Based on recipes by Patricia Wells, John Willoughby, and memories of lunch at a small restaurant in the town of Espelette, the name of which I've long forgotten.
- Servings: 4 to 6 servings
Pipérade is a vegetable dish from the Pays Basque region on France's southwestern coast. It could be the lesser known cousin of ratatouille which originated further south in Provence. The elements are very similar: bell peppers, tomatoes, garlic, and onions. But there's no eggplant in pipérade as in the more popular ratatouille.
Since pipérade is a mix of vegetables that are gently simmered until tender, it’s best to cook each element separately, and then combine them, just as many French cooks recommend when making ratatouille. It takes a bit more fuss this way, and it does end up dirtying a few more pots, but you get a far better final result because each vegetable retains its own identity and deeper flavor despite ending up, as the French would say, as a mélange.
I recommend seasoning pipérade with a uniquely Basque spice called Espelette pepper which comes from the little French town of Espelette where small and mildly spicy peppers are grown, dried, and ground into a powder. In the U.S., Espelette can be hard to find and can be pricey, so for me it’s my favorite and treasured souvenir whenever I have the good fortune to visit France – or else I ask anyone I know who’s going there to bring me back a little jar of it. As an alternative, you can combine paprika (not smoked) with a little cayenne pepper or else thinly slice a jalapeño (seeds optional depending on your heat ambition) and add them to the bell peppers. What you do will depend upon what is available and also your appetite for heat. My favorite way to season pipérade is with a ½ teaspoon of Espelette pepper along with a pinch of red pepper flakes.
You can easily double this recipe or favor one ingredient more than another, for example, if you like more onions than tomatoes. Likewise you can cook all the vegetables until they’re very soft and jam-y, or keep the peppers a little al dente. It's up to you.
Pipérade can be served hot or at room temperature. It’s particularly good in late summer when tomatoes and peppers are in season and at their glorious best. But year-round, using the ingredients at hand, I love it with a simply cooked piece of fish, slices of leftover chicken or cold meats, or added to eggs.
- 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil plus more to finish
- 2 pounds tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped (in-season and local are best but off-season, use plum or good greenhouse ones on their stems)
- 3 to 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced or minced
- 2 medium or 1 large red onion, peeled and sliced into thin half-moons
- 4 large bell peppers, ideally a mixture of green, red, yellow and orange but at least try to have both red and green, cored, seeded, and sliced thinly and lengthwise
- ½ teaspoon Espelette pepper (or ½ teaspoon paprika with a pinch of cayenne)
- Pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Optional: one jalapeño, cored, seeded, and thinly sliced (if you use a jalapeño, omit the paprika and cayenne)
- This is a good recipe to have everything sliced and prepped before you begin to cook. Also, have ready a nonreactive saucepan plus two nonreactive skillets. Reserve the largest skillet to cook the peppers.
- In the saucepan heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the garlic, lower the heat to medium, and cook for 1 to 2 minutes to begin to soften it. Add the chopped tomatoes and a pinch of salt, stir to combine, and bring to a simmer. Cook for about 10 minutes uncovered until the mixture thickens and most of the liquid has cooked off.
- In one of the skillets, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the sliced onions and a pinch of salt and lower the heat to medium. Cook for about 10 minutes until the slices soften and begin to brown, tossing the onions occasionally to make sure they cook evenly.
- In the third and largest skillet, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. If you’re using the jalapeño, add it to the sliced bell peppers and toss to combine and add all the peppers to the hot oil along with a pinch of salt and a pinch of red pepper flakes if you’re adding them. Cook for about 10 minutes until all the slices are softened (somewhere between al dente and very soft) and begin to brown, tossing the peppers occasionally to help them cook evenly.
- Cook each element to their desired finish and turn off the heat on each pan as you wait for all three ingredients to be ready to be combined. When they are, add the tomato mixture and onions with the cooked peppers. Add the Espelette (or paprika and cayenne if you’re using that) and adjust the seasoning with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Simmer the combination, uncovered, for about 5 minutes to meld the flavors and drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil (if you have French olive oil, this is the time to use it).
- Serve warm or at room temperature.