Agde has been hot - the kind of humid heat that interferes with sleep, melts make up, frizzes hair. On the terrace of the Café Plazza, as tinny, consumptive Peter Gabriel or Police wheezed out from the speakers, locals muttered about ‘un orage’ over tiny cups of coffee and breakfast beers.
Well today the orage came, splashing, running, pelting down from the skies, spilling from the gutters, filling the age-smoothed grooves in the basalt terrace like tiny rockpools. It was a day to remain behind the wooden door.
Almost the very second we were due to leave London, the car rammed to the rafters with towels and straw hats, proper pillows, paperbacks and favourite knives, the postman delivered a parcel, a birthday present from my sister-in-law. It was Dorie Greenspan’s lovely Around My French Table. It was my companion throughout our 17 hour journey, especially during the boring bits before you get to Clermont Ferrand where France begins to roll downhill to the south.
I gave the book to my nephew Angus to look at and told him we could make what he liked. He’s going to university in the autumn (biochemistry – what the hell?) and wants to learn to cook a bit. His mother’s from a Spanish Basque family so his heart, appetite and genes lead him to Dorie’s Chicken Basquaise, a colourful jumble of peppers, chillies, tomatoes and chicken, a perfectly sunny dish for an extravagantly rainy day.
Dorie Greenspan’s Chicken basquaise
If you’re keen on French food, you really need to buy Dorie Greenspan’s book. Probably today, if it’s not too much trouble. In her introduction, she says ‘This is elbows-on-the-table food, dishes you don’t need a Grand Diplôme from Le Cordon Bleu to make’. ‘Elbows-on-the-table food’ is a pretty good description of the food I love and so many of my favourites are here, a whole banquet of rillettes, gratins, daubes and gougères, but also couscous and tagines, escabeches and ceviches, reflecting France’s more recent influences and passions.
Around My French Table is the kind of book you want to work your way through, devouring every carefully, cheerfully, deliciously constructed recipe. The recipes use American measurements, but you can buy cup measures all over the place now so that’s hardly an obstacle to enjoyment.
For the pipérade:
2 big Spanish or Vidalia onions
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 green peppers, peeled if you like
2 red peppers, peeled if you like
3 mild chillies (or another red pepper)
6 tomatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
2-4 garlic cloves, to taste, split, green germ removed and minced
2 teaspoons sea salt or more to taste
Pinch of sugar
2 thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
¼ - ½ teaspoon piment d’Esplette or chilli powder
Freshly ground black pepper
For the chicken:
1 large chicken, about 1.8kg, preferably organic, cut into 8 pieces, or 8 chicken thighs, at room temperature
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
¾ cup/190ml dry white wine
White rice, for serving
Minced fresh basil and/or cilantro/coriander, for garnish (optional)
To make the pipérade: Cut the onions in half from top to bottom. Lay each piece flat-side down and cut in half again from top to bottom, stopping just short of the root end: cut each half onion crosswise into thin slices.
Put a Dutch oven or large, high-sided frying pan with a cover over medium heat and pour in 2 tablespoons of oil. Warm the oil for a minute, then toss in the onions and cook, stirring, for 10 minutes, or until softened but not coloured.
Meanwhile, cut the peppers and chillies in half, trim the tops, remove the cores and remove the seeds. Cut the peppers lengthwise into strips about ½ inch/1cm wide. Thinly slice the chillies.
Add the remaining tablespoons of oil to the pot, stir in the peppers and chillies, cover, and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook and stir for another 20 minutes, or until the vegetables are quite soft.
Add the tomatoes, garlic, salt, sugar, thyme, bay leaf, piment d’Esplette or chilli powder, and freshly ground pepper to taste, stir well, cover and cook for 10 minutes more. Remove the cover and let the pipérade simmer for another 15 minutes. You’ll have a fair amount of liquid in the pot, and that’s fine. Remove the thyme and bay leaf. Taste and add more salt, pepper, or piment d’Esplette if you think it needs it.
If you would like to make the pipérade with eggs (see below), use a slotted spoon to transfer 2 cups of the pepper mixture into a bowl. Spoon in a little of the cooking liquid, and refrigerate until needed (you can pack all of the pipérade in an airtight container and keep it refrigerated for up to 4 days).
To make the chicken: Pat the chicken pieces dry. Warm the oil in a Dutch oven or other heavy casserole over a medium-high heat. Add a couple of chicken pieces, skin-side down (don’t crowd the chicken – do this in batches), and cook until the skin is golden, about 5 minutes. Turn the pieces over and cook for another 3 minutes. Transfer the pieces to a bowl, season with salt and pepper, and continue until all of the chicken is browned.
Discard the oil, set the pot over a high heat, pour in the wine, and use a wooden spoon to scrape up any bits that might have stuck to the bottom. Let the wine bubble away until it cooks down to about 2 tablespoons. Return the chicken to the pot, add any juices that have accumulated in the bowl, and spoon in the pipérade. Bring the mixture to the boil, then reduce the heat so that the pipérade just simmers, cover the pot, and simmer gently for 40 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through. Taste for salt and pepper and adjust the seasonings as needed.
Serve over white rice, sprinkled with basil and/or cilantro/coriander, if using.
Pipérade and eggs
The traditional way to make pipérade and eggs is to heat the pipérade, stir beaten eggs into the mixture, and cook until the eggs are scrambled. Inevitably and invariably the egs curdle, but no one (at least no one Basque) seems to mind. If you’d like uncurdled eggs, warm 2 cups of pipérade in a saucepan. Meanwhile beat 6 eggs with a little salt and pepper in a bowl. Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a large, non-stick pan over a medium heat, and when the bubbles subside, pour in the eggs, Cook the eggs, stirring, until they form soft curds. Spoon the pipérade into four shallow soup plates and, with the back of a spoon, make a little well in the centre of each. Fill each well with some scrambled eggs. Drizzle the eggs and pipérade sparingly with olive oil, dust with minced basil or coriander, if you’d like, and serve immediately, with slices of warm toasted country bread rubbed with garlic and moistened with oil.