A Valentine’s Weekend Brunch concept lead me to search out a dish that was rich in holiday spirit (or, you know, close-ish) and breakfast-reminiscent. What better dish to pick than the Hot, teasingly Spicy, Red stew of Peppers known as Piperade, cooked with Eggs and eaten on Crusty Bread.
The Pinnacle of Basque Cuisine, the recipe known as Piperade is shared in the small region crossing both French and Spanish borders. Its beginnings, however, trace towards the French side in the far south-western region of Bearn (also known for béarnaise sauce… huh, that’s two relatively well known mother sauce adaptations they’ve invented), where the end of summer heralded and abundance of ripe, concentrated Tomatoes and Peppers, brought over from the New World and now used to make a sauce.
Which is what it started as and is still often used today, a sweet and rich sauce to go with various meals, sometimes cooked with beaten eggs a-la omelet. But it didn’t stay that way, the newly popular flavor combination moving across the border where they shared use of the same ingredients. Its influence grew, acquiring ingredients in its slow spread and popularity. Onions and Garlic from the Midetteranean, Ham and a Hot Ground Pepper from the Border, and it wasn’t long before the simple sauce turned into a cavalcade of sensational activity. Not only that, the stew’s mixed colors of Red (tomatoes), White (onion+garlic), and Green (peppers) stood representation of the Basque Flag, much like the Margherita Pizza does for Italy.
A simple dish packed full of flavor, Piperade truly stands tall as one of the typical foods of Southern France.
A Word On…
Peppers: Overall, the recipe is pretty easy. It’s just onions, garlic, tomatoes and peppers cooked together; and the traditional ingredients reflect that. Bell Peppers, that’s it; usually Green to reflect the “Basque Flag Color,” though there are many recipes that discuss adding a variety of bells for a beautiful color mix. Just stick with this and you already have the classic. No need to do the whole “roasting the skin and peeling off” thing, just keep it fresh before cooking.
There is one fun option we have though; the main Buzzfeed recipe link uses these little gems, and I just love adding them to dishes whenever I can. Preserved, Roasted Red Sweet Peppers. If you’ve had these in restaurants, maybe on an antipasti plate, you know why I adore these things. They’re soft and rich, smokey and sweet, and just concentrated with that essence of cooked peppers. You can find a can or jar of these, the already emptied casings sitting in an acidic mixture of vinegar and verjus, in any decent supermarket (co-ops, whole foods, etc). Just slice them up and toss in a little later than the other veggies; and I do still use it alongside bell peppers, so I can keep the classic feel and flavors of the dish.
HOT Peppers: With the sweet peppers we need the Heat. This comes from a little guy called the Espelette pepper, a Southern French product with its own AOC. Finding this in our market, though, is a damn difficult task.
We have options though, just have to find a fresh or chili pepper with similar Scoville units. And at only 4,000 (which is pretty darn low), we have a couple options. Guajillo Chilies are probably the easiest to get your hands on, and very close at 5,000 scoville; it’s what I got. Other decent options, if you can find them, are Mirasols and Fresno Peppers.
These aren’t added in as-is, which brings our second consideration. Normally, the espelette is ground into a French Paprika/Pimento. To make your own with whatever chili you get (if you get a “fresh” pepper, though, just slice it up and add in as-is), start simply by toasting the dried peppers (deseed first). This is simple, really; just heat up a pan, put in the whole peppers and press down with a spatula for about a minute each side, until those essential oils start to bloom and you can smell it. The skin should start to darken to around the edges.
Move it to your handy-dandy spice grinder (basically, a coffee grinder, cleaned) or food processor. It’ll be soft while warm, so let cool a bit to crisp up, and grind until beautifully powdered. This can be used as is, for this or whatever, but I like to still add some decent Spanish/Smoked Paprika to edge the final spice flavors a little closer to the original.
