Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A little light reading.

After finishing Moby-Dick for last month's book club meeting, I've been engaged in a binge-like round of comfort reading. I re-read Ruth Reichl's superlative second memoir (Comfort Me With Apples) and am deep into a session with Northanger Abbey (which I've read too many times to count). In between, I picked up Lunch In Paris, a memoir by Elizabeth Bard.

The book is, in fact, billed as a "love story with recipes," so I was excited to read it and get inspired. I was a bit disappointed, as the food mentioned - and often described with loving tenderness - rarely matched the recipes presented at the close of each chapter. (The thematic connections were there, to be fair.) That said, some of the recipes that were included seemed interesting, most notably Chapter Three's poulet basquaise.

Basque cooking is perhaps best known for its inclusion of piment d'espelette, a dried pepper that is the region's answer to paprika. It's delicious, sweet and smoky and spicy and complex. I love it, but had never cooked with it before. One order from Kalustyan's later, I was ready to get moving.

Poulet basquaise combines the d'espelette pepper with fresh sweet peppers and copious amounts of onion. Not everyone's cup of tea, surely, but I've rarely heard two words I love more than "onions" and "peppers." The recipe also called for a decent amount of bacon, some canned tomatoes, and had a fabulous sauce to meat ratio (read: high).

However. For an entire chicken, 28 ounces of tomatoes, 8 ounces of bacon, three peppers and four onions, Bard calls for only 2 teaspoons of espelette. Sorry, honey - not gonna cut it for this pepper lover. In fact, the recipe in general seems written for someone who's already a pretty comfortable cook; for example, she asks you to brown the chicken in a skillet, but doesn't offer a suggestion for which fat to use. So, I've taken it upon myself to put her fantastic formula into a format that will hopefully work for you - it's a bit time-consuming, as one-dish meals go, but it's truly delicious, and it fed me for five days.

You can't beat that.

Poulet Basquaise
Adapted from Elizabeth Bard's Lunch in Paris

One whole chicken, cut into six pieces (or six assorted legs & thighs)
3 tbs. piment d'espelette*, divided
Kosher salt
2 tbs. neutral oil, such as canola
3 slices bacon, cut crosswise into batons
2 white onions, thinly sliced into rounds
3 cloves garlic, halved lengthwise
3 red bell peppers, ends removed, sliced into 1/2 inch rounds
3 tbs. sherry vinegar
28 ounces plum tomatoes, with juice
1 bay leaf
4-5 sprigs thyme, leaves removed and stems discarded
3 tbs. parsley, finely chopped

Pat the chicken dry and place, skin-side up, on a plate. Season the chicken, on the skin-side, with a teaspoon or so of the d'espelette and a pinch of salt. In a large saute pan or dutch oven, heat the canola oil over medium-high heat. Place the chicken in the oil, skin-side down, and cook until golden brown. Meanwhile, season the bottom side of the chicken with another teaspoon of d'espelette and a pinch of salt.

Turn the chicken and brown on the other side, then remove the chicken pieces to a plate to rest. (Brown chicken in batches if need be; do not crowd the pan.)

Add the bacon to the pan and cook over medium heat for several minutes, until most of the fat is rendered, but the bacon isn't quite crispy. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside. Pour off all but a couple of tablespoons of the fat in the pan and place the pan over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and cook slowly until the onions are well-softened, about 10 minutes. Add the peppers, a tablespoon of d'espelette and half a teaspoon of salt. Continue to cook over medium heat until the peppers are very soft, about 15 minutes.

Deglaze the pan with the vinegar, and then add the tomatoes one by one, crushing them between your fingers as you go - and don't forget their juice! Return the bacon to the pan and add the remaining d'espelette, bay leaf, thyme and parsley. Bring the mixture to a simmer, place the chicken on top, and cover. Keep the pan cooking at a simmer for 30 to 40 minutes. Remove the bay leaf, adjust for seasoning, and serve.

I like to serve this with couscous, which does a great job of soaking up the sauce. Since I ate most of the stew well after it had been made, I added a few pinches of fresh herbs to the couscous to brighten things up.

Serves 4-6 people. The sauce is more filling than you'd expect.

*If you can't find piment d'espelette, hot (not sweet) paprika makes a good substitute.

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