Meanwhile in My Other Life: Sunday Morning Crêpes

The Lego mafia on guard

The Lego mafia stands guard

Very little makes me happier, in that contented-happy kind of way, than a Sunday morning in pajamas. Sure, the hubs is still out of town and the boy and I have 6 dozen things that we need to do today, including laundry and shopping for a new backpack, but for just a little while, I get to pretend that the day holds nothing more demanding than pajamas and something just a wee bit special for breakfast.

One of the things I’ve finally figured out is that there are two kinds of recipes. There are ingredient-driven recipes, such as molé sauce, and there are technique-driven recipes that don’t require the kitchen sink but demand a degree of finesse. Hollandaise is the queen of the latter.  The technique-y ones, should you be wondering, intimidate me the most.  I’m comfortable mixing and matching spices, substituting beets for celeriac, making up flavor combinations for quick breads. But fussy recipes requiring particular care? They scare the crap out of me.

Crêpes, for example, have very few ingredients, but require a fair bit of technique. The first time I made them, as part of the breakfast lab in my intro to culinary class, I hovered over the pan like an out-of-control helicopter parent certain that her little darling crepe was going to burn out of control and the entirety of my hopes and dreams would flame out with it.

Naturally, it came out desperately undercooked.

By the sixth crepe I managed to let go of my need to hover and turned out a pretty decent batch of the things. More importantly, I passed the lab. All of which is to say that we had crêpes for breakfast this morning.

One of the beautiful things about crêpes is that they’re a brilliantly blank (and French!) canvas adaptable for savory or sweet fillings. And there is something about their (French!) crêpe-yness that invites playing with flavors.

Today was about sweet crêpes. Lightly sweetened cream cheese spread, cherry spoon fruit, fresh blueberries, and lemon curd were the stars, and I’m almost, allllmost, ready to head out into the snow in search of the perfect replacement backpack. Maybe just a little more coffee before we go.

Crêpes

Makes 10

Ingredients

2 eggs

2 egg yolks

1/2 cup water

3/4 cup milk

2 Tbs butter melted, then allowed to cool slightly

3 Tbs sugar*

Pinch of salt

1 cup AP flour

Instructions

Whisk all ingredients together in a large bowl (I use a spouted mixing bowl to make it easier to pour)

The batter will be very thin

The batter will be very thin

Cover and let rest for at least 20 minutes*

While your batter is resting, clarify 3-4 Tbs butter by melting it and skimming the solids off the top. The remaining clear liquid is what you’ll use for cooking your crêpes.*

Spread a clean towel on the counter and top it with some parchment or wax paper

Preheat your crêpe pan* over medium

Brush with some of the clarified butter

Not a dedicated crêpe pan

Not a dedicated crêpe pan

Swirl in about 1/8 cup of the batter, making sure to coat the entire pan.  It should be very, very thin.

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Notice the tiny bubbles in the batter

Wait until the crêpe loses its sheen and becomes brown around the edges

While you can carefully remove the crêpe and flip it over to brown the other side, it’s not required.

Invert pan over your parchment and smack it against the counter (this is why the towel is there, to soften the blow a bit). The crêpe should fall right out and be ready to serve.

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Pretty much a perfect crêpe

 At this point, they can be filled and rolled, like a burrito (but French!), or folded into quarters and topped. Either way is delicious.

Notes

If you’re making savory crêpes, omit all but 1 tsp of the sugar.

The longer the rest, the lacier the crêpe–up to an hour at room temperature is fine.

Clarified butter has a higher smoke point than butter that still has its solids. After you’ve poured off the clarified portion, you can always add the solids back to your pan and brown them a bit. The browned butter is particularly good on toast or mixed into baked goods for a bit of nutty flavor.

While you can buy a dedicated crêpe pan, it’s not necessary. Any pan that has gently sloping sides will do.

with sweetened cream cheese spread and cherry spoon fruit

with sweetened cream cheese spread and cherry spoon fruit

Welcome to South Carolina: The Palmetto State

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When it comes to politics, social issues, and education, South Carolina has a bad rep. And depending on which color your politics run, it’s either well-deserved or heresy.

I’m real glad that I write about food, and not politics (which is not to say that food isn’t sometimes political–a fact I deal with regularly in my other life). Fortunately South Carolina also oozes charm and gentility better than anywhere else in the country.  Did you know that the first game of golf ever played in the US happened in Charleston? Or that the first orchestra was sponsored by the Saint Cecilia society? And let’s not forget about the sculptures at Brookgreen Gardens or the fact that South Carolina was also home to the first Children’s Museum and Playhouse. Charming! Pinky-raising gentillity!

Except, well, I’m not particularly genteel.

