As many of you probably know, San Francisco doesn’t have well-defined seasons. In fact, summer is often foggy, cold and windy. Although we are almost always rewarded with beautiful weather in the fall, it’s easy to reach a point – dare I say it – when you can’t face one more heirloom tomato salad or another picnic in the park, but instead long for a steaming bowl of minestrone or a civilized sit-down brunch.
Being creatures of habit, our Sunday brunch involves two constants: champagne, and eggs in some shape or form.
We always kick off at noon with a glass of bubbly. Often it’s the real thing, but we are also partial to prosecco, cava, or any other methode champenoise, as long as it’s not sweet. Sometimes we add a few drops of a fruit liquor, either creme de cassis, peach or raspberry.
Then an egg dish: Maybe a Spanish tortilla, a goat cheese souffle, huevos rancheros, or arguably the best of all: piperade.
A popular Basque dish, piperade is a mixture of olive oil, onions, peppers, garlic and tomatoes combined with eggs. Most recipes add the beaten eggs directly to the cooked pepper mixture but I think this is a mistake as it makes the eggs grainy and an unattractive pink color. Better to scramble the eggs slowly until half cooked and then tip them into the piperade. The heat will complete the cooking.
It’s a simple dish for two or four, but can easily be turned into a festive brunch for a half dozen or more. You would simply need to increase the pepper and egg mixture, add a garnish of ham and, if you want to be really decadent, some fried bread. I like to serve it on a large platter with the piperade in the middle and the ham and fried bread round the edges. In the Basque country, they use jambon de Bayonne but you can substitute Canadian bacon or any similar slices of cured ham. For the bread, cut thinnish slices of a baguette and fry them in oil until golden. They are so delicious they could even be worth the million extra calories.
4 tablespoons olive oil (plus more for the ham and bread)
1 large onion, chopped fine
2 red, 1 green, 1 yellow pepper, cut into strips, 1″ x 1/2″
1 large clove garlic, chopped fine
3/4 of a 28-oz. can diced tomatoes (not in puree)
Salt, a pinch of cayenne or piment d’Espelette
4 slices ham, about 4″ x 3″, cut in half
8 slices of baguette, or other bread of your choice
Warm 3 tablespoons olive oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan. Add the onion and cook 5 minutes over low heat. Add the peppers and cook a further 20 minutes. Add the diced tomatoes and the garlic and continue to cook over low heat until nearly all the liquid has been absorbed and the peppers have softened but retain some bite. Season with salt and a pinch of cayenne or piment d’Espelette. In a separate (smaller) pan, heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil over low heat and add the eggs, stirring, until large curds start to form. Tip the eggs into the pepper mixture and stir briefly to incorporate. The heat of the peppers will complete the cooking. If you’re not planning to add the ham and fried bread, serve immediately with toast or French bread.
If you’re going for broke, BEFORE cooking the eggs (which will require your undivided attention), and while the pepper mixture is simmering, fry the ham briefly until it starts to color. Remove and drain on paper towels. Add a few more tablespoons of oil to the pan and fry the bread on one side until golden. Be careful, it can go from golden to burnt in a flash. Turn the bread over, add a bit more oil if necessary and repeat the process. Keep the ham and bread warm while you cook the eggs. Put the egg and pepper mixture in the center of a large platter and arrange the ham and fried bread around the perimeter.
This is a common dish in the Basque country, such a wonderful place to visit. Tucked into where the north-east corner of Spain and the southwest corner of France meet the Atlantic, it has a character, culture and language all of its own. Lively San Sebastian, famous for its many Michelin-starred restaurants, has a charming old town great for bar-hopping and for sampling the local tapas (called pintxos) – arguably the best in Spain. The Guggenheim museum in Bilbao with its mindblowing architecture is worth a trans-Atlantic voyage. The colorful fishing villages along the coast and the picturesque towns that dot the emerald green foothills of the Pyrenees have a charm all their own, and some of the best food you’ll find anywhere.
If a trip there is not in your immediate plans, perhaps a helping of piperade will whet your appetite.
Sam adds: A few years ago I discovered for myself the art of cooking bell peppers: Patience. If you have patience, you can turn out deliciously sauteed peppers every time simply by keeping the heat low in the pan and giving them time to soften slowly in oil. They’re a wonderful thing to know how to make because you can add them to so many things. Two of my favorites: toasted baguette spread with goat cheese and piled high with sauteed red peppers, and sausage and peppers served over pasta. Though I’ve been eating my mom’s piperade for decades, I’ve never attempted to make it myself before last weekend. I was happily surprised to find that it’s much easier to make than I imagined. Essentially it’s simply combining two things I already have a pretty good handle on: sauteed peppers & scrambled eggs. The fried bread, in my opinion, is mandatory when making this dish.