The first Michigan tomatoes of the season are starting to ripen, and one of my favorite things to do with them is to make gazpacho, the chilled soup that’s a summery blend of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions, garlic and bread, enriched with olive oil and spiked with sherry vinegar. In the States (or at least in my neck of the woods), our love of Mexican food has caused mutations to appear, usually in the form of adding cilantro, jalapeños or lime juice, making a tasty soup but one that is much more akin to salsa than a true gazpacho. The tendency here is also to serve gazpacho chunky rather than smooth. Although I don’t necessarily dislike these alterations, my one pet peeve is that many of these salsa-like creations don’t even include gazpacho’s signature ingredient (the bread!), often making them too acidic to eat a whole bowlful.
A couple weekends ago, the soup swap was brought back to life after a one-year hiatus. What were we thinking, skipping a year? I do not know. My only excuse is that we moved last January and at the time, I probably didn’t think the house was “ready” to have people over. I can’t say that it’s that much more ready now- we still have a long way to go and the list of home improvement projects is long- but fortunately I’ve forced myself to get over it and lower my standards; otherwise, I’d never have any guests!
It’s a well-known fact that a little pork can enhance just about any soup, and we found it amusing that everyone’s soups, without specifically planning it that way, had pork in them. Michelle’s was the meatiest, a pork and tomatillo stew with big chunks of tender, falling-apart meat. Kate brought a delicious split pea with bacon, perked up with the addition of fresh rosemary. Molly made a hearty chickpea and sausage soup with some Hungarian sausage she’d been gifted from a neighbor, and Sarah made a fantastic wonton soup with homemade, pork-filled dumplings.
I started writing this post and realized- for once, I don’t have a lot to say. But that’s OK; the following is all you need to know: A small venison roast, some local root vegetables from the farmers’ market, some homemade stock, and a weekend day with enough time for a long braise can yield the following:
I don’t often get roasts from my dad, usually his venison is in burger form, so this was a first. I just treated it like I would any other tough cut of meat, braising it for a while in the stock at a low temp and then adding the vegetables later so they didn’t cook to mush. The result wasn’t earth-shattering. but it was homey, comforting and hearty, which was just what I was going for.
Venison Stew with Root Vegetables
1 small venison roast (about 1.5 to 2 lbs)
a few Tbs bacon fat
2 cups stock, preferably homemade: beef, lamb or chicken will work (mine was actually turkey, leftover from Thanksgiving)
aromatics: a couple of bay leaves, some peppercorns, juniper berries, or a couple sprigs of rosemary or thyme would all work
2 large carrots, peeled and cut into large chunks
1 large or 2 small parsnips, peeled & cut into chunks
5-6 small shallots, peeled & trimmed
4 small potatoes, scrubbed and cut in halves or quarters
1 celery stalk, trimmed & cut into ½-inch pieces
salt to taste
Preheat oven to 225°. Warm the stock on the stove in a heavy lidded pot large enough to accommodate the meat. Rinse the venison and pat dry; lightly salt the meat and rub all over with the bacon fat. Add venison to pot, cover, and braise in the oven for 2 hours. You can turn the meat halfway through, but it’s not strictly necessary. Meanwhile, prep the vegetables. After the initial 2 hours, lightly salt the vegetables, add to the pot, cover, and cook for another hour or until vegetables are tender.
If the meat comes easily off the bone, feel free to serve your roast as-is; if meat is a little tough, you can either braise a bit longer, or do what I did: Remove meat from pot until it cools enough to handle, remove from the bone and cut into bite-sized pieces; return to pot to warm through. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper if needed. If desired, serve with chopped parsley as a garnish.
When my friend Youn from Toulouse called me on the eve of an out of town trip asking if he and a friend could come stay for a few days, I said yes even though it was inconvenient, because in my mind I want to be That Kind Of Person- the kind who has an open door policy for weary travelers, who can handle surprise visitors with aplomb, and (most importantly), someone who always has food and drink on hand to whip up an impromptu meal or refreshment for said visitors.
Mind you, this is what I strive for- the reality is somewhat different! Unlike Marvin, who grew up in a household where people were constantly dropping by, we rarely if ever had unannounced visitors. So although I wholeheartedly embrace the concept, I have to make a concerted effort to be prepared for this eventuality; it’s not something that comes naturally to me with my more Germanic upbringing.