Luckily, South Carolina is also abundant in two of my favorite things: roadside attractions and kitsch. Bowman is home to a UFO Welcome Center; you can stop and visit he Edisto Island Mystery Tree; the World’s Smallest Police Station resides in Carrabelle, and much to my complete chagrin because it’s somehow both horrible and irresistible at the same time, South Carolina is home to a wonderland called South of the Border.

South of the Border, located just south of (you guessed it) North Carolina, best resembles the worlds largest Stuckey’s Stop…on steroids.  And not just any steroids, but ‘roid rage level steroids. Roid rage steroids with a(n un)healthy dose of cultural stereotyping. I suppose it says all kinds of horrible things about me that I loved it. But let me clarify–I loved it for how it represents a throwback to a time in our collective history that was both simpler and much more complicated than it is today. Built in 1949, South of the Border has largely been maintained with that ethos in mind, so if you find yourself compelled to stop there, consider yourself warned. If you’re easily offended, it’s not for you.

Excuse me a second. I have to remind myself that I’m not a travel writer, either.

So, what about South Carolina food?  Both of our recipes come from the lowcountry food traditions.  “Lowcountry” refers to the southernmost, coastal tip of South Carolina and northern Georgia. The lowcountry region is marshy (or “swampy”), and was once a key rice-and-cotton growing region before it became a popular tourist destination–Hilton Head is part of the lowcountry. Beyond the touristy elements, the lowcountry is rich in shrimp, islands, and history. These elements, not surprisingly, inform much of the cuisine that comes from the lowcountry. It is a food culture that is inspired by the flavors of Africa and of the Carribbean, and created with the ingredients at hand.

I’ve chosen, for this week, to make a true classic: Hoppin’ John, and a new classic: shrimp & grits. Both have strong ties to the Gullah people, and we’ll talk more about their culinary backstories when we get to the recipes. If you’re interested in the history of the Gullah, there’s a good (though troubling) piece available at the Yale University website. It’s worth a read.

In the meantime, here’s a picture from South of the Border.

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~Brooke

Shrimp and Grits

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Grits (or hominy grits, depending on who you ask) are a classic, southern, maize-based porridge. Made from field corn that has been treated with lye or lime (nixtamalated–which, in case you’re wondering, is the same process that transforms corn meal into corn masa), they’re served with salt, pepper and butter, a bit of sugar, cut into squares and fried, or like polenta at the base of a protein–as we see in a plate of shrimp and grits.

The combination of shrimp and grits is considered a new classic of southern cuisine–it wasn’t until the 1980’s that the dish started gaining prominence and “elevation” in more upscale venues. Until then, it was considered a fisherman’s breakfast–a perfect combination of protein and carbs for starting a long day of hard work.

I’ve discussed shrimp and grits before; a truly outstanding version can be made by adding shrimp to plate of African-inspired pap and chakalaka. And for my money, it’s the way to make shrimp and grits. It’s also a plate with close ties to the Gullah/lowcountry cuisine that we’re making in celebration of South Carolina.  That said,  I couldn’t leave well enough alone. I had to go and play with my food, see what else I could come up with.

For my first attempt, I made a sharp cheddar cheese grits base and topped it with garlic and wine simmered shrimp. I wanted acid with some creaminess. Instead, the two made a bitter mouthful that left everyone hungry. It was one of those nights that left us grateful for the sub shop delivery guy. We tip well so it was sort of a win-win.  Sort of. (Side note–I didn’t really learn to cook well until I figured out that if I bomb a meal, there’s always scrambled eggs. Funny how Plan B takes off a lot of the pressure.)

After re-thinking the whole thing, I had one of those lightbulb moments–brown roux.  What would happen if I made the shrimp in a brown roux?

The answer?  Magic.  The nuttiness of the roux, the sharp bite of garlic, and the creamy grits came together in a mouthful that almost made me cry. It’s an insanely rich dish, best served with a side of sharp, bitter mustard greens or even a vinegary beet salad. You need something that will cut through the richness or four bites in you’ll be done for the night.  Trust me on this one.

Shrimp and Grits

Serves 4

Ingredients

1/2 cup flour

1/2 cup butter (1 stick), plus 1 Tbs

2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1/2 green bell pepper, small dice

1 small bunch scallions, cleaned and diced

1 lb shrimp, cleaned and peeled

4 servings prepared grits (I use Quaker. Recipe is on the box)

Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

  • Preheat the oven to 350º
Dark or "red" roux

Dark or “red” roux

  •  Make the roux* by melting the stick of butter in an oven-safe pan. When it melted and just beginning to brown, whisk in the flour.  Whisk until a smooth paste forms, otherwise it will end up gritty–and not the good kind. Bake the roux for about 30 minutes–until it turns a rich, reddish brown shade.
  • In a large skillet (or frying pan if you’re a Yankee), melt the remaining Tbs of butter over medium heat, swirl to coat the pan.
  • Add sliced garlic, saute until it’s just turning fragrant
  • Add green peppers, sweat them a bit (cook for about 5 minutes over medium)
  • Add the shrimp to your pan, and pour the roux over the top.
  • Top with the sliced scallionsIMG_6915
  • Stir to combine the ingredients, let shrimp cook through (4-6 minutes.  They should be just barely opaque and pinkish around the edges)
  • Serve over grits, with salt and pepper to taste.

