Regional French Cuisine: Pays Basque: Piperade

29 05 2009

Basque cooking is pretty much synonymous with peppers.  If you’re in a restaurant in France, and a dish is described on the menu as “à la basquaise,” it will probably be covered in bell peppers.  (Seeing as I am not exactly a bell pepper lover, this can be disappointing.)  Piperade is the name for a mixture of sautéed peppers and onions, usually seasoned with piment d’espelette and often involving eggs and/or ham.  Sounds like a pretty great breakfast to me, especially if I can swap out the bell peppers for my much-loved piquillos.

The beginning stages of piperade

Faced with yet another bunch of white asparagus from the CSA panier, I remembered a post by Mark Bittman in which he finally finds a way to enjoy the overpriced, underwhelming vegetable.  It involved peeling and cooking the hell out of them and then smothering them in a “broken hollandaise” of sorts.  I thought that some creamy, slow-cooked scrambled eggs would fit the bill, and the piperade would be the icing on the cake, so to speak.

S-L-O-W-L-Y scrambling eggs

I mean, we all know how great asparagus and eggs are together, right?  Now, if you’ll allow me, I have a short diatribe about scrambled eggs.  Don’t even think about cooking them all the way through.  Scrambled eggs should be smooth and creamy as well as fluffy.  They should never be dry.  Those cottony diner scrambled eggs with the browned bits and phony lard flavoring (or maybe it’s just rancid) turn my stomach.  The absolute best only way to cook scrambled eggs is VERY SLOWLY.  Over low heat.  In butter or olive oil.  Stirring constantly.  I mean it.  These are not a weekday morning project, that’s what fried eggs are for.  Oh, it’s going to take patience.  And time.  A whole lot of precious time.


Well, 25 minutes or so, anyway.  But it is time very well spent.  (And, as luck would have it, about the same amount of time it takes to steam white asparagus into submission.)

Brunch is served

Topped with a mound of soft-set piperade scrambled eggs, the white asparagus were indeed tolerable.  Good, even.  Although I can’t help but to think how much better it would be with green asparagus.  Or a few slices of cured ham, like a regionally appropriate jambon de Bayonne.  But then, what isn’t?

Originally published on Croque-Camille.


Au Bascou

27 05 2009

These regional French cuisine posts have turned out to be a great excuse to explore unfamiliar Parisian neighborhoods, take weekend trips, and try new restaurants.  While Nick and I have already found a Basque restaurant that we really like, I thought it would be fun to give another one a chance.  So we headed down the way, under sunny skies, to Au Bascou with a friend we hadn’t seen in a while.  (Who was kind enough to lend me her camera, as I absentmindedly forgot mine.  Thanks, Lissa!)  The cozy bistro has filets of Piment d’Espelette hanging from the exposed wooden beams, and the atmosphere is very relaxed and homey.


Irouleguy is the main wine produced in the Basque country.   Composed mainly of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and tannat grapes, it is a robust, rich red that manages to maintain its fruity characteristics – a great match for the hearty dishes of the region.  It’s also just a fun word to say.

Appetizers at Au Bascou
1. Rabbit Terrine, 2. Stuffed Piquillos

To start, Lissa and I split the rabbit terrine, and Nick ordered the stuffed piquillo peppers.  Our favorite dish at our favorite tapas place in Dallas was the piquillo peppers stuffed with fresh goat cheese and drenched in top-notch olive oil.  He was expecting something along those lines, but what arrived on the plate was quite different.  The peppers were there, sweet and smoky, and the olive oil was there, and there was even a nice little heap of arugula, but the peppers were not stuffed with goat cheese.  Or any cheese.  It was morue, the same salt cod used to make that Provençal favorite, brandade.  The peppers were good, but you can imagine that first bite, expecting tangy cheese and getting salty fish, was a bit of a surprise.  As for the rabbit terrine, it was very flavorful and not at all dry, a common problem when cooking rabbit.  The addition of prunes in the terrine made for a nice sweet foil to the savory meat.

The Main Event
1. Magret de Canard, 2. Slow-Cooked Lamb, 3. Monkfish in Curry Sauce

For the main course, Nick opted for the braised lamb, which was tender, juicy, and served with eggplant, zucchini, and a timbale of couscous.  He said he liked it, but could have done without the fussy little tower.  Lissa couldn’t resist the curried monkfish, as nontraditional as it may be, and loved every bite.  The sauce in particular got rave reviews.  As for me, I got the duck breast topped with foie gras.  (Have you ever known me NOT to take the foie gras, given the option?)  The duck was a perfect rosy, medium-rare, and the foie was seared crisp on one side while still remaining a decent-sized slab.  Impressive.  Best of all was the sauce: savory and sweet with a vinegary kick.  An exellent pairing with the very rich duck and foie gras combination.  As we ate, the clouds that had formed while wer weren’t looking opened up and we could see a torrential downpour through the skylights.  But the food was fortifying, and we knew the Métro was only steps from the door.

