A Spice Girl At Heart
Today as I was being buffeted down the street, my velocity greatly increased by a fierce following wind, snuggled into two wool sweaters and a long wool coat, the temperature a degree below freezing and the wind chill off the chart, I had two thoughts. The first was the thought-form generally known as WTF. The second was Axoa.
I first discovered Axoa in the Basque country of France, and I wrote about it, and the piment d’Espelette that enlivens it, for Chile Pepper magazine. So perhaps this recipe and these photos look familiar to you, if you’re a faithful Chile Pepper reader. But probably not, since according to my friends far and wide, the issue of Chile Pepper in which this recipe originally appeared was near-impossible to find.
So, at the risk of repeating myself, I bring you one of the most satisfying winter kitchen projects that can be accomplished in a single day, and which will thrill your friends who are low carb eaters.
Axoa is one of the most typical dishes in Basque home cooking, and we first tasted it as guests at Domaine Xixtaberri, a charming place run by Noël and Laurence Mathey.
Noël’s the cook in the family, and he spent several hours teaching me how to make Axoa. As he put it, there are as many versions of Axoa as there are grandmothers to make them. His version is especially delicious, and much more complex in its preparation and flavor than most other Axoa recipes. “It’s fit for a holiday” he said, but I say “why wait for a holiday to make it?”
W hen his eight year old daughter asked him “Papa, why are you always giving away your secret recipes? A true cook takes his secrets with him to his grave,” Nöel replied “My only secret is the love I put into the dish.” And to make this dish successfully, you’ll need love too. That, and a good vegetable peeler.
1 lb beef, ground coarse as for chili
1 lb veal, ground coarse as for chili
4 T. duck fat, or substitute olive oil
3/4 cup dry white wine, divided use
1/2 small onion, sliced paper thin
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tsp. Piment d’Espelette powder, or to taste
3 bell peppers, 1 each red, green, and yellow, quartered and peeled with a vegetable peeler
3 T. olive oil, preferably a peppery, grassy one
1 heaping tsp. veal demi-glace, or use beef bouillon
1/2 cup water
salt to taste
Melt half of the duck fat in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the veal and sauté for 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until golden brown and tender. Salt to taste only at the end of the cooking period. Remove veal to an ovenproof casserole dish and deglaze the skillet with 1/4 cup of the wine. Scrape skillet into the casserole dish. Do not wash out the skillet.
Melt remaining duck fat in the same skillet over medium-high heat. Add the beef and sauté for 5-7 minutes, stirring frequently, until just browned. Salt to taste only at the end of the cooking period. Remove beef the casserole dish and deglaze the skillet with 1/4 cup of the wine. Scrape skillet into the casserole dish. Do not wash out the skillet.
Dissolve the demi-glace or Better Than Bouillon in the water and pour into the casserole dish with the meat. Stir all together and set aside.
For the vegetables:
While the meats are cooking, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Preheat the oven to 375°.
Heat half of the olive oil in the skillet and add the thinly sliced onion and the chopped garlic. Add a pinch of salt, and 1/2 tsp of piment d’Espelette. Let sauté together very gently over a low heat for 10 minutes. You want the onions to melt, but not to brown.
Cut the peeled peppers into lengthwise strips, then cut the strips in half crosswise and add them to the boiling water. I know you’re going to want to skip peeling the peppers, but the Basques believe that pepper skins are indigestible, and in fact the texture of the peeled peppers is an important part of the dish. Just do it. Let the peppers simmer for about 10 minutes while the onions cook, or until very tender but not falling apart. Drain the peppers.
Add the onions to the meat mixture, deglaze the pan with the remaining wine, and scrape the pan into the casserole. Add half of the peppers to the casserole and stir to combine, reserving the remaining half for garnish.
Cover the casserole dish and bake in the oven for 45 minutes. Heat the remaining half of the olive oil in the skillet and gently sauté the garnish peppers until they are lightly golden around the edges. Set aside.
Remove casserole from the oven, and sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 tsp of piment d’Espelette, or use more to taste. Personally I like a lot more. Make a colorful pattern on top of the casserole with the sautéed peppers and serve.
Nöel’s serving suggestion: serve with cubes of oven-roasted potatoes and green beans sautéed with olive oil and garlic.
And if you want to know where piment d’Espelette comes from, or where you can get some that’s really stellar
meet Maialen Noblia. She grows and roasts the best piment d’Espelette I’ve ever tasted, and you can order it here.