Sweet and Savory Crepes

Well folks, it’s time for guest post number two by yours truly, Peter.  I’m going to be talking about something that I’ve made numerous times over the last few years, always with wildly varying degrees of success: crepes!  Now, I’m no Frenchman, so what follows is probably going to upset many of our friends over in la France, but probably not enough to drive anyone to murder, so I press on.  Over the years, I have found that the secret to crepes is… well, if I knew, my success wouldn’t vary so wildly.  There are a couple things that help: using a hot enough pan, being dexterous enough to flip them with minimal damage, and–since this is of French origin, after all–plenty of butter. (Though those of you who knew me in the past will be happy to hear that I have dramatically scaled back the amount of butter I use.)  Finding the right pan temperature has always been a matter of trial and error for me–on the electric stove at our last place it was exactly at 5 (of 10), while on the gas range here it’s closer to 3.  The type of pan plays into it as well: a solid cast-iron skillet at the same temperature as a thinner non-stick pan will transfer more heat to the batter (and cool less) immediately upon contact and thus may seem to be hotter (that’s science, folks).  As for the dexterity, well, that’s just practice.  I usually dual-wield a thin spatula and a fork, but I’m not too sure it helps me–and really, a crepe that has fallen apart still tastes just as good.

Speaking of taste, let’s talk about crepe fillings.  The traditional favorite of mine is lemon juice and powdered sugar, but there are so many more.  On the sweet side, we have jams, jellies, preserves, chocolate, chocolate sauce, nutella, syrups, sliced fruit, chopped fruit, mashed fruit, whole fruit, and anything else you can think of… including any combination of the above.  If you want to go the savory route, well, you probably have to be a bit more careful, but as long as we’re being honest (and we are, aren’t we?), I’ll come out and say that I’m really not an expert in that field.  Though tonight we had a sauteed onions, baby garden greens, and cheese combo that was pretty darn delicious.

Speaking of baby garden greens, Anna wants me to tell you that we enjoyed the first fruits of the garden with this meal.  (And by fruits, I mean vegetables.)  We call them bok chard, because they look like both swiss chard and bok choy (actually China Choy Chinese Cabbage from Seeds of Change).  Furthermore, as these are the result of a thinning and are thus immature, they are baby bok chard.

Basic Crepes
1 egg
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup water
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 cup flour (+ 1 tablespoon (give or take) of sugar if you know you’re going to make sweet crepes)
(additional butter for cooking)

Whisk together the wet ingredients (all but the flour) and then whisk in the flour.  (It actually does better if you sift in the flour but I’m too lazy to do that.)  Let the batter sit for 5 to 30 min (in the fridge is good) to get the air bubbles out and to hydrate and break up any clumps of flour.  Unlike standard American pancakes, you want the batter to be without clumps as you are going to get it real thin.  Then cook the crepes: get the pan pretty darn hot, then add in a sliver of butter (or more, if you like) and pour in 1/4 to 1/3 of a cup of the batter (depending on the pan size) and tilt the pan in ridiculous looking circles to get the batter as thinly spread as possible before it sets.  Let it cook for anywhere from 30 seconds to 3 minutes (depending on batter thickness and cooking temperature) until it’s golden-brown on the bottom and then do your best to flip it over.  Adjust the resulting mess until it’s relatively flat again and cook until it’s brown on the other side.  Then remove to a plate and repeat until the batter is gone.  (Depending on your pan and batter you may or may not need to add more butter.)  Fill/coat/smother the crepes with whatever you decide, and enjoy!

Purple Potato Gratin

Purple potatoes are just more fun.  They make lovely lavender-colored mashed potatoes and are stunning when contrasted with normal white potatoes.  My original plan for tonight’s gratin was a mixture of purple potatoes, pink beets (probably the candy-cane variety), and if possible, something yellow or orange (more beets? sweet potatoes?).  When we missed the Thursday farmer’s market, I considered postponing the gratin making, but those purple potatoes just looked so… purple!  And I couldn’t not think of something to do with them, so this is yet another installment of baked vegetables with cheese. Purple Potato Gratin
Equal amounts white and purple potatoes, sliced into uniformly thin rounds
Salt and pepper
1 cup milk or more
1/2 cup grated melty cheese or more (such as cheddar or gruyere)
1-2 egg yolks (optional)
Olive oil
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Grease a baking dish with the olive oil.  Place the slices of potato in alternating rows of purple and white, at approximately a 45 degree angle.  When the baking dish is full with rows of the potato slices, season liberally with salt and pepper.  If making multiple layers of potato slices, you can put grated cheese over the first layer and continue on with another layer.  No matter how many layers you make, pour enough milk into the baking dish to come up to the middle of the top layer.  Mix the milk with an egg yolk or two to make the milk closer to a custard when it bakes.  You can also add salt and pepper to the milk and then pour the milk into the baking dish carefully in one corner to keep from washing the salt and pepper off of the potatoes.  Finish the top layer of potatoes with a layer of cheese.  Bake for 50 minutes or more, depending on the number of layers.  I cover the baking dish with aluminum foil for all but the last half hour to keep the top layer from getting too dark.

