Thursday, August 8, 2013

Recipes from Gascony and the Basque Country, France

A couple of years ago we took the whole family on a road trip from California to Colorado. I won't say a whole lot about that, except that it was about like you might imagine an eight state road trip might be with four small children and one extremely stressed-out Englishman.

Anyway one of our first stops was Elko Nevada, known for its Basque restaurants and not much else. I'm not going to name the restaurant we chose, because short of that really bad Ethiopian place in San Jose it was quite possibly the. worst. food. ever. I remember walking into the place and seeing this guy sitting there surrounded by enormous plates of food, and thinking to myself "Oh, look, a food critic." Well guess what, he was just a guy who placed one regular order. Because everyone who eats at that place gets surrounded by enormous plates of completely inedible food. I guess huge portions is their chef's way of compensating for the total lack of quality.

Amongst those culinary treasures placed before me was a heaping plate of spaghetti,which I really just can't imagine hailed from the Basque region of France/Spain. Anyway you know that canned spaghetti you used to eat as a kid (or maybe you had better tastes than that, even then)? I'm pretty sure this was canned spaghetti. Mushy, totally overcooked noodles and Ragu sauce. There was also a plate of vegetables that was just like Mom used to make (she boiled the hell out of those veggies until they became a pile of nondescript gray fibers). Canned baked beans. Generic French fries and a mediocre steak.

So that was my one and only experience with Basque food, up until this entry. Though even then I was not dumb enough to think that that experience might be similar to what I would get if I was in, you know, the actual Basque Country.

This is not the meal we had in Elko. It's much too small. And it didn't come out of a can.
OK, moving on. The French Basque Country is also known as the Northern Basque Country. It is lumped in here with Gascony because historically the two areas were mostly undifferentiated from each other, and the food in both places is somewhat similar (or so I'm told).

This map just shows the Basque Country, where our menu is from.

One of the coolest things about the Basque Country is its language, called "Euskara." What makes this language so interesting is that it is isolated, and not really similar to any other known language—not even French or Spanish, though the Basque Country is located in both nations. There are some very minor similarities to the Georgian language, which suggests that the original inhabitants of this region may have migrated from the Caucasus Mountains, but no one really knows for sure.

Navarrenx, Basque Country, France. Photo Credit: Nikonmania.
Anyway while researching this entry I actually found a few Gascon recipes, but most of them included foie gras as an ingredient. Now I'll confess that I've always kind of wanted to try foie gras, but you know, I'm not going to. So I went with a completely Basque menu and didn't pick anything from Gascony. Here it is:

Basque Chicken
(from Cuisine-France)
  • One 4 lb chicken
  • 6 oz Bayonne ham (prosciutto is an acceptable substitute)
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 3 or 4 tomatoes, crushed
  • 5 green bell peppers
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 2 onions
  • Salt and pepper
Zopako (Basque Soup Bread)
(from The Guardian)
  • 1 1/3 cup lukewarm water
  • 1/4 tsp instant dry yeast
  • 4 cups all-flour, plus extra for shaping
  • 1/2 cup spelt flour
  • 2 tsp fine salt
Gâteau Basque
(from Easy French Food)
  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 cup unsalted butter, cut into small pieces (50 or so)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 12-oz jar black cherry preserves*
* I couldn't find black cherry jam at the grocery store, so I ordered mine. I think you could use a red cherry jam instead and still have a good though not 100% authentic cake.

So we have to start with the bread (yes I know it's soup bread, and I didn't make any soup, but it looked yummy in the photos), because it's one of those "do the day before" recipes. Can you guess whether or not I did it the day before? Nope! So I don't think I can really say I've made zopako, because I'm pretty sure the recipe actually depends on this step. Maybe I'll make it again and serve it with the Chicken Yassa from last week,which I also got wrong.

So here's the proper way to do it: mix the water with the yeast (yes, it's a very small amount of yeast, but it is the correct amount), then add the all-purpose flour, the spelt flour and the salt. Knead until you get a firm dough, then put in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Leave at room temperature for 12 hours.

