This recipe started out as one of the challenges that Myr wrote about when she set up this blog. The Sunday before this dinner one word was announced at the dinner table, “Basque.” While I have been to Basque restaurants and I knew that I liked the food, I had never attempted to make any Basque dishes before. This is my idea of a good time, searching the Internet for a cuisine that I have never tried and knew little about.
What makes a dish “Basque?” The Basques live in the area of southwestern France and across the border in Spain. While there is some dispute on the topic they may well have lived in the same region since the Paleolithic. Oppression from the dominate cultures around them has caused many Basque to come to America where they did what they knew, fishing and sheep herding. Their cuisine reflects this with many seafood and lamb recipes. Their cuisine north and south of the present day border is also apparently very different, each reflecting either Spanish or French influences.
Some Basque immigrants came to herd sheep in the hills above Fresno, CA, and their families later moved into the city. This is where I had my first taste of Basque cuisine in an obviously French influenced Cold Pickled Beef Tongue Salad at the Shepherd’s Inn. I grew up eating beef tongue so I have very fond memories, but my wife has even stronger memories, so I do not cook with tongue myself. I will, however, order it if it is on the menu. We were back in Fresno last year and went to a different Basque restaurant. They had Pickled Tongue and, with the image of one of the best things I had ever eaten in my mind, I ordered it. I have rarely been so disappointed in my life.
It was clearly the same dish, all of the same ingredients, but it was also clear proof that technique is important. At the Shepherd’s Inn the tongue was cooked until it was melt in your mouth tender. It was sliced thin and laid out attractively in a fan on the plate. The herb and garlic vinaigrette was balanced and had been given time to infuse the tongue with flavor. If you like beef tongue, each bite was a joy in the mouth. The second Basque restaurant was aggressive “Family Style” and a completely different experience.
Now I have no objection to “Family Style,” Gombei is “Family Style” Japanese and is so good that it is one of the reasons we now live in San Jose. But “Family Style” it is no excuse for just bad cooking. The tongue was chopped into tough chewy slabs, thrown into a bowl, and the vinegary-raw garlic dressing was just dumped on right before it was served. Technique matters.
If I had to say what makes this dish “Basque” rather than “Spanish” it would be the use of fresh red peppers rather than paprika. In Spain they use fresh pimento peppers, but I have not been able to fine Authentic Basque technique would probably call for a cast iron pan or Dutch oven and no marinating time, but I have been tweaking this recipe for a year now. I use a clay pot because I like what it does to any stewed chicken recipe.
The first time I made this dish I did it by the techniques that were in the four or five “Basque Chicken” recipes that I found. I used Mexican Chorizo, because it was all I could find, and the onions and mushrooms went into the pot raw. The liquids from these flooded the pot and made a huge mess in the oven, but the flavor of the dish was fantastic, definitely a successful dish. Since that time I have found Spanish Chorizo at Lunardi’s and I sauté the mushrooms and onions first to reduce the flooding problem.
When my Niece Katie got married last December my sister, Grace, organized a family cookbook for the new couple. I used the opportunity to not only give her a great recipe, but to add some family history and some of my own cooking philosophy. The following is the note I wrote for her cookbook:
I chose this recipe because: Besides being a phenomenal company dish, this recipe exemplifies my style of creating a dish that is my own.
Source: When Grace asked me to source my recipes I had to stop and think about what it was that I was doing when I created a new dish.
Our mother was one of the younger children in her family, so her older sisters did most of the cooking when she lived at home. Her joke was that when she met our father she “could boil an egg and make French onion soup.” Instead of making the same recipes her family had made, she spent the rest of her life learning how to cook. She was frequently trying new recipes from foreign lands, long before it became a common practice in California. I have followed in my mother’s culinary footsteps. I rarely make the same dish the same way twice, because I “cook on the fly.” I choose a recipe to make and then I start to “tweak” it as I create the dish. The Joy of Cooking was always a primary source, but I have many cook books from all over the world. My thinking is: “A recipe is just a suggestion.” “This recipe uses too much sugar or salt for my taste, cut it in half.” “How would the dish taste if I substitute this ingredient or add this spice.”
The Internet allows easy access to thousands of recipes. After a bit of searching I find the recipe I want to try to make, but the search does not stop there. Once I know my dish’s “name,” I can start to look at what other cooks think go into that recipe. You can check out not just one recipe for a particular dish, but 5 or 10 or even more. Paella, for example, has a wildly different recipe for each region and village in Spain. Some rules of thumb I go by: Avoid these words in a recipe 1) can, 2) package, and 3) prepared. It is not always possible to avoid these, but I have not used a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup in 20 years.