Chocolate Grand Marnier Meringues

How do you encourage graduate students to show up to any event?  By making them cookies of course!  This week it’s my turn, and as the speaker eats gluten-free, I thought I’d make a cookie held up by nothing more than air, instead of that complicated flour concoction so prevalent in gluten-free cooking.  There are actually quite a few easy gluten-free “flours”, such as almond flour or other nut flours, but sometimes it’s nice to skip the flour entirely.  Meringues take a bit of forethought, which I haven’t quite mastered: they take 1 1/2 to 2 hours to bake (in a 225 degrees F oven), so now they won’t be out of the oven until after midnight.  But who cares, because they just melt in your mouth like slightly sweet, slightly chocolaty, slightly Grand Marnier-ey clouds with a crispy exterior and an almost spongy interior.  Below is my recipe adapted from The Joy of Cooking‘s “Meringue I (Granulated Sugar)”.  And don’t worry if you love them and want to play around with different kinds, because Joy also has “Meringue II (Granulated Sugar and Powdered Sugar)”, “Warm-Method Meringue”, and of course “Meringue Mushrooms”.  If you’re curious about the meringue mushrooms, then you should really look in their inventor’s book (another favorite): Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts.

Chocolate Grand Marnier Meringues
Egg whites from 4 large eggs (about 1/2 cup)
1 teaspoon Grand Marnier
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
3/4 or 1 cup granulated sugar (I like mine less sweet)
2-4 tablespoons cocoa powder
Special equipment: parchment paper, electric hand mixer
Preheat the oven to 225 degrees F.  Line two baking sheets with parchment paper (it’s really worth it for how easily the cookies come off the paper).  Put the egg whites, Grand Marnier, and cream of tartar in a large mixing bowl and beat with an electric hand mixer until the egg whites have soft peaks.  Mix the cocoa powder with the sugar, and spoon it into the egg whites spoonful by spoonful, while continuing to beat the mixture.  Beat until stiff peaks have formed.  Plop the very thick batter onto the lined baking sheets and bake in the oven for 1 1/2 to 2 hours.  Let the meringues cool for 10 minutes before devouring.

The first time I made these, I didn’t use cream of tartar, and the meringues still turned out delicious!  I may have had to bake them a little longer to make them stiffer, and I may have had to beat them for longer before they held stiff peaks, but so it goes.  While we’re discussing substitutions, vanilla extract was the flavoring of choice in the original recipe, but I’m guessing that any liqueur would work wonderfully.

Lasagna with Ricotta and Roasted Summer Vegetables

I’ve been meaning to make lasagna for a while, but it tends to take forever to put together.  Tonight we had a special treat though: Peter’s brother visiting from the Bay Area.  His brother is a vegetarian, and I thought of nothing better to make him than one of my favorite vegetarian dishes: lasagna with ricotta and any vegetables lying around the kitchen.  After a long day walking in down town, they came home and entertained me as I spent the next hour and a half putting this lasagna together.  The last stage where you assemble the lasagna is always so rewarding, so I thought I’d take a photograph of each layer (see the alt-text for descriptions):

 Lasagna with Ricotta and Roasted Summer Vegetables
6-8 wide lasagna noodles (or more if you intend to make more pasta layers)
1 28 ounce can of crushed tomatoes
1 15 ounce container of ricotta cheese
1 bag fresh spinach
1+ medium yellow onion
1 egg
1 large summer squash, cut into 1/4 inch-thick circles
1 large globe eggplant, cut into 1/4 inch-thick circles
Salt and pepper
Olive oil
1/2 – 2/3 cup grated melty cheese (we used cheddar this time)
There are a lot of things to do, so I will describe each part individually.
Tomato Sauce:  Pour the crushed tomatoes into a non-reactive pot, along with a 1/2 cup of water (I use it to get all the tomato out of the can), a bit of diced onion or garlic, two bay leaves, oregano (somehow I didn’t have any around… silly me), salt, and pepper.  Let the sauce simmer on low heat while you do everything else, but don’t forget to stir it every once in a while.  If you forget about it and it cooks down too much, just add more water.  I’m sure a jar of good pre-made pasta sauce would be an easy alternative.