Tomatoes: I’ve talked about quality tomatoes a bit in one of my other Posts, and when it comes to getting the BEST ones for such a tomato-focused cooked dish, then stay away from “fresh.” Unless you can really get those rich, concentrated, deep red organic/home grown fruit right from your own garden (or a quality farmer’s market), then stick with canned. It sounds counter-intuitive, but think of it this way; organically canned tomatoes are picked and preserved at their PEAK of flavor and sugars, keeping them at their best flavor.
You have to know which ones to buy though. I love the Italian San Marzano tomatoes (well, everybody does, haha), and there are also some really great local, Whole Roasted Organic options. Whole Foods has a great stock on these options.
Cured Pig (and Focal Points): Traditionally, one cooks this dish wish an Air-cured meat called “Jamon de Bayonne” (from the Bayonne region of course). Finding this in the non-Chicago Midwest, much like the Espelette, is next to impossible. The main substitutes to it, for our concern, would be Italian Prosciutto and Spanish Serrano Ham. Which iteration one pics of these, then, is dependant with how it’ll be used.
I like to think that there’s a bit of a tug-of-war battle between the Egg and the Ham, each vying to see which one will act as the main showcase with the different recipes. Do you tone down the amount of eggs and top it with big chunks of fresh sliced or sautéed Ham; or do you keep the meat in with the veggies as it stews, the flavors mingling and overriding any subtle and delicate flavors it might have had.
Focusing on the Brunch aspect, I chose a cheaper prosciutto, which holds a very rough and simple personality but has a stronger flavor to stand up with the stew. This I had Sliced Thick, sautéed and mixed back in right before baking (I still want to ensure one can taste it). If one were to HIGHLIGHT the ham, then I think Serrano is the better choice: lighter and finer flavors, a little more of that cured pork fat still attached, and much closer in personality to the Bayonne. What I’d actually do is make a nice, refined veggie “sauce,” poach the egg on the side, and stack on the plate with a couple fresh, delicately thin slices of the Serrano.
Two extremes with many a variation in between if one explored them. The choice is up to you.
Eggs: Nowadays baked along with the stew, the original French dish was more closely tied to an omelette, or “frittata” style, with the tomato-pepper sauce cooked in. However, changes in preferences and styles have introduced baking of the eggs as a viable and now classic substitution, and the one which I chose to follow at the time.
4oz Prosciutto, Serrano, or similar meat, Thick Sliced
1/3-½ cup Olive Oil
½ Head of Garlic (5-7 medium cloves)
1 Large or 1 ½ Small Bell Pepper/s (any color)
2 Tb Guajillo (or similar) Chile Powder
1 tsp Paprika
1 tsp Sugar
1 tsp crushed Thyme (fresh or dry)
Salt n Pepper
1 cup Roasted Sweet Peppers
1 pint Can Whole San Marzano Tomatoes
2 Tb Fresh Parsley, chopped
Some good, Crusty Bread, sliced and Grilled
- Turn oven to 350F.
- Cut your dry-cured meat into even-sized cubes (or julienne sticks, depending), turning the cooking pan to Medium heat.
- Once hot, add Olive Oil; it should start Shimmering quickly. Toss in cubed meat, sautéing until colored and lightly crispy around the edges.
- While this is going, slice your Onion, Garlic, and Bell Pepper into thin strips.
- Transfer cooked prosciutto to paper towels for draining, replacing them in the warm pan with your sliced veggies.
- Gently cook on Medium/Med-Low until they start to get soft, making sure they don’t get any color. Toss in the Guajillo, Paprika, Sugar, Thyme and Seasonings, continuing so they “bloom” in the warm oil.
- Slice Roasted Sweet Peppers, adding in as the veggies get closer to full softness.
- Remove whole Tomatoes from the can, chopping them into thin pieces. Add, along with the can sauce/juices, simmering for 5 or so minutes until lightly reduced and “incorporated.”
- Stir in the chopped Parsley and Cooked Prosciutto.
- Ready your Eggs, carefully cracking into small bowls/ramekins for easy transferring.
- Carefully make a few “wells” into the cooked veggies and peppers with the back of a spoon or spatula, gently easing the whole eggs into each of their new resting places.
