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.)
A few weeks ago I posted a challenge to come up with a $2-per-serving menu to challenge the notion that healthy food is “too expensive” or that you need to resort to convenience foods to have time to sit down with your family for dinner. Ironically, what with trying to run holiday-related errands after work most days, and having a plethora of parties, shows, rehearsals and other stuff, I haven’t been cooking much! (I did make a big batch of lamb & bulghur stew last weekend and have been pretty much subsisting on those leftovers all last week, but it wasn’t particularly blog-worthy.)
The other night I was staring at the fridge with the glazed-over and rather desperate look of a person who hasn’t been to the grocery store in recent memory, when inspiration struck. I had a bag of frozen shrimp in the fridge, a package of pasta, and enough pantry items to make said shrimp and pasta into a quick and very flavorful dinner. Crisis averted.
Let me detour here to say that I do regret that my $2 meal was not more local– apparently there is a shrimp farm in Okemos but my shrimp were from Trader Joe’s. I don’t eat a ton of shrimp because of the overfishing issues, but as a person who lives alone, there is a great advantage to a food which you can keep in the freezer and remove a few at a time for a single serving. This recipe may also not fall under some people’s definition of “healthy”, but it does use all natural ingredients and that’s my usual guideline. As I had not been to the store I didn’t have any fresh vegetables in the house, but I would certainly encourage adding a green veg to make this a more balanced meal.
Here’s my cost breakdown: Shrimp: ½ bag @ $8.99/1-lb bag= $4.50; butter: 2 oz @ $2.89/lb= 36¢; 1 lb spaghetti= 99¢; 1 lemon= 50¢ (mine actually cost less since I had bought a bag of them, but I think that’s how much they are if you buy a single one); 4 cloves garlic= approx. 25¢; 1 tsp red pepper: negligible, but let’s say 15¢ (or get it free next time you order pizza!). Total= $6.75 and serves 4, so $1.69 per serving. That leaves $1.25 to spend on 4 servings of the veg of your choice- a plain green salad, some sautéed zucchini, or some steamed broccoli, perhaps?- and still keep it under $2.
Garlic Shrimp Pasta
1 lb. dried spaghetti or linguini
½ lb. shrimp (should yield 4-6 shrimp per serving depending on shrimp size)
4 Tbs butter
4 large cloves garlic
1 lemon, halved lengthwise
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes (or to taste)
1 handful chopped flat leaf parsley, optional
kosher or sea salt
Notes: Feel free to embellish and throw in other random items you may have in your pantry or refrigerator… a spoonful of capers, perhaps, or some grated Parmigiano. I happened to have some parsley in the fridge so in it went. This recipe is also very easily divisible/ multipliable- I originally made 2 servings, not 4- so it’s a good recipe if you’re just feeding 1 or 2 people. The dish can be prepared in about 30 minutes, and 10 of that is just waiting for the water to boil. You’ll want to work very quickly to get the sauce on the pasta before anything gets cold.
Directions: Put a large pot of well-salted water to boil. Rinse and pat dry the shrimp, salt lightly on all sides and set aside. Mince the garlic. Juice half the lemon; cut the remaining half into four wedges. Chop the parsley, if using.
When the water comes to a boil, add the pasta and cook according to package directions, probably 8 minutes or so. You’ll want to try to time it so the pasta and shrimp are just getting done at the same time.
Select a saucepan in which the shrimp will just fit in one layer. Melt the butter over low heat. Add the garlic, keeping the heat as low as possible. Cook for about 2 minutes, stirring and making sure the garlic does not brown. (If the butter is foaming too much, add a splash of olive oil.) Add the pepper flakes and stir.
Add the shrimp to the pan in one layer. Cook gently until they appear opaque halfway up the sides, then flip and continue cooking until fully opaque. Remove with a slotted spoon and place in a covered dish on the stovetop (so they remain warm).
Meanwhile, drain the pasta when done, reserving about ¼ cup of the cooking water. Add the juice of half the lemon and a little of the pasta water to the butter/garlic mixture and increase the heat slightly, stirring. Cook for 30 seconds or so, stirring to emulsify. Toss the sauce with the cooked pasta. Add any other ingredients at this time such as the parsley, capers, etc. Taste the pasta for salt, adding as needed. If it seems too dry, add a bit more of the pasta cooking water, and/or a little olive oil.
Plate the pasta in warmed shallow bowls or plates, garnishing with the shrimp and a wedge of lemon.
I own a lot of cookbooks, so it takes quite a bit for me to become so enamored with a cookbook that I make several recipes from it within the span of a few months. But that’s exactly what happened when I purchased All About Braising by Molly Stevens a couple years ago. The fact that I haven’t written more about it here is partly due to “blogger backlog” and partly because I made some of the recipes before I started blogging. Please believe me when I say, though, that this cookbook ranks in my top 5 for many reasons, not least of which is this cabbage. I first made it for a St. Patrick’s Day potluck, partly because cabbage is traditional but also because I was kind of broke and cabbage is really cheap! To my surprise, the dish went over like gangbusters- who knew?! I had never heard cabbage described as “amazing” before; I even had a professed cabbage-hater tell me they liked it. Long braising makes the cabbage melt-in-your-mouth tender, and a blast of heat at the end of cooking caramelizes the dish and brings out all its mellow sweetness.
