I was fighting a horrible cold on Sunday, and there was a layer of ice on the sidewalk when I ventured over to my neighborhood greengrocer to check out the bargain produce. As the fresh air cleared my nasal passages, I loaded up on peppers: giant red ones at two for $1, and a bag of sweet multicolored minis for $1.99. Though these ingredients came from Mexico, south of the border, my thoughts drifted across the Atlantic, to the abundance of peppers in French Basque Country several months earlier.
My husband, Ken, and I have spent two autumns in this region of southwest France, living like locals and cooking with seasonal ingredients. Each time our arrival coincided with the pepper harvest. The Saturday morning market in Bayonne, along the Nive River, was an explosion of colors, dominated by green, red and orange peppers. At restaurants and take-out counters, it was a rare stew, sauté or casserole that wasn’t threaded with julienned strips of them.
One of the classics is poulet basquaise – chicken sautéed with peppers, tomatoes and herbs. I first tasted it at Hôtel Arraya in Sare, a one-street village at the foot of the Pyrenees, five miles from the Spanish border. At the time we were renting an apartment at the edge of town, in a 17th-century mansion that once belonged to shipbuilders. And on a walk to the boulangerie one Sunday morning, we noticed a sign at Arraya that poulet basquaise was the lunch special that day.
Most likely prepared with free-range chickens, like those that we observed from the windows of our lodgings in Sare, that lunch embodied what the French call terroir: subtle tastes that stem from geographic conditions. In this case we were not just eating fresh tomatoes and peppers, but perhaps chickens that had consumed those ingredients before they arrived on our plates, surrounded by a velvety sauce.
Back home in Brooklyn, with the peppers from Mexico, I prepared a rough send-up of the dish. My starting point was a recipe for poulet à la mode de Sare, attributed to Arraya’s founder, Paul Fagoaga, who died last year at the age of 91. Fagoaga’s version is included in the 2006 book Recettes des Sept Provinces du Pays Basque (Recipes from the Seven Provinces of Basque Country), by Juan José Lapitz Mendia and Jeanine Pouget.
That elegantly bound, two-pound book, acquired in a souvenir shop in Ainhoa, another one-street village about five miles from Sare, accompanied us on what turned out to be a culinary pilgrimage through French and Spanish Basque Country. It has been worth its weight during the past several years in educating me about this unique cuisine, and boosting my French vocabulary.
The book includes historical notes, and dashes of all-purpose wisdom, such as, “Don’t serve it to your friends until you’ve tried it yourself at least once.” In the back is an appendix with advice about various culinary techniques – for example, how to peel a pepper.
Having gone through this exercise once, I confirmed my suspicion through an informal survey of vendors at the markets: No one besides grandmothers has the time or patience to peel the peppers. So I skipped this step in Fagoaga’s recipe.
Other improvisations addressed the absence of terroir. Without it, according to a loosely translated note at the foot of the recipe, the name “poulet basquaise” is just a hackneyed appellation. In lieu of the free-range chicken that the recipe called for, I started out with an organic one from Fresh Direct. Unable to find belle tomates bien fermes (beautiful firm tomatoes) in the middle of a New York winter, I used canned. Though Fagoaga’s recipe doesn’t call for it, I added a teaspoon of bottled Espelette pepper purée, which gave the dish a slightly spicy kick.
Caught unprepared at the sudden direction to add a splash of Armagnac (not included in the ingredients list) to the pepper and tomato fondue, I substituted Marsala, which I had on hand.
Would Fagoaga be offended? Let’s hope not. Either way, I’m ready to serve it to friends.
Recipe for Poulet Basquaise
Adapted from “poulet à la mode de Sare,” in Recettes des Sept Provinces du Pays Basque, by Juan José Lapitz Mendia and Jeanine Pouget
1 chicken (about 3 pounds), cut into portion-size pieces
3 tablespoons corn oil
2 large red peppers, seeded and julienned
12 small sweet peppers, seeded and halved
1 medium onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1 large clove garlic, peeled and minced
6 canned tomatoes, with their juice
1 tablespoon purée of Espelette pepper (Optional; see note.)
1/3 cup flour
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup Armagnac or Marsala
3 sprigs thyme
3 sprigs parsley
- On a plate, mix together the flour, salt and pepper. Dredge the chicken pieces in the mixture and set aside.
- In a large cast-iron Dutch oven, heat the oil over a high flame. Brown the chicken pieces until golden on both sides, remove to a plate and keep warm.
- Empty the grease from the Dutch oven, add the wine and deglaze over medium flame.
- Meanwhile, in a frying pan, over medium heat, cook the tomatoes, with their juice, peppers, onions and garlic together for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally until they have wilted, and the peppers and tomatoes have released their liquids. Halfway through this process, add the Espelette pepper purée and stir to incorporate. Just before all the liquid has been absorbed, add the Armagnac or Marsala, and cook, stirring, for about two more minutes. Do not let the mixture dry out.
- Return the chicken to the Dutch oven. Add the tomato-pepper mixture and herbs. Bring to a simmer, cover, reduce flame to low and cook 30 more minutes, shaking occasionally.
Total preparation time: About 1 hour 30 minutes
Espelette pepper purée is available at specialty stores or online. I like the one by Pascal Massonde, though there are many other brands. Most have a bit of sugar and vinegar added. Be sure to taste the purée before adding it to the tomato-pepper mixture so you don’t make the sauce too spicy.
Deborah L. Jacobs is the author most recently of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home, including her adventures in Basque Country. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.