Ricotta Filling:  Dice the 1 onion and cook in olive oil until tender.  Wash the spinach leaves well (no one likes grit in their lasagna) and steam until just tender.  Mix the onion and spinach with the ricotta and season well with salt and pepper.  Add the egg and mix well again.
Roasted Vegetables:  If using Japanese eggplants in place of the globe eggplant, no salting prep work is required.  If using globe eggplants, though, I usually sprinkle them liberally with salt and let them sit for 20 minutes.  Then I wash them thoroughly to get rid of most of the salt, and continue on.  Mix the sliced summer squash with a drizzle of olive oil, salt and pepper in a bowl.  Then add the eggplants and mix them around to cover them in a bit of olive oil.  Eggplants have an uncanny ability to soak up massive amounts of oil, so beware!  Since the eggplants will be baked with a cheese mixture and tomato sauce, I don’t find it necessary to use much oil in the roasting process.  Spread the vegetables on a baking sheet and bake for about 15 minutes at 350 or 400 degrees F.  Then turn the vegetables over and bake for another 10 minutes or so.  If you’re in a hurry and have lots of frying pans, you could just fry the vegetables, but roasting them is less hands-on work.

Pasta:  Boil a large pot of water with about 1 tablespoon of salt.  When the water is boiling, add the lasagna noodles and cook as directed on the box.  If they’re slightly undercooked, that’s alright, as they will cook more when the lasagna bakes.  It is important to separate the noodles and stack them on a plate as soon as they are cool enough to touch so that they don’t stick together and don’t tear apart (a drizzle of olive oil is very useful here).  Find the nicest noodles to put at the bottom of the pile, as these will become the top layer of the lasagna.
Assembling the lasagna:  This is the best part!  See the above series of photos for a picture guide.  Lightly oil a baking dish with olive oil.  Put a thin layer of tomato sauce on the bottom, then the first layer of pasta.  Next, add layers of roasted eggplant slices, the ricotta mixture, the roasted summer squash slices, and finally a thin layer of tomato sauce, before adding another layer of pasta.  My layers are always quite thick and I don’t use much pasta (I should just admit that for me lasagna is really more about the cheese, vegetable, and tomato sauce mixture).  Make as many of these sets of layers as will fit in the pan and with the available ingredients (I managed to get two sets).  For the top of the lasagna, finish with a layer of pasta.  Lightly spread a drizzle of olive oil over the noodles to keep them from getting too hard while baking.  Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper, and finally top with a layer of the grated cheese.  Bake the lasagna, uncovered, for about 30-40 minutes, until the cheese is starting to brown in places.  Let the lasagna cool just a little bit before digging in.

Stuffed Summer Squash

I have no self control when it comes to tiny vegetables.  My friend Jen has the opposite problem, and has to buy every large vegetable in the farmer’s market (in fact it may be the reason why we first became friends, that and ratatouille).  Perhaps I’m missing Halloween, because my first thought when seeing these tiny little squashes was “I wonder if I have a knife small enough to carve little faces in them?”  Hunger struck before I got further than scooping them out, and instead I stuffed them with delicious things.

The following is not so much a recipe as a suggestion that tiny squashes stuffed with any number of good things are, well, good.  So good that when I sent Peter to the farmer’s market on Sunday (I admit I slept in) he came back with two very large round summer squashes, perhaps 10x the size of these tiny ones.  I asked him why he bought more summer squash when I had told him that we had plenty of the usual cucumber-shaped variety: “For more stuffed squash.”  Oh, well I guess they were good.

Stuffed Summer Squash
Round summer squash (small ones will bake faster and of course require less filling)
Cooked whole grain of your preference (we had brown rice on hand)
Various other delectables: cheese, onion, herbs, chives (they get their own category), cooked meat, finely diced and cooked veggies (eggplant, peppers, corn), finely diced fresh veggies (tomatoes, corn, peppers), nuts, dried fruit (apricots, raisins), fresh fruit (apples?)
1 egg
Salt and pepper
Olive Oil
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (or 400 degrees if you’re impatient).  Hollow out the squash as you would a pumpkin, retaining the tops.  Make sure to cut the tops large enough to fit a spoon in the squash to hollow it out.  Cook any veggies for the filling and then assemble the filling (minus the egg) and season with olive oil, salt, and pepper, plus any other herbs or spices you like.  Add the egg to the filling and mix well.  Spoon the filling into the hollowed-out squash and put the squash caps back on the squash.  Bake the squash for about 30-40 minutes or until the filling is firm and the squash is cooked.

Perhaps you’re wondering what to do with the squash filling?  I mixed it with salt, pepper, another egg, and some chives and baked it like a custard until firm, although I’m sure more exciting things could be done (and I really should have added cheese, oh well).

