I Know How To Cook Basque Chicken

March 14, 2019
By Holly Jennings

 

BASQUE CHICKEN HAS LONG had its Nashville hot chicken moment. To get it, you no longer have to go to its place of origin, the Pays Basque in the southwest corner of France. It is a beloved national dish, so commonplace that it’s easy to find as a convenient, grab-and-go food in grocery stores all over France.

 

Last winter, my husband and I ate a lot of the stuff. We were living in France, in the Loire Valley, some 560 kilometers northeast of the Basque region. We spent much of our time redoing the kitchen in a sixteenth-century house my husband bought more than twenty years ago. To eat, we set up a makeshift kitchen in a small, unused room on the top floor, equal in height and number of steps to climb to a fourth floor in a modern American house. It was a hike.

 

During the nearly two-month-long renovation, I grew fond of the room’s rustic charm. Its uneven floor is laid with terracotta tiles, now desiccated, with many cracked or near to crumbling, all very old. Some of the 6-inch-square tiles show the clear impression of paw prints, capturing a moment in dog’s life centuries ago.

 

The two outer walls of the room, facing west and north, are constructed of off-white to light gray stones of various sizes: most large, and some extra-large, from the days of giants, but small ones, too, put here and there to fill in irregular-shaped gaps. The white plastered ceiling angles in, running at a quick pace up the 50-degree-pitched roof to the 40-meter-high ridge.

 

During the short, often cloudy winters days, light filters in dimly through three fenestrations: first, through a skylight in the east side of the roof, the highest opening in the house, illuminating a fourth-floor loft space before it works its way down to the small room; through a skylight in the west-facing side of the roof, placed lower down from the one on the east side and located in the room itself; and third, through a seemingly whimsical 6-inch-square opening punched high up into the north side of the foot-thick masonry wall, an ancient vent from the time the room was used to store food, now glazed.

 

The “kitchen” consisted of a piece of plywood resting on saw horses, on which we arranged a toaster oven, microwave, electric water kettle, and two-eye countertop burner. We ate at a counter set up against the opposite wall, made from one of the long planks of board that had served as a shelf in the old kitchen. A dorm-size fridge allowed us to keep meats and other perishables chilled. Down the hall, an unheated room served as pantry, produce bin, and cheese and wine cellar. We washed dishes on our knees in a plastic basin set inside a bathtub one floor below.

 

The Super U supermarket in Chissay-en-Touraine, France, where I discovered Basque chicken.

My reduced cooking circumstances led me to a previously ignored food source: the prepared foods counter at the local super market. It was there that I discovered Basque chicken, or Poulet basquaise, a braised dish made of chicken pieces, bell peppers, onions and often garlic, tomatoes, Bayonne ham (the traditional smoked ham of the Pays Basque), and the Basque chili pepper known as piment d’Espelette. Using our countertop burner, I’d make some riz de Camargue (a flavorful rice grown in the Camargue region of France, south of Arles), heat up the Basque chicken in the toaster oven, and voilà: a complete meal with meat and vegetables in one.

 

Thanks to the surprisingly good quality of reasonably priced prepared foods available at French supermarket chains and the even better quality of prepared foods at the small, artisanal shops known as charcutiers/traiteurs, I learned that you can eat very well during a French kitchen renovation, even with just a toaster oven.

 

But you can eat better yet if you’re lucky enough to have a generous neighbor who is an excellent cook. Knowing we were without a working kitchen, our neighbor Odette Podevin brought us serving after serving of whatever beautifully prepared dish she had made extra of for that day’s lunch for herself and her husband, Roger. Thanks to her, we ate rabbit stew, a creamy casserole of endives wrapped in ham and topped with béchamel and Gruyère, veal stew with tomatoes and mushrooms (Veau Marengo), beef bourguignon, leeks in vinaigrette, dauphinois potatoes (a creamy and lightly garlicky potato gratin made with crème fraiche), and so much more on that plank of wood set up on saw horses in the attic.