We all cleaned our plates and were feeling pretty full, but I insisted we taste at least one dessert. 

Chocolate, chocolate, and more chocolate!

I selected the Beret Basque from the relatively large dessert menu.  (I was very tempted by the strawberry millefeuille special, though.)  Supposedly, it is a traditional Basque chocolate cake.  (Did you know that the beret originally hails from the Basque country?  Well, now you do.)  The dessert that came to the table, thoughtfully split onto two plates to ease the sharing, did  not look a bit rustic.  It did, however, resemble a chocolate-lover’s dream.  A thin chocolate cookie, topped with a round of chocolate mousse, dolloped with a puddinglike chocolate ice cream and wearing a crisp shard of chocolate for a hat.  The three of us made short work of it and exited the restaurant to find the skies blue once more.  Which was good, because a short walk home was just what we needed after such a hearty and satisfying meal.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

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The Basque Cheeses That Shall Remain Nameless

20 05 2009

This may come as a shock, but I have no fromagerie in the immediate vicinity of my apartment.  (What?  In Paris?  Yes.  I do have about a dozen Pho places to choose from, though, so I guess it evens out.)  So if I want something more esoteric than the local Monoprix has to offer, I have to venture out to other neighborhoods.  This is how I ended up at the Fromagerie Secrétan, located on (here’s a shocker) Avenue Secrétan in the 19th arrondissement.  Secrétan is a laid-back  market street, with a handful of primeurs hawking fruits and vegetables, a couple poissonniers and boucheries for your flesh-consuming needs, not to mention bakeries, traiteurs, and a full covered market as well.  Heading over there after work one afternoon last week, I was pretty sure that I would find at least one cheese shop open.  And I did. 

I asked the cheerful owner if he had any Basque cheeses, and he eagerly pointed me to three very similar wheels.  The first, Ossau-Iraty, I know well.  It is a deliciously smooth sheep’s milk cheese which gets its firm texture from pressing and aging as opposed to cooking.  Ossau-Iraty is nearly always accompanied by black cherry jam, which is a great match for its salty, rich tang (though other applications are acceptable).  The cheese next to it had no label, but was described as a more aged Ossau-Iraty.  Ok, I’ll try a wedge of that.  Moving on down the shelf, there was a third wheel, much whiter in color, labeled simply, “Brebis-Chèvre.”  So this one is like Ossau-Iraty except made with both sheep’s and goat’s milk.  (Are you sensing a pattern here?)

Ossau-Iraty variations

Stéphane, the proprietor, wrapped my two non-Ossau-Iraty cheeses in paper printed with the shop’s silly logo and sent me on my merry way – across the street to the wine shop.  (The overstuffed mouse is thinking that he loves all the cheeses too much.  Kiffe is apparently an old-fashioned slang term that may be enjoying a revival – think “groovy” around the time the Brady Bunch Movie came out – and describes a sudden, intense, uncontrollable love.  Wait, that sounds dirty.)

But about the cheeses.  The aged one (creamy yellow in the photo) tasted as you might expect an older Ossau- to taste – similar, but mellower, nuttier, and more savory.  The goat one (lighter with small holes) surprised bothNick and me with its unusual flavor.  And I mean that in a good way.  It had a definite goaty tang rounded out by a slight pleasant mustiness.  I had purchased a wine that claimed to be good with cheeses from the Pyrenées, but once we started eating, the thought of wine didn’t even enter our heads.  That’s saying something.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

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Exploring France: Pays Basque: Piment d’Espelette

15 05 2009

When did it get to be May 15th?  And here I am, writing my first post for what is supposed to be “Basque month.”  I have been doing some research, but so far that has not been apparent on my blog.  At any rate, I’m kicking things off with one of the produits phares* of the Basque Country.

Piment d'Espelette in its dried, ground, jarred form

Piment d’Espelette is a mild (around 4,000 on the Scoville scale for you chili geeks out there) red pepper with hints of smoke and a slight bittersweet quality.  It was brought to Europe from Mexico in the 16th century, along with many other New World food “discoveries” such as potatoes, tomatoes, and corn.  The Basque country was found to be an ideal climate for cultivating the small, elongated, bright red peppers, and the piment d’Espelette soon became an integral part of Basque cooking.  It gained AOC status in 2000, and now commands fairly hefty price tags.  On account of this, I had been holding off buying some, until one day, browsing in G. Detou (after stops at La Bovida and Mora– Les Halles can be dangerous!) I found a jar of that lovely reddish-orange powder for half of what they were charging at the grocery store.  I also came home with 3 kilos of Valrhona cocoa powder, but that’s neither here nor there.