As it happened, I had purposely NOT gone shopping that week in an effort to use things up before my trip, and the way things worked out, I had no opportunity to go to the store before picking up my guests. Luckily, Marvin came to the rescue in more ways than one- spending some time with them while I was at work, and taking them to the grocery store so that they could make dinner (Youn’s idea). We invited a couple more friends and Youn made traditional Breton buckwheat crêpes (although he has lived in Toulouse for over 20 years, Youn originally hails from Brittany). My apologies for the somewhat haphazard photos, we were enjoying ourselves and I didn’t feel like stopping to bust out a tripod! The two decent-looking pics are from breakfast the next day, when the light was much better.
Those of you who read this blog regularly may recall that, coincidentally, I just posted about buckwheat crêpes (galettes) a few weeks ago. Curiously, the recipe I was using called for apple cider vinegar in the batter, saying it was authentically Breton, but Youn had never heard of it. Just goes to show that “authentic” is a word that you should take with a grain of salt in the cooking world! He doesn’t even use a recipe, just does everything by feel, but he did give me some measurements so that I could share a recipe. Another interesting thing is that all the recipes I’ve seen call for half buckwheat and half white flour, but he uses all buckwheat which is a bit healthier. I actually preferred the texture and will be making them this way from now on. Last but not least, he uses beer in the crêpe batter instead of the usual milk, making the recipe friendly for the lactose-intolerant. For the vegetarians, there are infinite possibilities for veggie fillings (ratatouille comes to mind).
I like to use up leftovers for crêpe fillings, but obviously there were none, so we made the classic complète- ham, cheese and egg. The egg is fried right on top of the crêpe. Add a little grated cheese and some torn-up pieces of ham and you have a meal. Amanda, who up until this point had claimed a dislike of runny yolk, was converted by the oeuf miroir, so called because the yolk is shiny like a mirror. In addition to the buckwheat crêpes, Youn also made dessert crêpes with finely-diced apple in the batter, which we spread with confiture de cidre (cider jam) and sprinkled with powdered sugar (check out this post for a dessert crêpe recipe). We cooked up more crêpes the next morning for breakfast… miam miam! Next time I hope I’ll be able to spoil my guests instead of the other way around, but I was certainly grateful for the help and the opportunity to get crêpe lessons from a seasoned pro.
Crêpes Complètes à la Youn (Buckwheat Crêpes with Ham, Egg & Cheese)
1 lb buckwheat flour
1 cup beer (a lighter lager-style beer is best)
water- about 2 cups or as needed
1-2 Tbs neutral oil or melted butter
additional butter for spreading on crêpes (optional)
eggs- one for each crêpe you plan to make
thinly-sliced deli ham
Gruyère or Swiss-style cheese, grated
A couple notes: The directions for cooking up the crêpes may sound a bit fussy, but once you get the feel for it, crêpe-making is one of the easiest things in the world. You’ll learn by trial and error how to adjust things like the batter thickness and pan heat to get the results you want. Best of all, crêpe batter is a relatively inexpensive thing, so it’s not the end of the world to have a few failed attempts before hitting your stride. This recipe makes plenty of batter so you have room to screw up and still have enough for dinner! Also bear in mind that this “recipe” is very loose. Feel free to thin the batter with more beer instead of water, or only use 2 eggs, or whatever. Youn says that in Brittany the crêpe shops make their batter using only flour and water, so obviously it’s very flexible!
Place the flour in a bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour and place the eggs and oil or butter in it. Gently whisk the eggs with a fork. Slowly pour the beer and 1 cup water into the well a little at a time as you stir, incorporating the flour, until the batter is fully mixed and has no lumps. (Alternately, whiz everything together in the blender.) Add more water a little at a time as needed until batter is the consistency of heavy cream. Let batter rest at least an hour.
Get your eggs, ham and cheese at the ready. Warm your crêpe pan or griddle over medium-high heat until very hot. Smear a bit of butter onto a paper towel and rub it on the pan. Test the heat with a few drops of batter; they should set immediately. Give the batter a couple stirs in case it has started to separate. Wipe the pan clean with the paper towel wad, and then rub it again with butter. Ladle batter onto the center of the hot pan (quantity will depend on your pan’s size) and quickly rotate the pan so it is thinly and completely covered. If there is excess batter (i.e. batter that does not instantly set), pour it back into the bowl. Cook until golden brown on the bottom- a minute or so. You want it to color, but not cook so much that it becomes crispy (although Youn says a little crispiness is OK). At this point, flip it over.