 

1990 edition, the one Odette owns

Odette is a true goddess of cooking and my inspiration for learning French home cooking, or la cuisine familiale. She is also the reason I came to know of the cookbook Je Sais Cuisiner, or I Know How to Cook, by Ginette Mathiot. It is the one and only cookbook she uses and after coming to love her and her cooking (I’m not sure which first), I wanted to own the very same edition of the exact same book. I placed a special order for the out-of-print 1990 edition Odette owns at a bouquiniste (used book seller) in the nearby town of Montrichard. (Odette’s edition has been eclipsed by three editions now, and will soon be eclipsed by a fourth.)

 

When Odette first showed me her copy of Je Sais Cuisiner, I had no idea of its importance in French home cooking. Much like our Joy of Cooking, it is considered the bible of French home cooking, comprehensive in scope and practical in approach, and, like The Joy of Cooking, it has never been out of print. (Another synchronicity: the two books were first published in the early thirties, just one year apart.)

 

For added insurance against my imperfect comprehension of French, I picked up a copy of the 2009 English translation of the book, published by Phaidon and overseen by food writer Clotilde Dusoulier. (I secured my copy from Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks, my favorite American “bouquiniste” specializing in cookbooks.)

 

English translation, published 2009

 

BACK IN THE STATES, looking for a recipe to use up an opened bottle of white wine lingering in the back of the fridge, I turned to my editions of Je Sais Cuisiner, first the 2009 English translation, and then the 1990 French edition. In the index, listed under white wine, I found a recipe for Basque chicken, and immediately recalled the comfort the tasty, hot dish provided, eaten while huddled in our French attic kitchen on gray winter days.

 

I noticed a couple of differences between the two editions. First, placement: In the 1990 edition of Je Sais Cuisiner, the recipe for Basque chicken is stuck at the back of the book in a special chapter devoted to the regional specialties of France, organized alphabetically by place name. In the 2009 English translation of the book, the recipe is moved front and center to the poultry chapter to claim its place alongside of other popular fowl dishes. Was this move made to reflect the dish’s new nation-wide popularity? I assumed so.

 

The second difference, a small but notable change, is in the recipe itself: In the 1990 edition, the cooking medium used is lard (saindoux). In the 2009 edition, it is changed to olive oil (huile d’olive). Was the change in the English version made to reflect changes in attitude about lard, or perhaps to make the recipe more authentic? I assumed so.

From left to right: 1990 Fr. ed., 2009 Eng. transl., 2013 Fr. ed. Besides the reorganization of some recipes, one of the other differences between the French and English editions is the greater page count and overall size of the latter. Bulked out with photographs and more white space on the text pages, the English edition weighs about 5½ pounds, more than four times that of the bricklike French edition, and balloons out to 7½ by 11 inches, from the 5 by 7¾-inch trim size of the French.

 

CAN YOU USE THE LIFE STORY of a book, published in numerous editions over the course of eighty-seven years, to tell the story of a dish? In this case, to pinpoint when Basque chicken had its Nashville hot chicken moment, and to pinpoint when changes in attitude about using saturated animal fats led to dropping lard in favor of oil, presuming this is the reason for the change. This is what I had to find out.

 

Is Mathiot’s choice of lard traditional? I really can’t say, since everything I know first-hand about Basque chicken is thanks to the prepared foods counter at Super U in Chissay-en-Touraine, France, and the recipe in Je Sais Cuisiner. From where I sit right now, in Richmond, Virginia, it’s difficult to know for sure. Most online recipes use olive oil; when I Googled “Basque chicken” and “lard,” not a single reference came up to confirm the use of lard, save one in a Rough Guides description of Basque country cuisine, which describes Poulet basquaise this way: pieces of chicken browned in pork fat and casseroled in a sauce of tomato, ground Espelette chillis, onions, and a little white wine.

 

But trustworthy food authorities like Paula Wolfert, Elizabeth David, and Waverly Root all suggest lard as a traditional cooking medium of the Pays Basque, except along the coast, David adds, where olive oil is used to cook fish and seafood. Root says animal fats, butter, and oil are all three used in the Southwest region of France, which befuddles his neat and tidy premise for understanding the cooking of France in his book The Food of France via the type of fat used.

 

I vote for sticking with lard. That’s how I made it, and it was delicious and lent the sauce a luscious velvety texture. The 1990 edition was the last one published in Mathiot’s lifetime (she passed away in 1998). I like to think of her holding out for lard, against the “health food” naysayers, to stay true to tradition. I suppose that if it weren’t for Mathiot, the change from lard to oil would have likely occurred earlier. In the very next edition published after Mathiot’s passing, the cooking medium was changed to oil, though not to olive oil, simply oil.

