Cook like a Francophile
Wednesday, June 26, 2013
When I was in the ninth grade, I was obsessed with anything French. I plastered postcards of Monet’s “Water Lilies” on my bedroom wall and dreamed of climbing the stairs of the Eiffel Tower and walking along the Seine at midnight to visit Notre Dame Cathedral. So, like any young and romantic Francophile, I signed up for high school French.
My French teacher was a big, beautiful African-American woman with an Afro that encircled her head like a halo in Byzantine paintings. Mrs. Thomas used her hands to express herself; her fingers were long and slender and as dark as chocolate.
We didn’t read French literature or learn about the culture. Instead I learned to say “I’m hungry” (j’ai faime), “How are you?” (comment ca va?) and “I love you” (je t’aime), along with the numbers one to 100 and conjunctions.
During class, when someone misbehaved or got an answer wrong, Mrs. Thomas would shake her head and say mon dieu, mon dieu! (“My god, my god!”). She spread her hands out wide and her fingers would curve so far backwards it seemed they would slip away at the bottom knuckle. My sisters and I still say mon dieu, mon dieu! when something goes awry.
When my family and I traveled to Brittany, France a few years ago, I silently thanked Mrs. Thomas for my knowing how to say “I’m hungry” and “thank you” in mottled French. We took the ferry from Dover, England, to Calais, and drove south across the mouth of the Seine, then west through medieval walled towns, toward the proud and culturally distinct peninsula that reaches purposefully into the Atlantic.
Brittany is the largest peninsula in France, and, like most of France, it is an eating paradise. For breakfast we ate sausages, croissants and strawberry jam; lunch consisted of Camembert cheese, crusty bread and hard cider; for dinner there were mussels steamed in white wine and garlic. And wine, of course, there was always wine. We stayed only a week, but I managed to gain five heavenly pounds while we were there.
But of all the simple, delectable and indulgent fare, the crepes were most memorable. The humble crepe has been called “an art form; a canvas on which Brittany’s poetic character expresses itself.”
One night we had just finished dinner in a restaurant located on the waterfront in Cancale. We strolled out along a nearby pier and found a little amusement park at the end. There was a kiosk that sold crepes, and we ordered buckwheat crepes sprinkled with lemon juice and dusted with confectioner’s sugar. I have a photo of the kids on the merry-go-round, their smiles showing traces of powdery sugar. At that point in time, with our bellies full of seafood and wine and crepes, eaten with the scent of the sea and sky filling our nostrils, I knew what heaven on earth felt like. We ate crepes as a dessert, but crepes can also be eaten with savory fillings, like sautéed mushrooms and Gruyere cheese.
When it came to replicating my crepe experience at home, I had neither a well-seasoned crepe pan, nor did I utilize this ancient technique: After mixing the eggs and flour with your fingers, you’re supposed to slap the batter to make a hollow, spanking sound. I suppose this removes air bubbles from the batter. Instead, I found this simplified recipe, adapted for the American lifestyle, no spanking required. Mon dieu, j’aime crepes, as Mrs. Thomas might say.
—Slightly adapted from http://www.allrecipes.com
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup milk
½ cup water
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons melted butter
In a blender, combine eggs, milk, flour, salt and butter. Process until smooth. Cover and refrigerate one hour.
Heat a skillet over medium high heat and brush with melted butter. Pour one-fourth of a cup of crepe batter into pan, tilting completely to coat the surface of the pan. Cook 2-3 minutes, turning once, until golden on both sides. Repeat with remaining batter. Makes eight crepes.
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