As soon as you flip the crêpe, you can smear it with butter if desired, then crack an egg onto the center. With the back of a spoon or a spatula, gently spread the egg white around the crêpe so it can cook. When the egg white begins to turn opaque, add pieces of the torn-up ham and sprinkle with some shredded cheese. When the cheese has melted, fold in the sides of the crêpe towards the center so it forms a square, and serve. (With this kind of crêpe, there really isn’t a way to serve everyone at once, but from my experience making them to order creates a casual, convivial atmosphere that is fun in and of itself.)
Folks, I’m taking a deep breath. This post is about one of the easiest, most laid-back dishes in my repertoire. While I did snap a few photos, I didn’t stress about the lighting or try to style the food or plating. I just wanted to do an easy-breezy blog post since it’s been a while.
Most everyone I know has a lot going on- everyone has periods where things get crazy, time is maxed out, and they feel completely spread thin. So I try not to go on TOO much about how nuts everything feels, because it’s like “boo hoo, you’re not the only one who has a million things to do and no time to do them in”. But the past couple weeks were frantic even by my standards. Blogging, of course, didn’t even make the list of things to do during this time, but I hope to rectify that in the next week or two before things get busy again with my sister’s wedding.
The Friday morning of Memorial weekend, I left for my sister’s bachelorette party in Nashville. I had worked all week and tried to get things ready bit by bit- shopping for gifts, laundry, making sure there was food for the cats, a trip to the library for books on tape and Nashville guides, and all the other little pre-trip things that needed attending to. Packing and straightening the house, of course, always gets left until the last possible minute. So, as I was trying to get things together at 10:30 Thursday night, I got an unexpected call from my friend Youn, an old acquaintance from my Toulouse days. He and a friend were traveling around the U.S. and wanted to know, could they possibly come and stay for a few days? Of course! I replied, while inwardly starting to panic. The house was reasonably tidy- I don’t like to come home to a mess- but it was nowhere near “house-guest clean”. I would have to drive 10 hours, then spend a few hours cleaning Monday night, because I had to work on Tuesday and they were arriving that evening. Also sandwiched into the week’s schedule were two Scarlet Oaks shows, one of which was in Cleveland.
Long story short, I pulled everything together the best I could and we had a nice time (more about their visit in a later post), but coming back from a trip and then entertaining for 5 days left me wiped out. Sunday I wanted to cook, but I knew I needed to do something hyper-simple. My mind jumped to this dish of white beans with tomato and sage (one I’ve made many times before) because of the abundance of sage in my herb garden right now. This is one of the easiest dishes I know, and it goes great with some grilled Italian sausages. Unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate so our sausages were pan-grilled in the cast-iron skillet, but that actually made things even easier. I threw together a green salad as well as some cucumbers with labneh (thick strained yogurt), scallion, lemon and parsley, we cracked open a bottle of red, and reveled in our simple feast as we breathed a sigh of relief at not having anywhere to be or anyone to entertain. While I love having guests, a quiet evening with my sweetheart was just what I needed to get grounded and catch my breath.
If your sage is blowing up right now too, check out this post from Clotilde of Chocolate & Zucchini on 45 things to do with fresh sage!
This recipe is originally from a low-fat cookbook, and you can certainly choose to make it that way, but I of course like it with generous amounts of olive oil. Obviously, you can cook the beans from dried, or use fresh tomatoes if in season, but the point is that you can open a few cans and have a pretty tasty and respectable side dish ready in about 15 minutes. For the vegetarian folks out there, you could certainly serve this alongside veggie sausage or even some risotto to get the complete rice+beans protein combo.
2 15 or 19-oz cans cannellini beans*, rinsed and drained (I prefer the bigger cans if you can find them)
1 28-oz can good quality diced tomatoes, drained, juice reserved*
3-6 cloves garlic, depending on size, to yield about 2 Tbs minced
about 25-30 washed sage leaves, to yield 3-4 Tbs minced
salt & pepper to taste
*Another type of white bean can be substituted if necessary.
**My version appears more “saucy” because I used whole canned plum tomatoes and just squished them up with my hands as I added them to the pot. Remember, this dish is all about whatever’s easiest.
Put a few Tbs of olive oil in a medium-sized heavy saucepan over medium-low heat. When warm, add the garlic, stirring frequently (you want it to soften but not brown). After a couple minutes, increase the heat slightly and add the sage. Cook for a couple more minutes, then add the drained tomatoes. Cook for a few minutes to blend the flavors, then add the beans and cook until heated through. If the dish seems too dry, add a bit of the reserved tomato juice. Drizzle a little more olive oil on top if desired, and serve.