Notes

Unlike blond roux which is used for thickening, a dark (or “red”) roux has little thickening power. What it provides instead is a deep, nutty flavor.

Hoppin’ John

Writing about certain aspects of regionalism requires a kind of grace and sensitivity that tends to leave me dancing around information rather than taking my usual direct approach.  Hoppin’ John is proving to be one of those challenges.

Historically, Hoppin’ John originates with the slaves who worked the South Carolina rice and cotton fields. Black-eyed and other cow peas, which are African in origin, were regularly provided as a cheap source of protein. The pork jowl and hocks commonly used to flavor beans were the parts most often put aside or tossed out as scrap; the peppers and onions used to flavor the dish would have been abundant in the vegetable gardens. It is, to my mind, a thing of wonder and absolute ingenuity that these African and Caribbean slaves were able to take such humble ingredients and create a dish so flavorful that it is emblematic of an entire region of the country. Elevated, indeed.

While the etymology of the name is still unclear, food historians universally trace the roots of Hoppin’ John to the Gullah people of Sea Island. While it is traditional for the dish to have a flavor profile rich with pork, peppers, garlic, and tomatoes, historians argue loudly and at length about the traditional legume used in the dish. While black-eyed peas have become the contemporary analog, most historians claim that cowpeas and crowders are both more traditional and flavorful, and just to make things even more confusing some claim that cowpeas are just another name for black-eyed peas.

Regardless, whether it’s made with cow or black-eyed peas, ham hocks or bacon, Hoppin’ John has layers of flavor that elevate a humble dish of beans and rice into something my very picky 12 year old couldn’t get enough of.

And by the way, legend has it that eating black eyed peas on New Year’s Day will lead to prosperity in the new year. While I can neither confirm nor deny this, what I can say is that it’s a delicious way to start off a new year. Or month. Or even week.

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Hoppin’ John

Serves 4-6

Ingredients

4 slices thick-cut bacon, cubed

1/2 onion, diced

1/2 red bell pepper, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup dried black eyed peas, soaked*

1/4 poblano pepper*, minced

1/2 cup diced tomatoes*

3 cups water or chicken stock

1 tsp rosemary

1 tsp thyme

Salt and pepper to taste

Optional garnishes

  • Cilantro
  • Scallions
  • Tabasco

Instructions

  • Brown the bacon in a skillet; remove bacon to drain and reserve 1 TBS of the rendered fat.
  • Saute onion, bell pepper, garlic, and poblano in the reserved fat. Cook until just beginning to caramelize (apx 10-minutes)
  • Add bacon bits, sauteed vegetables, tomatoes, and 3 cups of water to the soaked beans, bring to a boil.
  • Reduce heat to simmer, add rosemary and thyme
  • Simmer until tender. This will take anywhere from 1-3 hours, depending on the beans. While there is no definitive answer, the US Dry Bean Council (USDBC, and I am not even making that up) has a set of helpful guidelines.
  • Serve over long-grain rice*
  • Garnish as desired, serve with cornbread for an even more authentic lowcountry dinner

Notes

Soaking your beans: A general rule of thumb is to soak beans for 6-8 hours prior to cooking.  Some current sources argue against any soaking, while others suggest a longer time. All of which is to say that I unintentionally soaked mine for about 48 hours (delay of recipe), and they were still very very good.  The USDBC also has information on the how-tos of soaking, if you’re looking for something more precise

Add the pepper to taste, and feel free to substitute any fresh hot pepper. Scotch Bonnets would be a nice addition if you like fiery things.

I threw in a small jar of cherry tomatoes I canned over last summer because they were the only tomatoes I had in the house. They worked beautifully. Diced fresh or canned will also be good additions–they bring an acidic brightness to what can be a dense plate.

I used Basmati rice.  Again, because it was what I have in the house and I generally prefer longer-grained varieties. Uncle Ben’s will also work.

Bonus

You can make this vegetarian, or even vegan, by eliminating the bacon.  If you do, I recommend adding some soy bacon crumbles to the garnishes just for a bit of smokiness.

Welcome to Maryland: The Old Line State

MD_Welcome_Sign

Know what cooking and writing have in common?  Revision. Or, as Jacques Pepin puts it “Cooking is all about the recovery.” As, truth told, is writing. I have posts that I write and when they’re done I’m reasonably happy with them.  And then there are those that never quite gel.  Writing something about Maryland is proving to be one of those times.