I’ll go on a little bit of a tangent here to tell you about the other reasons I love All About Braising, since I probably won’t ever get around to giving this book its own separate “review” entry. First of all, the recipes are solid. I have made five or six of them and not had any duds or problems whatsoever. Secondly, it’s very eclectic- there’s a great variety of recipes inspired from all over the world. I’ve made the Chicken Do-Piaza, Chicken with Star Anise, and Goan Chicken, and all were stellar. (Yes, I do eat meats other than chicken; I also used Molly’s recipe as a guide when making these oxtails.) The only recipe I didn’t absolutely love was an Indian-style braised cauliflower (I found it to be a little lean), but that could also have something to do with the fact that cauliflower is not a favorite of mine.
Back to our cabbage- this is one of those dishes that you make and think to yourself “Why have I not been cooking this for years?” I made a roast chicken the other day and, along with some leftover butternut squash & sage risotto, this was a perfect rustic side dish. If you’re having a big holiday spread, this would be a great addition since it only takes a few minutes active prep, yields a lot, and works out to about 25¢ per serving (take that, Wal-Mart!). I wanted to post it before Thanksgiving and didn’t have time, but really it’s a good side dish for any winter meal.
The only deviation I have made from Molly’s recipe is that I don’t bother turning the cabbage over halfway through the cooking time like she does. The first time I made it, I forgot to do it, and found that it made no difference whatsoever; the cabbage was still perfectly cooked throughout. Seasoning on both sides prior to cooking also eliminates the need to flip.
1 green cabbage, approx. 2 lbs (ok if it’s over)
1 medium to large onion (about 8 oz.)
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup chicken stock (use vegetable stock or water for vegan version)
sea salt, pepper, & dried red pepper flakes
Preheat oven to 325°. Core your cabbage; if it weighs over 2 lbs, remove a wedge or two and reserve for another use. Cut the remainder into 8 wedges. Peel carrot and cut it into coins. Peel and slice the onion into ¼-inch-thick rings.
Brush a 9 x 13 baking dish with a little of the olive oil. Season the cabbage wedges with salt & pepper on both sides and place into the baking dish, overlapping them slightly. Scatter the carrots and onions over the top. Sprinkle with red pepper flakes. Drizzle the remainder of the olive oil over the vegetables, and pour the ¼ cup stock or water into the bottom of the dish, tilting slightly to distribute. Cover tightly with foil and bake for 2 hours. Check after an hour or so to make sure the pan is not dry; if it is, add a small amount of water or stock.
After 2 hours, remove the foil and increase the heat to 425°. Bake for an additional 15 minutes or until the cabbage begins to caramelize and brown a little on top. Sprinkle a little sea salt on top (I like to use the chunky kind) and serve.
Much of what gets cooked in my house is a result of opening the fridge and cupboards, feeling like I have “nothing to eat”, and the challenge to make something good out of what I do have on hand. I pride myself on being resourceful enough to almost always be able to come up with something worth eating, even if the pantry is close to bare.
Another factor in these impromptu meals is not wanting food to go to waste. Last week I was in my familiar mode, squatting in front of the open fridge (I can just hear my mom saying “Close the door, you’re wasting energy! Nothing’s going to magically appear in there just from you staring at it!”) when I noticed some mushrooms I had bought that were fast on their way to becoming slimy and inedible.* I also had some leftover grilled cabbage** from the last warm day of summer, as well as some tofu and a bag of spinach, so I decided to make a stir-fry.
In my arsenal are a few indispensible items that assist me greatly when throwing a meal together. Do yourself a favor, go to your area Asian grocery store and pick up the following: toasted sesame oil (the dark brown stuff), sriracha sauce and/or chili sauce (a.k.a. “Rooster Sauce”), soy sauce if you don’t have any, rice wine or Shaoxing (Chinese cooking wine), and rice vinegar. (You can find most of these at a regular supermarket, but they cost about twice as much and you deprive yourself of the pleasure of checking out all the other unusual products they have to offer.) Even if you aren’t able to get to the store to get fresh ingredients such as ginger and garlic, these condiments are more than sufficient to give some punch to a last-minute stir-fry.
So, my stir-fry consisted of: sliced mushrooms, diced tofu, spinach, shallot, and grilled cabbage, seasoned with soy sauce, a few drops sesame oil, some chili sauce, and some Shaoxing cooking wine. The veggies are obviously not the “typical” stir-fry veggies, but the point is that you can make a stir-fry out of just about anything if you flavor it well. The end result was a delicious one-dish meal that was probably one of the healthiest things I’ve cooked lately.
*A tip on mushrooms: If you have mushrooms that are a little old and starting to get slimy, just peel them. Turn them upside down and grab the skin at the base of the cap. Give it a tug and it should easily pull away, leaving you with a nice clean dry mushroom cap. (You may have to use the assistance of a knife, but you’re not actually cutting, just pulling the skin off.) French cooks always peel their mushrooms instead of washing them, so they don’t become waterlogged.
**Grilled cabbage is AMAZING- thanks to my friends Steve & Sarah, the BBQ masters, for turning me on to this. Just thinly slice a purple cabbage, toss it with some olive or veg oil & salt, and put on the grill in something like this (mine looks like a skillet with a long handle, and we use it all the time for grilling veggies. Much easier than skewering them.) Once the cabbage is done, you can toss it with a vinaigrette (homemade, please!) and serve it as a room-temp salad/side dish. Last time they had a BBQ, I made an Asian-style vinaigrette for the cabbage with veg oil, a few drops sesame oil, a little dijon mustard, a little soy sauce, and some rice wine vinegar. The entire bowl was devoured in short order. One great thing about this dish if you’re having a BBQ is that cabbage is really cheap, and one cabbage will make a large side dish!