? Pink peppercorns. Give it some crunch? Leeks, tiny ones and finely chopped. Take it to the next level? Finish it with jamón iberico, of course. Cut fresh by the butcher this morning, and glistening in its greasy glory. And pile all of the ingredients onto a buttery, toasted bun. Cocinamos!
- Buy live crab at your local market.
- Steam crab for 7-8 minutes per pound.
- Let cool then remove meat (see tips in photos below).
- Toast and butter your bun, assemble ingredients, and pour a glass of white wine (recommended Spanish wine: Rueda).
Ahead of time, whip up some parsley aioli.
- one egg
- 1 clove garlic (raw) or 2 cloves (roasted), chopped.
- handful of parsley, stems removed
- olive or sunflower oil
- salt (to taste)
- Crack the egg into a cylindrical container, trying not to break yolk.
- Slowly pour in oil, covering yolk, plus two fingers above egg. More oil = thicker aioli.
- Mix with hand blender, keeping the blender at bottom of container, moving side to side, not up and down. Blend until mixture thickens to preferred consistency.
- Add garlic and parsley, blend. Salt to taste.
* As compared to restaurants with a greater number of cooks, which may entail doing tasks of less importance until you move up the proverbial food chain.
** Making the staff meal may sound like a less interesting duty, but you can learn a lot by having to prepare a new recipe for 12 people in an hour.