The state of Maryland is really quite lovely. Very old New England, named for a queen consort (I’ll tell you which one in a minute–I need to check my notes), home of the Chincoteague ponies (not to be confused with Black Beauty or National Velvet as my friend Martha tells me repeatedly since I somehow missed the horse-mad stage of girlhood.  Probably because Jo March didn’t have a horse), Francis Scott Key, Babe Ruth, has the state motto “Fatti Maschii, Parole Femine” which translates to “Manly Deeds, Womanly Words”, and culinarily speaking, best known for its crabs. (Henrietta Maria, by the way, was the queen consort of King Charles I.)

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is fun in a touristy kind of way (kind of like Salem but with Edgar Allen Poe instead of witches). The aquarium is right on the water, there’s a 3-story Barnes and Noble, and a charming waterfront walkway. I suspect there’s much more than this but to be honest, I’ve only been there once, attending a conference as part of my former life. Clearly I need to go back in the near future.

So crabs. We’re beer-steaming some soft-shells this week. We’ll also attempt to create something called the “Lady Baltimore Cookie” (aren’t we lucky I randomly picked up a pack of figs at the store the other day!), instead of cake because, well, cookie trays. Or, to wrap us back around to the beginning of this post, we’re going to revise Lady Baltimore Cake into something that is, ideally, more holiday-table ready.

~Brooke

Lady Baltimore Cookies: Just Say No

Let’s start with a discussion of the Lady Baltimore Cake. Historically, its roots are highly suspect with some claiming it is of Irish origins, others suggesting that it came from Dolly Madison (though why it wouldn’t be called the “Dolly Madison” is unclear), and many sources arguing that it didn’t exist before 1906 when writer Owen Wister completely made it up and had his chef retrofit a recipe to appease the fans who wanted to try a slice.

Regardless of its roots, my suspicion is this: The Lady Baltimore cake, filled as it is with boozy fruit, made the perfect gentlewoman’s tipple. Seriously. The temperance movement was still in full-ardor, and a true lady would never have been found imbibing (nor was she allowed in clubs or saloons), but a slice of cake?  Well.  That’s a completely different story, now isn’t it?

A pure and innocent sugar cookie, pre-defilement.

A pure and innocent sugar cookie, pre-defilement.

I knew going into this experiment that there would be things I just didn’t like. The Lady Baltimore Cookie tops the list (so far). Maybe it’s the aggressively boozy fruit trying to pass as genteel. Perhaps its the marshmallow-fluffy frosting. It could be the cookie on which it was built.  Whatever it is, the answer to these cookies is “no.”  Just…no. All things considered, my suspicions about the cake’s roots are not without merit.

Maybe I knew intuitively that it would be ungood (double-plus ungood if you’re an Orwell fan) and that’s why it took me so long to dig in and make them. Maybe I should’ve used bourbon instead of applejack (in one sample) and limoncello (in the other sample). Maybe it was just a bad idea out of the gate. Maybe it’s just my frame of mind right now (I had written a long “personal aside” in which I addressed mid-life course corrections and identity politics. Be grateful I’ve spared you). Regardless, I’m going to save you the palate-destroying heartache that is the Lady Baltimore Cookie and not post the recipe.

On the plus side, the plain sugar cookies are pretty darn good.

Somewhere in the land of unpacked boxes (aka: the garage), I have an Amish cookbook with what is perhaps the worlds best sugar-cookie recipe.  Simple, soft, cake-like. I’m still sad I didn’t find it to use in this experiment. Luckily, even though the book is…somewhere…I have the internet. Taste of Home offers a passable version of the soft Amish sugar cookie; not quite perfect, but certainly tasty.

Ingredients

1 Cup butter, softened

1 Cup vegetable oil

1 Cup granulated sugar

1 Cup powdered (Confectioner’s) sugar

2 eggs (room temperature)

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp cream of tartar

1/2 tsp salt

4 1/2 Cups AP flour*

Instructions

  • Preheat oven to 350º
  • In a large bowl (I used my stand mixer), combine first 4 ingredients and beat on medium until smooth
  • Add eggs and vanilla, beat until well-mixed
  • Add dry ingredients and mix on low until it becomes a soft dough*
  • Scoop (I used a 2″ scoop) onto parchment-lined baking sheets
  • Bake for 10-12 minutes until barely browned

Notes

AP= All Purpose flour. I use the unbleached occident flour from an area Mennonite market. King Arthur is also good.

This dough is VERY soft, but shouldn’t be sticky or liquidy if its well-mixed.

The leftovers (I only Baltimored two of them)

The leftovers (I only made two)