Holy Crêpes

Ohhhh, man. You are going to want to make this, and soon. I can say without a doubt that this is the best under-$5/person meal I’ve ever had. Galettes Bretonnes au Sarrasin – Buckwheat Crêpes from Brittany, via Anne Willan’s impressive and beautiful cookbook, “The Country Cooking of France.”

Buckwheat has a flavour that’s hard to describe: it’s nutty, but it also has a deeper undercurrent of minerality – MC Warmspice says graphite (but he spent a lot of time licking pencil tips as a child, so it might have been lead.) It tastes wholesome, only better: like something that comes from a magical health food store where things aren’t heavy and clunky and hopelessly earnest.

The recipe uses equal parts buckwheat flour and unbleached white flour – we had run out of all-purpose, so we used King Arthur bread flour. That has a high gluten content, so our crêpes may have been chewier than intended, but we highly recommend it all the same. The flours are mixed with salt and milk.

After a couple of minutes of beating, the batter rests at room temp for 30 or 40 minutes, and then gets beaten again with water (same amount as the milk added earlier), and some clarified butter.

To cook the crêpes, we used a very hot, well-seasoned cast-iron pan, swabbed with clarified butter before each addition of crêpe batter.

The crêpes had some thickness in the middle – they weren’t paper thin. Judging by the photos in the book, ours were a little on the thick side, but not far off.

As they begin to brown around the edges and it becomes possible to slip a thin spatula underneath them, it’s time to flip ’em.

Parchment paper keeps each crêpe separate as the next ones cook.

Meanwhile, we had some eggs slow-soft-simmering (?) in the sous-vide oven. We set it at 148’F and cooked the eggs for an hour and a bit. You can, of course, use a traditional poached or soft-boiled egg. Having the sous-vide oven just makes it easier to get the exact-right doneness, and to hold the eggs there for at least a few minutes. If you’re going the traditional way, and you want to be able to serve several people, a neat trick is to poach eggs until they’re almost done, shock them in ice water, then reheat them as needed. It takes practice to get it right, but it’s worth the effort if big brunches are something you do on a semi-regular basis.

Once the crêpes were done, we filled them with salty goodies. Willan says that either egg, cheese, or ham is traditional. Being North American, we used all three. We didn’t cook the eggs on the crêpes themselves, though, comme il faut.

Gruyère, finely grated on the Microplane to make a little of it cover a large surface area. Neat trick, MC Warmspice!

And thinly sliced ham. You don’t want a smoked ham here; the flavour would overwhelm the buckwheat. Look for unsmoked, wet-cured jambon de Paris, or, if an Italian grocer is closer to you than a French shop, prosciutto cotto – cooked, wet-cured ham, not to be confused with the intense, dry-cured normal prosciutto.

Fold the stuffed crêpes into quarter-circles, crisp/warm them up in the pan…

…and enjoy!

Mama Cass-oulet

Cassoulet may just be the ultimate winter comfort food. From the way the word rolls off the tongue, to the supple mouthfeel, the subtle, warm flavours, and the nourished, soporific feeling you have after consuming it… it’s the culinary equivalent of a down duvet cloaked in silk.

Even at its most stripped-down, cassoulet is a labour of love. The one we made for New Year’s Eve was perhaps more labourious and more loved than most. Hell, we did everything but grow the beans and raise the pigs ourselves.

The work commenced about 10 days ahead of time, when the pork belly began to transform itself into bacon, along the general lines of the recipe I blogged last fall. This time, I went with a less assertive treatment, omitting the maple and the smoking. I wanted the flavour of the beans in the cassoulet to be more prominent than that of the meaty garnishes.

The duck confit came next. Around the same time, because I didn’t have enough to do, I began the 2-day process of making Thomas Keller’s veal stock from The French Laundry Cookbook. I don’t intend to make a habit of this, I just felt the need to do the “uber-stock” for the first time in my life. In short, here’s how this insanity unfolds.