Now, if I had to guess (and that's exactly what I'm doing, guessing) I would say that sitting out overnight helps give the bread a slightly sour flavor. That is also the purpose of the very small amount of yeast—it keeps the dough from getting over-inflated after sitting out for so long. Now, because I didn't let my dough sit out overnight I used more yeast (about two teaspoons). But that's not the right way to do it.

Now once the dough has risen, shape it into a long loaf and place it on a baking sheet lined with wax paper. Cover and let stand for 30 minutes, then dust with flour and use a rolling pin to press down hard in the center. You'll end up with two loaves joined by a thin bit in the middle.

I halved my recipe, so I only made one loaf.

Let rise for 30 minutes more, then put a small oven-safe dish full of water on the bottom shelf of your oven. Now put the bread in and bake at 465 degrees for 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to 390 degrees and continue to bake for 15 to 25 minutes, or until you get a nice golden color (I used an egg wash on mine, again not in the directions but I figured I was already screwing it up anyway).

Now on to the cake:

Mix the flour with the butter, sugar, egg, two of the egg yolks, vanilla, baking powder and salt (it's easiest if you use your fingers). Keep mixing until you get a dough.

Now turn out onto a floured surface and continue to knead until everything is really well-incorporated. Divide into two parts—the first one should be about twice the size of the second.

Wrap the dough balls up in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.

Get out a 9-inch cake pan and lightly butter it. Put the large dough ball into the pan and press down so it is evenly distributed throughout the bottom of the pan. There should be a little bit of dough coming up the sides of the pan. Now spread the jam out over the dough.

Why does this photo look like it belongs in the opening credits of Dexter?

Put the smaller dough ball on a floured surface and roll it into a pan-sized circle. This gets a little tricky because this dough tends to fall apart when you try to lift it. I ended up putting mine into the pan in pieces, but it smoothed out when I brushed on the egg wash, which is the next step (mix the remaining egg yolk with 1 tbsp water and brush over the dough).

Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes, or until the top is set and starting to turn a golden color. Remove from the oven and cool.

Now here it says to let sit for one day before eating. Oh, please. You will not be able to let this cake sit for one day.

Finally the main course:

Cut up the chicken and season with salt and pepper. Put half of the olive oil in a large pot over high heat. Brown the chicken on all sides, then cover and cook over medium for 15 minutes.

Peel and seed the bell peppers. Peel them?? Seriously? If you've ever tried to peel a bell pepper that hasn't been roasted first, you will end up without very much pepper left over. I didn't peel mine. I suppose you could try blanching them like a tomato to see if that helps, but honestly I have never heard of peeling a bell pepper that you're just going to cook in a pot, so I didn't bother. 

Cut the peppers into large strips and put in the pot with the chicken. Add the prosciutto and garlic. Cook for an additional 20 minutes.

Now peel and seed your tomatoes (blanch them first to make it easier). Heat the rest of the olive oil in another skillet and add the onions. Cook for 15 minutes, then add the tomatoes. Keep cooking for another 15 minutes. Mix the chicken with the onion/tomato mixture and add salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot.

So did we enjoy this more than the food we had at that Elko restaurant? Well, let me just say that I would probably enjoy a can of dog food more than the food we had at that Elko restaurant. But it was a lot better than that. Of course it didn't have to be very good at all to be a lot better than that.
The chicken was a little bland, I thought. But based on the ingredients I really wasn't terribly surprised by that. The bread was also a little bland, because I forgot to put salt in it. Sigh.

But the cake … I never use the term "OMG" (except for that other time), but OMG. This cake was mind-blowingly yummy. This cake is something I would ask for on my birthday. It was so delicious that I almost gave it away for fear that I couldn't be left alone with it. Fortunately my kids devoured all the leftovers. Oh my god, it was tasty. In fact this might even be my favorite Travel by Stove recipe so far this year. If you only make one thing from the Basque Country, make this cake. Seriously.

Now one more thing, loyal readers (all 10 or so of you), we have a visitor from England here for the next couple of weeks. So although I will still be cooking I don't know how much I will be able to post, because we have over-scheduled the hell out of our poor visitor.

Anyway I may post next week, but maybe not. If not, I'll see you when I come up for air.

Next time: The Gaza Strip.

For printable versions of this week's recipes:


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