 

To confirm my hunch that Basque chicken rose in popularity sometime between 1990 and 2009, I had only to get my hands on a copy of the 2013 French edition, the first one to come out after the 2009 English translation. If the French editors moved the recipe to the heart of the book, then I’ll know the location change had been made to reflect the recipe’s new status as a favorite throughout France, and was not just a whim of an American editor.

 

2013 edition

But I was wrong once. The recipe for Basque chicken is still in the back of the book in the Regional Recipes (Recettes Régionales) chapter.

 

Then it dawned on me. I was thinking like an American. Presented with recipes in a special chapter at the back of a cookbook, I would tend to think of them as ancillary, of secondary important to the recipes in the main part of the book. As a result, I might overlook them entirely. It must be for that reason that in the English translation the recipe for Basque chicken was moved from the back of the book. In fact, perhaps that explains why the entire chapter of regional recipes vanished from the English version, and other key recipes, like Cassoulet from Languedoc, were uprooted and moved front and center to their appropriate chapter, such as Fish, Meat, Poultry, and so on. (Ironically, a new chapter called “Menus by Celebrated Chefs” is added to the back of the English edition; it features menus and French bistro-style recipes from “some of the world’s best chefs.” This addition seems out of character with the cuisine familiale spirit of the book, but in keeping with America’s obsession with celebrity chefs.)

 

But the French care about terroir. Regardless of how popular a dish has become throughout France, the recipe for it, in this case Basque chicken, the sole representative of the cuisine of the Pays Basque in Je Sais Cuisiner, remains at the back of the book, lodged to its place of origin and its story. A new edition of Je Sais Cuisiner comes out next week. My guess is that a regional recipes chapter will be included at the back of the book, and that that is where you will find the recipe for Basque chicken. Unless, that is, me and my little webs of cross-cultural assumptions are once again proven wrong.

 

Since the book’s organization won’t tell me when Basque chicken became a national hit, perhaps tracking the edition in which the recipe first appears is the way. Because it’s not there from the start. At some point, Ginette Mathiot and her editor at Éditions Albin Michel must have decided Basque chicken deserved a place in Je Sais Cuisiner. But when? A phone call here, and an interlibrary loan there, and eventually I’ve was able to verify that the very first Je Sais Cuisiner to include a recipe for Basque chicken is the 1965 edition. That means Basque chicken had its Nashville hot chicken moment more than fifty years ago, that is, if you can use the life span of a book, now nearly as long as its author, to tell a story about a recipe.

 

 

Editions and Book Covers

 

This table charts the history of the recipe for Basque chicken in Je Sais Cuisiner as well as in the 2009 English translation of the same title and in one edition of La Cuisine Pour Tous. This table represents just a portion of Ginette Mathiot’s prolific output. She took the “Je sais . . . ” theme and ran with it: There was Je sais faire la patisserie (I know how to make pastry), Je sais faire les conserves (I know how to do canning), Je sais cuisiner autour du monde (I know how to cook from around the world), Je sais cuisiner en vacances: camping, caravaning, yachting (I know how to cook on vacation: camping, caravanning, boating), and many other titles as well, totaling about thirty. It’s confusing, keeping them all straight. Adding to the confusion, it appears as though the earliest edition of Je Sais Cuisiner was reprinted with different covers, though the same edition. To top it all off, when you Google “Je Sais Cuisiner,” it brings up a Wikipedia page titled “La cuisine pour tous,” which the authors of the page suggest is the same book as Je Sais Cuisiner, simply retitled.

 

 

First edition, published in 1932 (Photo credit: Bauman Rare Books)

 

Printed in 1949. Is this a new edition, as claimed on the cover, or simply a reprinting of the first edition? I would assume the latter because 1949 is not one of the previous edition years noted on the copyright page in post-1949 editions of the book (the edition years jump from ’32 to ’59). It is confounding.

 

Cover for 1965 edition (cropped). This same photo seems to have been used in mulitple printings, including the subsequent 1984 edition.

