10 Must-Try Dishes in Bilbao and Rioja
Here are five fish and shellfish-based dishes from the Basque Country and four meat/vegetable dishes as well as a cod dish with vegetables from the Rioja region that you absolutely have to try while visiting northern Spain. We’ve included links to recipes in English if you want to prepare them at home.
1. Cod pil-pil (Bacalao al pil-pil)
Cod has been called ‘the king of fishes’ and this is one of the Basque Country’s signature dishes. It’s based on adding olive oil to a skillet with fried cod fillets and slowly moving the skillet back and forth over the fire so that the cod releases its juices, creating an emulsion with the olive oil.
2. Hake in green sauce (Merluza en salsa verde)
Hake is another popular fish in northern Spain. In the Basque country this dish is called ‘merluza a la koxkera’. It’s traditionally served with clams steamed in the broth where the hake is cooked.
3. Marmitako (Tuna stew)
Marmitako (‘from the pot’ in Basque) is a fisherman’s stew made with tuna, traditionally from fish caught and cooked with potatoes on the boat during long trips in the Atlantic Ocean.
4. Txangurro (Stuffed spider crab)
Txangurro, made properly, is a laborious dish because the shell is stuffed with the meat from the body, claws and legs of the crab. But the effort is worth it because it’s one of the most delicious shellfood dishes on the planet.
5. Chipirones en su tinta (Baby squid in their own ink)
Don’t be put off by this dish. The slightly chewy texture of the squid mixed with the creamy pungent ink is sublime! I always mix the ink with the rice and soak the rest of the mixture up with a piece of bread
6. Chuletillas de cordero lechal (Grilled baby lamb chops)
The traditional way to prepare this dish is by grilling over coals made from dried grapevine cuttings, which makes it a favorite at Rioja wineries. You’re supposed to eat the chops with your hands. Once at a gala dinner at a Rioja winery presided over by Spain’s King Juan Carlos, everyone waited to see how he would eat his lamb chops. Predictably he picked them up with his hands. Everybody breathed a sigh of relief and ate their lamb chops the same way.
7. Menestra de verduras (Seasonal vegetable stew)
In northern Spain, menestra is made with slightly undercooked vegetables so depending on the season you can find just about anything, including cauliflower, artichoke hearts, peas, carrots, green beans, broccoli or leeks. It’s always delicious.
8. Patatas con chorizo (Potato stew with spicy sausage)
Potato stew with spicy sausage (called Riojan potato stew everywhere in Spain except in Rioja where we call it potato stew with sausage - patatas con chorizo). Years ago, the great French chef Paul Bocuse was invited to Bodegas CVNE to prepare the meak celebrating the one hundred year anniversary of the winery. During the chefs’ dinner prior to the main event he was offered a plate of Riojan potato stew prepared by the winery’s cook. Bocuse exclaimed to the other chefs, “You guys must be crazy to invite me to cook for you when you have this fantastic dish!”
9. Pochas (Fresh white bean stew)
Pochas are white beans, harvested in August and September in northern Spain. The stew is made with fresh beans, giving the dish a creamy character not found with dried beans. Restaurants buy them fresh and freeze them, making them enjoyable all year round.
10. Bacalao a la riojana (Cod Riojan style - with tomatoes and spicy red peppers)
In Spain, any dish ‘a la riojana’ (Riojan style) is made with a sauce of tomatoes, onions and spicy red peppers.