Once I have an idea of the range of ingredients and cooking methods that go into a dish I can start to make it my own. I like this ingredient in one recipe. I cannot get that ingredient. What can I substitute for it? This recipe has an interesting cooking technique. How can I do that without the tradition pot? These days I do not take a recipe and “tweak” it, I take a bit from this recipe and a bit from that to make something like what the other cooks are making, but entirely new.
In the last year or so, our family has gotten into the tradition of Sunday dinner at the parent’s house. Miriam and Chris come over to do their laundry and to be treated to a Sunday feast. It has become a challenge to make something new at least a couple of times a month. A region will be suggested, like Peru, Hawaii, or Spain. Or a main ingredient, like corn, pumpkin, or rabbit. I would then spend the week searching the Internet for recipes to meet the challenge. What is the cuisine of that region? Which recipes would go together? What can be done with that ingredient? Where in San Jose can I find not Mexican but Spanish chorizo? This picking and choosing process has forced me to be more consistent about writing down how I’m planning to make a dish. After dinner it is easy to add any tweaking I did during cooking or any changes I should make the next time. My Basque Chicken represents one of my spectacular successes using this technique (we won’t mention my equally spectacular failures).
Basque Chicken in a Clay Pot II
Soak Romertopf clay pot while prepping ingredients.
1 Chicken, back removed and cut into 8 to 10 pieces
2 Roasted red peppers (or 12 oz. jar) broken into large chunks
¼ cup grated onion
10 cloves Garlic, crushed
½ cup Juice of one orange
¼ cup Spanish dry sherry
3 Tbs. Olive oil
1 tsp. Sherry vinegar
2 Bay leaves
1 tsp. Thyme
½ tsp. Crushed fennel seeds
½ tsp. Salt
½ tsp. Black pepper
½ tsp. Sugar
1 dash Cayenne pepper
2 Orange peel, slice ½ x 3 inch strip off fresh orange.
1 Tbs. Olive oil
½ lb. Button mushrooms, stemmed
1 Large onion, cut in large chunks
¼ lb. Spanish Chorizo sausage (use Mexican chorizo if you cannot find the
¼ cup Spanish dry sherry
2 Tbs. Corn starch, mixed with cold water
- The day before the meal, or at least 6 hours, mix all ingredients of the marinade in a gallon plastic bag. Add the chicken pieces and gently toss to coat. Refrigerate until ready to cook.
- If you are so inclined, you may roast and peel the red peppers yourself rather than using the jarred peppers of the recipe.
- Two and a half hours before the meal, add 1 Tbs. olive oil to a medium pan and sauté the mushrooms over medium high heat until slightly charred, 5 – 10 minutes. Remove mushrooms to a bowl.
- Sauté the onions in the same pan until they are starting to pick up some color.
- Add the Spanish Chorizo to the onions and continue sautéing until the sausage has started to brown and the onions are well caramelized, about 10-15 minutes. (If using Mexican chorizo remove the skin and break it up as you fry it.) Remove to the bowl.
- Deglaze the sauté pan with sherry and pour the liquid into the bowl.
- Drain clay pot. Give the onion, mushrooms and chorizo a gentle stir and pour half of the mix into the clay pot.
- Arrange the chicken pieces in the clay pot. If you are using a round clay pot put the leg/thigh pieces on the outside and breast pieces in the middle. If using a rectangular pot arrange the leg/thigh pieces on the ends. Pour the rest of the marinade over the chicken.
- Pour the rest of the mix over the chicken.
- Put Clay pot into a cold oven and set to 425°. Place lipped baking pan on the lower rack to catch any liquid that bubbles out of the clay pot. Bake for 1 hour. Note: After 30 minutes you may need to use a turkey baster to remove excess fluid to a small pot, so that it does not splash onto the oven.
- After the hour, remove the lid from the clay pot and remove most of the pot liquid to the small pot. Continue cooking for 15 minutes uncovered to let the chicken brown.
- While the chicken is browning, reduce the liquid in the small pot by half over medium high heat. Do not let it boil over.
- Remove the clay pot from the oven and use the turkey baster to drain the fluid a second time. Cover the pot and while the chicken is resting, add enough corn starch to small pot to thicken the sauce.
- Pour some of the sauce over the chicken and serve the chicken in the clay pot. Put the rest of the sauce in a bowl to serve on the side.