Monday, August 11, 2008


Some years ago I decided I was going to make crepes and bought a nonstick (cheating, just a little, by not going with traditional carbon steel) crepe pan for the event. The crepes were easy and delicious and were sure to be a regular feature on our family dinner menu. The pan was declared to be for-crepes-only. Since then it has been used occasionally -- once or twice a year, at best -- but mostly spends its time in its designated place of honor, perched atop the upturned lid of an 8-quart stockpot, in deference to its delicate nonstick surface. I pulled out the pan last week, got past the mild fury that arose when I saw the nicks in the edge surface (abused in the pot cabinet... must I do everything myself?), and this time I think the concept will stick: crepes will become part of our regular rotation of easy, meal-building dishes.

The key for us, I think, is to make extra. Since I bought that pan, we have grown into a family of 5, and we usually only have substantial leftovers when we try. Most recipes only serve 4-6, and we are a hungry bunch. So to start with, this time I made a double batch of crepes. And it's true -- they really do keep well. They don't stick to each other and can be refrigerated or frozen. Reheating is a simple matter of wrapping in foil and placing in a 350-degree oven while you prepare a filling (or reheat various leftovers).

We had them for dinner, with a simple tofu spread and some sauteed mushrooms and greens (a rainstorm kept me from the grill). Then we had them for lunch the next day, with a quick stir-fry of crispy shallots, baked tofu and spinach, enhanced with a light dusting of parmesan and a "twang"* of curry fleur de sel. Two days later, I made another batch and we filled them with a leftover potato, garbanzo, and bean salad in harissa vinegarette.

They'll be great for carrying to work or school. And for using up small amounts of leftovers, which is mostly what we have. Plus, they provide the perfect canvas for trying out different flavor profiles in combination. Brilliant.

The crepes I've been making are eggless, chickpea- and wheat- based. The chickpea flour imparts a mild flavor that lends itself well to savory fillings in every season, and provides the protein that helps bind the batter without eggs. I've used a couple of different recipes, from The Voluptuous Vegan by Myra Kornfeld and Peter Berley's The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen. They are essentially the same, but one produces are thinner batter (read, add more water) than the other. I've now begun to develop a feel for what I like and, mostly with regard to the consistency, am straying slightly from the recipes as written. I'm not religious about the measurements at this point. I do think that the chickpea flavor is a little pronouced for sweet crepe fillings, and I'd like to do some experimenting with different high-protein flours and different ratios to find a workable vegan recipe for those, too.

Recipe: Chickpea flour crepes (adapted from The Voluptuous Vegan by Myra Kornfeld)
Notes: Make sure the pan is well-heated before you start. If you give it enough time to heat, you won't have to sacrifice the first crepe to the trash.
1 cup chickpea flour
1 cup unbleached white flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 1/2 cups lukewarm water
1 tablespoon finely-minced herbs (optional)
a few tablespoons olive oil for preparing the cooking surface

In a bowl, whisk together the flours and salt. Mix in the oil and water. Once combined, use an immersion blender to smooth out the batter. Alternately, use a traditional blender, or strain the batter through a sieve. Stir in the herbs, if using. Let the batter rest for 20 minutes. Place a nonstick pan over medium heat. Using a paper towel saturated with oil, wipe the pan surface. Pour out about 1/3 cup of batter and quickly rotate the pan to achieve a thin, even, somewhat circular layer of batter. As it cooks, the batter will become more translucent and the edges will begin to curl. At this point, a spatula may be used to loosen the edges. Wait to flip the crepe until it begins to freely slide around the pan when jerked. Then, using a spatula or a well-practiced "jerk and flip", turn it over. It will be about a minute or two on each side. Repeat, wiping the pan with the oil-saturated paper towel in between each one. The finished crepes can be slid right off the pan and stacked on a plate.

Yields about a dozen crepes.

Recipe: Crispy Shallots, Baked Tofu and Spinach
Notes: For the baked tofu, I used a store-bought variety, by Fresh Tofu Inc. (based in Allentown, PA). You can make your own, too. I used fresh oregano and thyme here, based on what was available in my backyard.
3 medium shallots
8 ounces baked tofu
5 ounces baby spinach, well-washed and dried
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
sea salt
a bit of parmesan and curry fleur de sel, for garnish

Peel and thinly slice the shallots lengthwise. Toss them in a medium skillet with the olive oil and cook, stirring occasionally, till they start to become browned, 3-5 minutes. While they are cooking, thinly slice the slabs of baked tofu. When the shallots are starting to brown, add the baked tofu to the skillet, along with the chopped herbs and crushed pepper. Saute a few minutes more. Then add the baby spinach, and stir until wilted. Finish with a bit of salt to taste.

