On the last weekend in October, thousands of people will crowd into the narrow streets of the town of Espelette, in the Basque region of southwest France, for The Celebration of Peppers, honoring the area's most famous agricultural product: piment d'Espelette.
I'm partial to any food that merits an entire festival held in its name (Gilroy garlic, Hatch chiles, Crisfield crabs). I'm also partial to any food that comes from only one place on Earth.
Piment d'Espelette is a one-place-on-Earth, deserves-a-parade, sweet-hot pepper produced in only ten small villages in France with a total growing area of just 3,000 acres, earning it the coveted Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) designation.
AOC certification is granted to certain French products, like champagne, that are unique and grown in only one well-defined geographic region. Roquefort cheese was the first AOC product, designated in 1925; piment d'Espelette received its AOC appellation in 1999. As a result, this newest addition to my pantry has made its way into the American food scene, and into gourmet markets and online shops.
As essential to authentic Basque cooking as jalapeños are to Tex-Mex cuisine and anchos are to molé, piment d'Espelette is harvested in late summer, when the bright red peppers are strung like the chile ristras of the Southwest US, and hung on the lovely white houses of the villages to dry in the sun.
If you can't find the real thing, you can substitute hot paprika, mild New Mexico red chile powder, or a combination of the two with a bit of pimentón mixed in.
Piment d'Espelette is used, most famously, to both color and flavor the outside of Bayonne ham, but once you have it in your pantry, you'll love the uniquely sweet heat in a variety of recipes for steak and chips, fish and ribs, pretzels or — oui, oui — let-them-eat cake.
Chicken basquaise with piperade
Recipe adapted very slightly from Fieryfoods.com. Piperade is a colorful pepper sauce that is only spicy when made in the Basque region. This simple but delicious dish is often served at the Celebration of the Peppers. Serve with boiled potatoes and green beans, over rice, or with egg noodles; tastes best at room temperature. Serves 4-6.
1/2 cup olive oil
4 medium onions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, sliced
4 green bell peppers, seeds and stems removed, chopped
2 red bell peppers, seeds and stems removed, chopped
4 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
3 Tbsp piment d'Espelette, or more to taste (substitute hot paprika or New Mexico red chile powder)
Pinch of thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
1 chicken, cut up, or equivalent chicken parts (2 breasts, cut in half; 4 thighs; 2 legs), skin on, bone in
1/4 cup chicken stock
Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a large sauté pan and cook the onions and garlic for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the bell peppers and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and Espelette powder and cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the thyme, salt, and pepper and transfer to a bowl.
Wipe out the pan and heat the remaining 1/4 cup of oil. Brown the chicken in the oil until golden, turning often. Pour the pepper mixture over the chicken, reduce the heat, cover and simmer until tender, about 30-40 minutes. (If there is not enough liquid in the pan, add the chicken stock.) Season with salt and pepper to taste.
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