Sunday, September 19, 2010

Poulet Basquaise—Basque-Style Chicken with Peppers, Ham & Tomatoes

Most of my posts this month have either featured classic Italian fare or desserts. To change courses a bit, I thought that today I would share a recipe that I worked on last month for a class on food from the South of France. The Soupe au Pistou and the Gratin of Eggplant and Tomatoes that I posted in August were both from that class. Most of the recipes, including the two just mentioned, were from Provence—a region of France that I love. Having worked and vacationed there, I have first-hand experience of the food. When I teach French food, frequently the recipes are Provençal in origin. In this class though, I branched out and taught one recipe from the Basque region in the southwest of France. That recipe was Poulet Basquaise, a regional favorite of chicken cooked with peppers, ham and tomatoes.

Unfortunately, I have not been to the Basque country, but Poulet Basquaise is a dish that falls into a classic category of dishes called "sautés." I would venture to guess that every region of France has a large collection of traditional dishes that are made according to the sauté model.  Because I love the style of food resulting from this method, I am very familiar with it. Technically, I think that a sauté and a braise are the same thing, but in my mind when I think of a braise, I think of a beef, lamb or pork. To me a sauté is specifically a stew of large, bone-in pieces of chicken or rabbit.

As with a braise, the sauté is a moist heat cooking procedure. The meat and aromatic vegetables (onions, garlic, carrots, celery, etc.) are first browned in some fat, then moistened (with wine, tomato, stock, even water) and then gently simmered until the meat is very tender. Each of these steps is important and executing them with care will produce tender pieces of meat surrounded by a flavorful sauce.

This coming winter I might post one of my "mini" tutorials on the how's and why's of braising, and when I do, I will link it here. But for now, I would just like to emphasize the importance of browning the chicken well. The browning process deposits caramelized meat juices on the bottom of the pan that will add depth of flavor to the final dish, so it should always be done thoroughly and carefully. But with chicken, it is even more important because of the fatty nature of the chicken skin. If chicken only receives a quick, surface browning, the fat in the skin will not be fully rendered. The resulting flabby skin is extremely unappetizing. I am convinced that poorly browned chicken skin is one of the main reasons that so many people refuse to eat it. Maybe it would help to think of chicken skin as being like bacon. If a strip of bacon is not fully rendered, it is floppy and tough. But when it is well-rendered, it is crisp, tender and delicious. The same is true of chicken skin. Even though in a sauté the skin will be softened by the moist cooking process, if properly browned, it will not be floppy and chewy.

My version of Poulet Basquaise is largely influenced by one that I found in Frank Stitt's Southern Table. A cookbook written by a chef from the southern United States might seem a strange place to look for a classic French recipe, but Chef Stitt's food is heavily influenced by his experiences in France. Part of his time there was spent working with the American cookbook author Richard Olney, who lived and worked in Provence. Frank Stitt is one of my favorite chefs and I frequently turn to his books for inspiration.

His Poulet Basquaise differs from most of the recipes that I came across in that it is a refined "chef's" version in a classic style. Most commonly found recipes are "one-pot" affairs.  From the point when the liquid is added, the chicken and vegetables are all cooked together and then served as is. In a classic sauté the vegetables that are cooked with the chicken are used only for flavoring the sauce. When the chicken is tender it is removed from the sauce and the vegetables, which will have become quite soft and will have given up most of their flavor to the sauce, are strained out.

Surface fat is skimmed off of the resulting strained liquid before it is placed back on the stove and boiled until it is reduced to a light sauce consistency. To serve, the chicken and a separately cooked vegetable "garnish" are gently reheated in the finished sauce.

The hallmarks of Poulet Basquaise are loads of peppers and Bayonne ham. Most recipes use fresh sweet peppers—red and yellow....even green. I personally don't like green peppers, so I don't use them. Chef Stitt adds poblano peppers to his version, and I have followed him in this. They add some nice warmth, as well as their deep green color, to the finished dish.

In addition to the bell peppers, the classic dish includes a dried pepper called Piment d'Espelette. From the town of Espelette in the Basque region, Piment d'Espelette is a brilliant red dried pepper that is mildly hot. If you are familiar with the Scoville scale, it is rated at about 4,000. For comparison purposes, the Ancho has a rating of about 2,000 and Cayenne has a rating in the range of 30,000 to 50,000. If you are unable to find it, Ancho Chili powder or New Mexico Red Chili powder are considered to be good substitutes. Since neither is as hot as the Piment d'Espelette, Cayenne or hot pepper flakes can be added as well. Some recipes use Hot Paprika as a substitute. Most traditional recipes use 2 to 3 t. of Piment d'Espelette for the quantities of chicken and peppers in the recipe below. Piment d'Espelette is also used to season the Basque region's famed Bayonne ham. As mentioned above, this ham is a traditional component of Poulet Basquaise, but any un-smoked, air-cured ham (like Parma or Serrano Ham) will do.