- Transfer to the hot oven, letting the Eggs and Stew bake until the white is set, 6-8 minutes.
- Remove, scoop onto a plate, and serve alongside drinks and some good Toasty Bread (and maybe a sausage if it’s breakfast, num).
I really love how this recipe turns out. Really tart, tomatoey-pepper rich stew, firm chunks of salty pork, and a fatty egg yolk to round it all out. The heat is low and gentle, the paprika-chili pepper flavors notably present but only offering the barest hints of capsaicin. Enough to arouse the palette without being too needy. Everything had its own strong, distinctive notes that just make you crave it throughout the day. It was all the beauty of a typical Chinese meal, designed to hit all 5 points of flavor (and the soul and elements and whatnot): Sweetness from the Peppers, Acidity from the Tomato, Umami from the Egg and Garlic, Saltiness from the Prosciutto, and Bitterness from the Charred Bread.
Ultimately it was a fun brunch, and a delicious thing to put on top and soak into that crunchy garlic bread.
Primary Pairing – Sagardoa (Basque Cider)
Again, a Cabernet Sauvignon with this dish? I think Buzzfeed must have been in a red wine coma when they put this particular article up. Not only is there no real texture to require the deep red’s tannins (crunchy bread doesn’t count), but much like the cheese we have another culinary pitfall for wine: Eggs. To be specific, egg Yolks, the fatty substance which is noted for having the tendency to coat and impede the palette, obstructing and inhibiting flavors from wine and drink. That and some compounds that can change flavors into the negative, tannic and more complex wines like Cab are immediately a no-go with any dish that highlights this ingredient.
So what kind of drink do we pair with this odd ingredient? Why, we just have to look at the rest of the dish; tart, strong, with little “weight” but still having singular flavor identity to it that, though not really complex, isn’t boring either. There are many White Wines that fit this diagram quite well (Rias Baixes, Vinho Verde, Txakolina, Sancerre/Pouilly Fume, Mosel Riesling, etc), but there’s only one thing that stands out at the top around the Basque Region. And that’s their Cider.
Cider’s a beautiful thing. Low alcohol, deliciously tart and acidic, with an intensely unique, piercing flavor. It can cut right through the coating fat of the egg yolk, its personality simple and strong enough to not be displaced and confused by the twisting placebo compounds. And just a refreshing glass to have for brunch; who needs a Mimosa? (please oh please god do not tell my Mother I said that)
My Bottle: 2011 Isastegi Sagardo Naturala
Was so happy to find this unique little item in a local store. The acidity matches perfectly with the tomato-pepper stew while still pushing through the difficulty of the egg, with a bare off-dry sweetness to counter the light salt of prosciutto. Then it gives a fun little muskiness, as should any good cider, to keep you excited and wanting more. I think the best way to describe its qualifications is that it has the same amount of “satisfaction” in it as the comfortingly poignant piperade.
Secondary Pairing – Gaillac or other SW France Rose
This was actually going to be my primary choice, I mean it was Valentine’s weekend; but then I found I could actually get a Spanish Cider (and cheaper), so I just had to go with my other option.
It’s a bit surprising, I know, since apparently us “wine snobs who roll their eyes at the mention of rose” must HATE the idea of using this very versatile and food friendly style when it comes to pairing. But I guess sometimes even we deem to lower ourselves to -gasp- “enjoy” a wine that tastes delicious and refreshing. Just a bit of those red-reminiscent fruit flavors and aromas to be mentally appealing next to the distinctive tomato-pepper stew, while holding the piercing tartness and personality of a white to stand next to the dish’s difficulties.
They’ll have some more body than the cider, probably along with a bit of “heat” and musk/earthiness that reminds one of Mediterranean Basque. A great regional pairing fully incorporated with the French side of things.
If you can’t find any rose from the SW of France, there are some great offerings from Provence and Southern Rhone at decent prices, just ask an employee about their suggestions to lead you to the right bottles.