 

1955 edition

 

1959 edition

 

2002 edition

 

Recipe for Basque chicken (poulet basquaise)

 

This recipe is meant for summer, when bell peppers and tomatoes worth eating pile up on farmer’s market tables. But the bit of sunshine Basque chicken brings to a gloomy winter day, in the Loire Valley or elsewhere, is always welcome. If making this off-season, the solution is to use canned tomatoes instead of the fresh that’s called for in Mathiot’s recipe. For the bell peppers, however, unless you live in a climate favorable to growing them year-round, the best solution is to tuck this recipe away until summer when tomatoes, peppers, and other “légumes du soleil” (“vegetables of the sun”), such as zucchini and eggplant, are abundant and have their best flavor.

 

Aside from using canned tomatoes, I added a few touches to the recipe to make it my own. Knowing how my neighbor Odette does things in the kitchen, I added the step of seasoning the meat well with salt and pepper before browning it (Odette uses so much powder-y black pepper when seasoning meat, that it often induces a sneezing fit), and, in deference to Odette’s tendency to brown her food well to extract as much flavor as possible, I added the step of browning the bell peppers and mushrooms before adding the braising liquid rather than adding them at the same time as the liquid. For convenience, I changed the meat from a whole chicken to thighs, saving the step of breaking down the chicken.

 

Mathiot’s recipe does not include onions or garlic, though both, especially onions, are usually included in Basque chicken. Her recipe doesn’t suffer for the lack of them, but adding some chopped onion or a little minced garlic or both would not be amiss.

 

Ingredients

  • 3 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
  • Salt and pepper
  • 3 tablespoons lard (see Note)
  • 4 large or 6 small green bell peppers, seeded and quartered (if large) or halved (if small)
  • 6 ounces cremini or button mushrooms, sliced
  • 5 ounces smoked ham, finely diced
  • 1 pound fresh tomatoes, seeded and diced, or 1 (14½-ounce) can diced tomatoes (see Note)
  • 2/3 cup white wine

For serving:

  • Cooked rice
  • Pan sauce (from above)
  • Ground piment d’Espelette or homemade substitution (see Note)
  • Finely chopped fresh parsley

 

Method

  1. Preheat a braiser, oval Dutch oven, or large, heavy sauté pan with a lid over medium heat.
  2. Pat the chicken pieces very dry with paper towels, then season them well on all sides with salt and pepper.
  3. When the pot is giving off heat, put the lard or olive oil in the pot and turn the heat up to medium-high. When the fat or oil is hot, but not yet smoking, add the chicken thighs skin side down and pan-fry until the thighs are well browned, about 12 minutes, turning once. Fry the chicken in batches if needed so as not to overcrowd.
  4. Remove the chicken from the pot to a plate and turn the heat up to high. Put the bell peppers in the pot and let them sit, undisturbed, for a minute or so, just until they start to brown and blister in spots. Flip the pepper pieces over and sear in the same way on the other side.
  5. Stir in the mushrooms and cook until they begin to brown in spots (they will absorb much of the cooking fat in the process). Add the smoked ham, tomatoes and their juices, and wine and season lightly with salt and pepper. Give everything a stir, then return the chicken to the pot along with any accumulated juices. Nestle the chicken pieces down into the pepper and tomato mixture, then cover and turn the heat down to medium-low to maintain a gentle simmer. Simmer until the chicken is cooked through, about 30 minutes. Remove everything from the pot, except the cooking liquid. Turn the heat up to medium and simmer until the liquid is reduced by half, to make a pan sauce.
  6. Serve the chicken and vegetables over rice with the rich, flavorsome sauce spooned over the top of it all. Garnish with a pinch or two of ground piment d’Espelette (or homemade substitute) and chopped fresh parsley. (Serves 6)

 

Notes: If you do not care to use lard as the cooking fat, olive oil would be an equally good choice, following the lead of many recipe writers and given that is used in the Pays Basque and that the land of olive oil is not too terribly far to the east.

 

The smoked ham and piment d’Espelette give the dish a subtle smokiness. To push the smoke profile forward, use fire-roasted canned diced tomatoes. That is what I did, to use up what I had in my pantry; the extra smokiness suits my American palate just fine. You could accomplish the same thing with fresh tomatoes by charring them under the broiler until the skins are blistered and blackened, then remove the skins before seeding and dicing them.