Place about 1/4 cup of the tofu mixture in the center of a crepe. Dust lightly with parmesan and twang it* with a few crystals of the fleur de sel. Wrap and eat.

Serves 4 to 6, for a lunch-sized portion.

*Matt and I watched the movie "Talk to Me" on cable last week. It is a mediocre biopic about Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene, a former convict and drug addict turned Washington D.C. radio/television talk show host and community activist. We were interested enough to do some Googling after, which led to some YouTube video-watching, which revealed him to be a much more colorful character than the film had portrayed. And I hate to say that because I really like Don Cheadle. Matt found this video of Petey talking about "How to Eat Watermelon." He learned from some country folk that the best way is to sprinkle a few grains -- "just a twang" -- of salt on top. "You have to twang it."

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Alice Waters, Grilled Bitter Greens, and a Dressing

Last Friday, I went to my local bookstore looking for Julie Powell's book, Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, and 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, which I had heard about and forgotten until my friend Anouck recommended it to me last week. They didn't have it in stock, and I knew that Amazon had a great deal on the hardcover edition, so instead I came home with Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution by Thomas McNamee. It was a good read, finished in a day's worth of stolen moments. I was struck by the purity of Waters' vision, her passion, and single-minded determination. I was impressed by her utter confidence in her intuition and palette. I was interested to learn that a good many of the people who have worked in the Chez Panisse kitchen have not been formally trained. I was surprised to discover how unprofitable Chez Panisse was for so long (and yet upon consideration, was not surprised, having chosen a similar path long ago that has rendered me quite uncompromising and frequently broke). And surely, I believe as she does, that large changes can be effected in a small way, by simple choices that we make in our daily lives. But the very best part was reading about how Alice Waters and the Chez Panisse family really geek out over the food, every aspect, from farm to table. In that spirit, I have started writing.

Thinking of all the great seasonal produce we are seeing in the market these high-summer days, I wanted to make a dressing with a little body, something creamy that could be used for dipping crudite or romaine hearts, or for drizzling on greens. And in the midst of this Jersey heat wave, I'm interested in simplicity. I had mostly everything in my refrigerator and pantry, augmented by a few clippings from the patio herbs. And I managed to make it with an immersion blender, so I didn't have as much clean-up after. This dressing should be quite a good base for experimentation -- different vinegars, herbs (I think tarragon would have been great, and very summery, but I didn't have any on hand), maybe some shallots? K and I dipped some radish slices in and started munching right off, but I think that this dressing might also be nice drizzled on one of my late summer favorites: grilled endive. I should say that I love grilled endive all on its own; the grilling makes it juicy and succulent, but leaves it's mild bitterness intact. So I'm not entirely convinced that the dressing would be an improvement to the endive, but it's a thought.

Recipe: Grilled Belgian Endive
4 heads Belgian endive
1 small clove garlic, finely minced
2 teaspoons - 1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar (a small splash)
2 teaspoons - 1 Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
sea salt
black pepper, freshly ground

Halve each endive lengthwise. In a medium-sized mixing bowl, combine the garlic, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Add a bit of salt and black pepper. Toss the endive halves in the mixture and use tongs (or hands) to turn and coat each piece with a bit of marinade. Grill for 1 to 2 minutes on each side.

Serves 4.

Recipe: Creamy Herb Dressing
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
sea salt
zest of 1 lemon
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
1 Tablespoon sweet white miso
1 Tablespoon red wine vinegar
1/4 cup raw cashews
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 - 2 Tablespoons minced fresh herbs (Note: I used dill, basil, and thyme, but any combination of herbs would be good. Tarragon in particular, I think.)
1/2 teaspoon dijon mustard (optional)
freshly ground black pepper to taste

Mince the garlic and place in a bowl (or blender jar) with a large pinch of sea salt. Add the remaining ingredients and blend til creamy. Taste and adjust salt/pepper as needed. If using as a dressing, thin with a bit of water for drizzle-ability.

As a dip, makes about 3/4 cup. As dressing, approximately 1 cup.