The humble beginnnings of a tasty pasta sauce

I’ve been using it sparingly here and there, but this week, all that changed.  Apparently Spring’s sudden onslaught (and just as sudden retreat) has wreaked a bit of havoc on the farms that provide me with my CSA panier.  The bag was positively bulging the previous week, with more lettuce than two people could possibly eat in a week, barring some kind of fad diet.  This week, though, they had to supplement with some zucchini from the Drôme.  And they are beauties.  Small, slender and sweet, they gave me the urge to sauté them up with a little tomato and toss them over a big bowl of whole wheat spaghetti.  And then it occurred to me that the piment d’Espelette might be just the thing for a light, summery pasta dish such as this one.  And it was.  The faint heat was a great match for the fresh, sweet zucchini.  I see piment d’Espelette playing a pretty big role in my kitchen this summer.  Good thing I know where to get it cheap.

*WATCH! As my grasp of the English language slowly devolves into franglais.  Literally, this phrase says “lighthouse products,” but obviously that’s not what it means.  Maybe “beacon” would be a better translation.  Anyway, it’s a product that gets a lot of attention, or is especially connected with a region or company.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

Easter Brunch

26 03 2008

Usually we spend Easter Sunday with a bunch of friends, cooking up a big brunch, gorging ourselves on pork products, drinking champagne, and (last year, anyway) playing Wii.  This year, however, we were on our own (our current apartment isn’t exactly suited for entertaining, but the situation will soon be rectified), the Wii sitting idly in its box until we can procure a television.  As a result, we probably spent even more time than usual cooking ourselves fabulous Easter treats.  Strata has always been one of my favorite brunch dishes, and I am given to making it on holidays, since it takes some time to prepare, but most of the hands-on work can be done the day before.  We still had some Basque chorizo from the Salon in the fridge, so I decided to base this year’s Easter strata on that. 

First I had to track down some Basque cheese, and went to check out a nearby Basque-centric shop I had read about.  It seemed appropriate that the place was situated near the Pyrenées Métro stop.  The shop itself had a very weird vibe, though.  I walked in and the man there (the proprietor?), who was seated at a table, eating lunch, looked surprised to see me.  I asked if they had any Basque cheeses, since there didn’t seem to be any merchandise on display, and I felt as though I had just walked into someone’s home.  He said he did, and called to the back for his wife (or employee?  I really don’t know).  She came out, got a hunk of cheese from the fridge, and cut a small wedge for me.  Then both of them insisted that the ONLY way to eat this cheese was with black cherry jam.  I smiled and nodded and got out of there.

Cut to Saturday evening.  I had acquired a large bag of onions at the market on Thursday, and thought that caramelized onions would be excellent in the strata.  Nick, feeling industrious, took it upon himself to slice up about 4 onions and start them cooking right after dinner.

Onions, before  Onions, halfway there  Onions, after

Since we didn’t have any big plans for the next morning, I decided to put off assembling the strata until then.  Bright and early on Sunday, which was a gorgeously sunny morning, I woke up and got to work.  I buttered the baking dish and laid down slices of bread, like this:

Strata - first layer

There’s a prize for the first person to correctly identify the 3 slices of pain tradition (or tradi, as I just recently learned it is called colloquially).  On a side note, if you are ever buying bread in Paris, I strongly suggest you forgo the baguette in favor of the tradi.  In any given bakery, it is the bread that is given the most love and care in its preparation, and you can really taste the difference.  There is a bakery just down the street that somehow always has tradis fresh from the oven, still warm.  But I digress.  Back to the strata.

Strata - second layer

I topped the bread slices with a layer of onions, followed by layers of chorizo and cheese.

3rd layer  4th layer

After that, more onions and a final layer of bread slices – like a dish full of tiny sandwiches!

5th layer  6th layer

Then I beat some eggs with milk, cream, salt, and pepper.  I poured this mixture over the bread slices, making sure to coat each one.  I covered the whole thing with plastic wrap and weighted it down with the bag of onions in order to make sure the bread soaked up all of the custard.  (You can make this up to this point and let it sit in the fridge overnight, if you want.)  After an hour or so, it looked like this:

Oven-ready strata

I placed it in the oven and we waited, cleaning up the mess I had made and enjoying our leisurely morning coffee.  The total baking time was a little over an hour at 175C, and I rotated the pan halfway through.  And when it was done…

Baked strata - ready to eat!

We feasted!

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