The version of Poulet Basquaise that I am posting is of course more work than a one-pot, rustic version, but it is so beautiful when prepared this way, with its glossy sauce and just-tender peppers,

that I think it is worth taking the time to try it at least once. It would make a great meal for entertaining since it can be made a day ahead.  Like all braised dishes, it will taste even better that way.  Since we are moving into cooler weather, and the thought of something stew-like for dinner holds great appeal, now would be a perfect time to try it.  Some Saturday or Sunday afternoon soon, while the bell peppers are still in abundant supply....

Poulet Basquaise
(Basque-Style Chicken with Peppers, Ham & Tomatoes)

1 chicken (3 to 4 lbs.) cut into 8 serving pieces, OR 4 Chicken thighs and 4 Chicken Drumsticks, OR 8 chicken thighs
Salt & Pepper
1 to 2 T. olive oil
1 medium onion (about 6 oz.), thinly sliced
2 oz. Bayonne Ham or Prosciutto, chopped or diced—trimmings are fine
2 to 3 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 to 1/2 t. hot pepper flakes
1 t. paprika
1 t. tomato paste, optional
2/3 c. dry white wine
1 lb. vine-ripened tomatoes, peeled & crushed, or 1 14-oz. can tomatoes
Several Sprigs of fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1/2 to 1 c. chicken stock or low-salt canned broth

1 1/2 lbs. Red & Yellow Bell Peppers—about 4, cored, seeded & cut into strips about 2 or 3 inches long and a scant 1/2-inch wide
1 Poblano pepper, cut as the bell peppers
Salt & Pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 t. Ancho Chili Powder
2 oz. thinly sliced (1/8-inch thick) Bayonne Ham or Prosciutto, cut in 1/4- inch julienne
2 to 3 T. minced Italian Parsley, optional

The Chicken: Pat chicken dry and season with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a 12-inch heavy sauté pan over moderately high heat. Add the chicken, skin side down, and brown all over, in batches if necessary to keep from crowding the pan. Regulate the heat as necessary to maintain an active sizzle. Browning the chicken will take about 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer chicken to a plate and pour off all but 1 T. of fat from the pan.

Add the onions to the pan and cook until the onion is soft and beginning to turn golden—about 5 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic and ham and cook until the garlic is fragrant. Add the hot pepper flakes, paprika, and tomato paste (if using) and cook another minute or two. Add the wine and increase the heat. Reduce the wine by half, stirring and scraping up the browned caramelized bits from the pan as the wine reduces.

Add the tomatoes, along with the bay and thyme, and bring to a simmer—cook briefly to allow the tomatoes to begin to break down and thicken. Return the chicken to the pan along with any accumulated juices. Add enough chicken stock to come about half to two-thirds of the way up the sides of the chicken.

Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook, covered, until the chicken is cooked through—about 15 for white meat pieces and 35 to 45 minutes for dark meat. Remove the white meat to a platter when it is cooked through.

The Peppers: While the chicken cooks, heat a large sauté pan over medium to medium-high heat. Add a tablespoon or so of oil to the pan. Add the peppers and sauté until they are beginning to soften—about 5 to 10 minutes. It's OK if they are browned in spots, but reduce the heat if they threaten to burn. Add the garlic, ham, and chili powder along with a pinch of salt (be careful, the ham is salty). Toss well, reduce the heat to low and cover. Continue to cook, occasionally stirring and checking to make sure they aren't burning, until the peppers are tender, but still have a bit of texture—another 15 to 20 minutes. Set aside.

Finishing the Chicken: When the dark meat is cooked through and is tender, lift it out of the sauce and add it to the plate with the white meat. Strain the cooking liquid into a large saucepan, pressing hard on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Set the sauce pan over medium-high heat. Reduce the sauce by one third to one half, skimming away the fat as the sauce reduces (it is easiest to do this if the pan is set half on and half off the burner). The final consistency of the sauce should be that of heavy cream. You should have about a cup of rich sauce.

To serve the chicken, return the sauce and the chicken to the pan the chicken was cooked in, along with the sautéed peppers and ham. (The dish can be prepared to this point the day before.) Gently heat the chicken and peppers through. Correct the seasoning. Serves 4 to 6.

Traditionally served with rice, but potatoes, couscous, or polenta would be good too.

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