Precious Pintxos

Pimente d'Espelette

As a long-time food writer, I’ve found myself in some enviable positions over the years.

One of my fondest memories is the time a few years ago when I was invited to Chef Gerald Hirigoyen’s Marin County house for lunch. It was a gathering of just three other food writers. We all hung out in the kitchen as the charming Basque chef cooked us lunch in honor of his friend’s new cookbook.

Oh, the friend in question? That would be New York four-star Chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin. And the other cooks in the kitchen that afternoon? Laurent Gras, who went on to open his acclaimed L2O in Chicago; and Laurent Manrique, chef-partner of the Aqua Restaurant Group in San Francisco.

It’s hard not to feel a little star-struck in that company, especially when Ripert hands you a warm croque monsieur (done his way with salmon instead of ham) that he just made in a frying pan at the stove. But as we all sat down at the kitchen table to eat, chit-chat, and share laughs, it was as comfortable as any gathering of old friends could be.

Therein lies the beauty of Hirigoyen’s hospitality and cooking that permeates his San Francisco restaurants, Piperade and Bocadillos. Both are infused with warmth and soul throughout.

His new cookbook is no exception. “Pintxos” (Ten Speed Press) by Hirigoyen and co-author Lisa Weiss is filled with recipes for small plates that pack a lot of gusto. They are mostly Basque-inspired, but a few also feature the Cal-Asian flavors Hirigoyen has grown to love. Pintxos (the Basque version of Spanish tapas) make for perfect, casual party food.

Many of the recipes call for piment d’Espelette, a dried red chile powder from the Basque French region. The chiles, grown only in and around the town of Espelette, have a smoky, complex flavor and a subtle kick. Hirigoyen imports his own that’s sold under the Igo Foods brand. I picked up a 1-ounce container ($16) at the Spanish Table in Berkeley.

The piperade before pureeing.

I decided to try making his “Chicken Thighs with Spicy Basque ‘Ketchup’.” You make a piperade first (a stew of sweet peppers and onions) that gets pureed in a blender and seasoned with more piment d’Espelette.

The chicken thighs are simmered in the sauce until done. It couldn’t be easier.

Chicken with "Basque Ketchup'' -- good to the last bite.

As for the taste? Let’s just say that my husband and I now want to spoon this sauce over everything and anything. It’s tangy, sweet, a little spicy. It’s ketchup with new-found personality, and yes, heaps of soulfulness.

Enjoy the recipe at

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