 

Piment d’Espelette can be special ordered, or you can make a rough approximation using a combination of Hungarian paprika, smoked Spanish paprika, and cayenne pepper, which is what I did (see below).

 

To make faux ground piment d’Espelette, blend together Hungarian paprika, smoked Spanish paprika, and cayenne pepper, using a ratio of about two-thirds Hungarian paprika and one-third smoked Spanish paprika and a miniscule amount of cayenne pepper. You want the blend to be sweet and lightly smoky with just hint of chili heat. The texture won’t be the same—Piment d’Espelette is coarsely ground, not powder-y like paprika and cayenne pepper—but all the same, it will enhance the flavor and appearance of the dish with a pretty dusting of color.

 

Resources

 

 

Reading

Online:

To read about Odette Podevin, click here, here, here, and here.

To view the entire contents of the 1955 edition of La Cuisine Pour Tous online, click here.

To read more of the Rough Guides entry on Basque country cuisine, click here.

 

Books:

The Food of France by Waverly Root

French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David

The Cooking of Southwest France by Paula Wolfert

 

Book stores referenced in posting

Kolkobook Bouquiniste (Montrichard, France)

Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks (New York, New York, USA)

 

Basque chicken in the movies

Basque chicken even gets a star place in cinema. In the 2015 film Lolo, when Violette, a successful art director of Parisian fashion shows, must come up with a second dish to woo her new lover from Biarritz, having already made for him her sole signature dish of Lemon Chicken, she picks Basque chicken. It turns out to be a good choice. To watch the clip, click here.

 

Merci Beaucoup

 

I owe a special thanks to several librarians in libraries far and wide who spent time scooping old editions of Je Sais Cuisiner off of library stacks, leafing through them and telling me their findings over the phone and with follow-up emails and scanned pages:

 

Renée Roger-Saito

Alliance Française Library, Chicago

 

Cecile Vivant

French Institute / Alliance Française Library, New York

 

Raven Fonfa

Conrad N. Hilton Library, The Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, New York

 

And at the Richmond Public Library in Richmond, Virginia, my local library, I owe a special thanks to Lynn Vandenesse who secured an older edition of Je Sais Cuisiner for me via interlibrary loan.

 

Thanks also to my friend, Rosemary Kneipp, who in late January ventured out on a wintery day to a bookstore in Blois, France, to answer my questions about the recipe for Basque chicken in the 2013, and then still current, edition of Je Sais Cuisiner, thereby saving me from having to buy another edition of the book. My hope was she’d be able to inconspicuously peak inside a copy, discreetly jot down her findings in small Moleskine notepad, and then relay them to me. Unfortunately, the book was out of stock. The book buyer had let the 2013 copies sell out, and had no plans to order more since the then not-yet-published 2019 was due out in in March. (A translator by trade [click here to go to her professional site], Rosemary shares wonderful commentary about France in her personal blog, Aussie in France.)

 

Finally, a big thanks to Odette Podevin for inspiring me to learn about French home cooking, and for taking me under her wing in her kitchen, where, through our shared love of food and cooking, we’re able to communicate, despite my elementary-school-girl command of her native tongue.


4 Comments to “I Know How To Cook Basque Chicken”


  1. Louanne Jennings Headrick says:

    Well dear Holly, Another interesting read demonstrating considerable research for a simple recipe. I intend going back to it to try it in my own home kitchen. Don’t think I could get into it if I were camping, sailing or in general, vacationing. So liked to hear more about charming Odette and her ways with food. However the description of the attic room, for me, drew a perfect picture. I could see you there with your Basque Chicken on the makeshift table.

    1
  2. Lauri Robertson says:

    Holly, What an absolutely splendid entry! Forensic cookbook history! Can’t wait to return to Pontlevoy… xox

    2
  3. I’m glad you could see the room. Describing food is one thing, architecture antoher. So it was a good challenge. I hope you try the dish. You’ll love it, I’m sure. There is so much more to say how Odette. I have a folder of Odette stories, just waiting for me to tell them.

    3
  4. Thanks Lauri! I love your description: forensic cookbook history. In fact, I think there should be an entire school of forensic cooking, peeling back layer and layer . . . You should trademark that term.

    4


Leave a Reply


css.php