Sautéed Fresh Corn with Red Onions and Green Peppers

Today was farmer’s market day, and unlike Thursdays (which are also farmer’s market days), Sundays always afford more time to play with the day’s most exciting purchases: in this case the first fresh corn of the season.  I love fresh corn in the summer time, as it is almost synonymous with summer vacation because it is available everywhere near my parents’ house, fresh picked and ready to be devoured.  One summer, in pre-dinner hunger, I started to eat my ear of corn raw, as my sister and I were most likely racing to see who could shuck an ear of corn first, and it was so good and sweet that I never really went back.  I still love cooked corn on the cob, and corn roasted on a grill or in a fire can be exceptional, but what I love the most is raw corn in a bean and vegetable salad, with little cherry tomatoes, a good vinaigrette, and some fresh basil and chives.  We had just such a salad for lunch after the farmer’s market, and it disappeared so quickly (and I was so hungry) that there wasn’t time for pictures.  I wanted to do something slightly different for dinner, so I sautéed the corn briefly with red onions and green peppers.  The result was marvelous: sweet from the corn and onions and slightly bitter from the green peppers.  Our dinner party crew once made something like this last summer, but with red peppers and shrimp, which was also very good.

Sautéed Fresh Corn with Red Onions and Green Peppers
(serves 2)
2 ears fresh corn, shucked
2 green peppers, chopped into small slices
1/2 red onion, chopped into small slices
Olive oil for sautéing
Salt and pepper
Cut the corn kernels from the ears of corn; this is most easily done with a sharp knife and a large mixing bowl (the kernels can go flying).  Heat the olive oil in a frying pan and briefly sauté the onions for about a minute and then add the green peppers.  After another minute add the corn, with plenty of salt and pepper.  Cook for just a couple minutes more so that the vegetables still look fresh and are not completely soft.  Stir the mixture every 10-20 seconds or so to more evenly cook the corn.  Usually there are cooked and uncooked corn kernels at the end, which is totally fine.

Before we went to the farmer’s market this morning, I made scrambled eggs with steamed potatoes and green beans.  The potatoes were slightly sweet, which was strange, but the eggs turned out well regardless.  I often forget about potatoes when I put vegetables in scrambled eggs, but they are really quite good, a combination of breakfast potatoes and eggs all in one.

We have so much fruit in the house now, it would be overwhelming if it weren’t so delicious.  The peaches won’t be ripe for another couple days, but until then we have strawberries.  Unfortunately, the strawberries were so ripe that we had to eat a majority of them tonight.  Normally I would have made strawberry shortcake, my favorite strawberry dessert, but since I was already in the process of baking the last of our fresh figs from last week in honey and rum, I thought something less sweet was in order: goat’s milk yogurt and crushed strawberries.  It was a good night.

Green Beans with Olive Oil and Lemon Juice

Complicated recipes and desserts get all the attention, but sometimes it’s nice to make a simple dish that captures and compliments the flavors of a single ingredient.  One of the reasons why I’m so addicted to In Late Winter We Ate Pears is that the recipes seem to follow exactly such logic.  If you have a fresh and flavorful ingredient, why spend hours in the kitchen trying to manipulate and often hide its natural flavor?  This is especially true of some “controversial” vegetables, perhaps because someone once said they didn’t like them, and so they were henceforth hidden in layers of cream, butter, or bread crumbs–green bean casserole anyone?  Green bean casserole can be delicious, in that heavy, creamy sort of way, but that is not what I imagine to be green beans’ primary calling.  Green beans are a light and clean-tasting vegetable, delicious when steamed until almost all their crunch is gone (but not steamed for so long that they become limp and an unappealing murky green color).  I used to eat them steamed with only a tiny pat of butter and salt and pepper, but having found In Late Winter We Ate Pears, I have converted to olive oil and fresh lemon juice.

Green Beans with Olive Oil and Lemon Juice
Green beans, trimmed
Olive oil
Fresh lemon juice
Salt and pepper
Steam the green beans for about five minutes or until they just loose their crunch, but not so long that they go limp and lose their vibrant green color.  If you are serving them immediately, pour the green beans into a heat-proof bowl and dress with the olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper to taste.  Let the green beans sit in the olive oil and lemon “dressing” for a minute or two before serving hot.  If serving cold, rinse the green beans under cold water when they are done steaming to stop the cooking process, and then dress them.  I like these beans with quite a bit of lemon juice and salt, with the olive oil mediating.  These probably take about 10 minutes to make, and half that time is used to boil the water for steaming.  So easy, and so delicious.

Brought to you by Simple Saturdays.