I´ve never been to the Basque country, that remote piece of land in the Southwest corner of France, but there´s no doubt I´d like it there. A region where so many delicious things come from – from acorn fed black pigs, cured meats, incredible sheep´s cheeses to piment d´Espelette – , where they create such outstanding produce from what nature has to offer can only be wonderful. The very rich and very tasty gâteau basque, the area´s signature pastry, has already made an appearance on this site, but to be honest, there´s another Basque specialty served far more often from the mamangerie kitchen: the Piperade. This iconic sauce, made of peppers, onions, garlic, and piment d´Espelette, is such an explosion of color and flavor, I have yet to meet the person who doesn´t love it. When I was a student at medical school, it was my friend Susanne´s secret weapon to cheer up anyone who seemed in need of a quick, uplifting meal. She would throw together a quick version of Piperade, and the smell of it alone was enough to put a smile on everybody´s faces.
Without much exaggeration, this sauce is not only a mood elevator, it´s a little miracle: It goes with chicken (think the famous poulet basquaise), with pasta, as a main dish to be served with an arm long baguette – or, like here, as a colorful bed for a juicy, tender fish. A slice of Bayonne ham, another Southwestern goodie, not only helps to keep the fillet in shape, but also adds an extra boost of flavor. Whether you make this with monkfish or cod, this is one of my very favorite meals both to prepare and to eat. That´s how good it is.
Monkfish wrapped in Bayonne ham & Piperade sauce (serves 4)
1 (900-1000 g) monkfish tail (queue de Lotte), alternatively 650 g cod fillet
6-8 slices of Bayonne ham (alternatively, ham of Parma)
6-8 small sprigs of thyme
5 or 6 medium tomatoes (about 650 g)
1- 2 red and 1 peppers (red, or red and yellow, about 750 g)
2-3 cloves garlic
a few sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
piment d Espelette (alternatively,chili powder)
Prepare the fish (or ask the fishmonger to fillet it for you): Place the monkfish skin side down and, using a long, very sharp knife, remove thick, outer skin, as well as the thin membrane covering the fillets. Cut fillet from both sides of the backbone, and trim so you obtain two long, thick fillets. Cut each fillet in 3 or 4 smaller pieces depending on the size of the ham slices. Place a sprig of thyme on each fillet, and wrap with a slice of ham. I don´t use salt here for the ham is already quite salty.
To prepare the sauce, incise tomatoes crosswise and remove strunk. Pour very hot water on them. Let tomatoes sit in the water for a couple of minutes or until the skin loosens, then peel them and chop coarsely. Deseed peppers and cut them into stripes, about 1 cm/0.4 inch large. Peel onion, cut in half and slice each half into 4 or 5 smaller slices. Finely slice or mince the garlic.
Heat 3 tbsp olive oil in a heavy saucepan, fry onion for 3 minutes (until translucent, but not browned). Add peppers, garlic, and thyme, and fry for another 2-3 minutes, until peppers are slightly softened, but not cooked through. Add tomatoes and bay leaves, season with salt and pepper, cover and allow to simmer for 20-30 minutes. Stir occasionnally. Adjust seasoning if necessary, and add a dash of piment d´Espelette.
About halfway, heat about 3 more tbsp olive oil in a non stick frying pan. Fry fillets about 8-10 minutes from all sides. When almost done, add Piperade to the pan with the fish, cook together for one last minute. Serve with wild rice or baguette. Sprinkle with thyme.