  • Start with 10 lbs of veal bones and a stock pot that can hold about 16 quarts. I had to use 2 pots.
  • Slowly, slowly, bring the bones up to a bare simmer in your stock cauldron, skimming all the time.
  • Remove them from the pot, and immediately rinse them in clean, warm water to remove impurities.
  • Wash the stock pot, return the bones to it, fill it with cold water, and return it to the stove.
  • Again, with agonizing slowness, return the water to a simmer, doing what? Yeah: skimming, skimming, skimming. Always.
  • After a few hours, add your aromatics: onion, leek, fresh tomato, a surprising amount of tomato paste, thyme, bay leaves, parsley, garlic, and carrot. Skim, skim, skim.
  • Ladle / gently pour the liquid – which is now triumphantly dubbed “Veal #1” – into a new vessel, keeping the solids in the pot. Quickly bring the liquid to fridge-ready temperature in a sink-full of ice-water (50% ice). If you’re not continuing to make the stock the same day (you probably won’t), do likewise with the solids.
  • Next: fill the stock pot – which still contains the solids – with water once more, and again, bring it to a simmer. Did I mention that you need to skim?
  • Simmer for approximately ever, then (once again assuming you aren’t continuing the process the same day) bring this liquid – now christened “Veal #2” – down to fridge temp. You can now safely discard the solids.
  • Finally, combine Veal #1 and Veal #2 in a clean pot. Simmer ’till the cows come home (maybe they’re looking for the veal?) skimming…skimming… for many hours.
  • According to Keller, you should reduce this to 2 quarts. I lost my nerve and my patience around 3.5 quarts. “Good enough!” I shouted.

That is Veal #1 being chilled. The final product was essentially fat-free.

Was it worth it? Hard to say. It is a helluva stock. Maybe a bit tomato-y for me. It’s intense in a Barry White kind of way: it’s dark, smooth, and all about the bass notes.

Where were we? Oh yeah – that was a sub-recipe for inclusion in the cassoulet! Onward… to make sausage. Chef C and I chose a mildly flavoured Toulouse-style French garlic sausage. We followed the procedure I’ve blogged about before, and we used this recipe from Len Poli – I can’t say enough good things about that recipe – it was just perfect.

We made a mess by overstuffing the sausages (maybe the casings had become a bit brittle over time?) but they remained coherent enough to survive being browned in a pan and sliced into the cassoulet.

So much for the sub-recipes! On to the main event. We went more or less with Anthony Bourdain’s recipe from his Les Halles Cookbook. Our adaptations: We used the unsmoked, roasted bacon in place of fresh pork belly, and some excellent quality Italian cannellini beans in place of the impossible-to-find-except-by-mail-order Tarbais beans. We used duck fat instead of pureed pork rind. We didn’t carefully layer the ingredients just-so. And we compressed Bourdain’s “day 2” and “day 3” together into one day.

At last, Chef C combined the beans, veal stock, bacon, sausage, and duck confit in an enamelled cast iron pot and put it in the oven, uncovered, to burble away happily for a couple of hours. We had to bump the temperature up to 375’F to get the burbling happening. Finally, the cassoulet developed its characteristic crust, and was ready to serve. It was received enthusiastically, and finished with blissful sighs.

Just like Mom used to make: “Bison, cranberry, persimmon, juniper branch aroma”

This dish, from Alinea, got a lot of oohs and ahhs. Chef C and I split the prep on this one. I made the cranberry puree and the first few steps of the barley a couple of days ahead of time. I also rendered some beef fat by cutting it into half-inch chunks and melting it over low heat in a pan with a half-cup of water:

Tasty, no? Mmm.

The day before service, Chef C put together the walnut “pudding” and poached small, rectangular cuboids of persimmon – we don’t have any pictures of this prep, but Carol from Alinea at Home captured it nicely.

An hour or so before service, I vac-packed two 6-oz portions of bison tenderloin with a couple of tablespoons of the beef fat:

…and cooked them sous vide at 135’F (oops – it was supposed to be 130’F) for about 40 minutes. This was twice as long as the recipe called for, but sous vide is very forgiving that way.

The plating of this dish is somewhat… unorthodox. A week prior to the dinner, I had secured some small juniper branches, and Chef C was relieved to find a garden store proprietor who was willing to go behind the store and chip several sizeable river rocks out of his iced-over fountain!

Just before service, we heated the river rocks for 20 minutes in a 450’F oven, and puffed the cooked-and-dehydrated barley in a small pan of sizzling canola oil.

The dish comes together like so:

  • Bison is sliced across the grain, and the slices are trimmed into small rectangles and rolled around the poached persimmon chunks
  • A small  juniper branch is placed atop a sturdy plate (not the “fine china”!)
  • A screamingly hot river rock is placed atop the juniper
  • A bison-persimmon roll is placed atop the rock
  • Single micro-dollops of cranberry puree and walnut pudding, a few grains of puffed barley, and a dusting of ground juniper berries, crown the bison rolls

Full credit to Chef C for the precision plating!

This was my first experience with a dish that incorporates inedible bits for functional, aesthetic and aromatic reasons. The logic behind the dish is really quite elegant: the hot rock releases the juniper’s aroma as it sears the bottom of the bison, and the juniper insulates the plate as it releases its aroma. (The juniper and the rocks seem to echo the northern woods more than the open prairies, so venison might have worked even better… but I digress).

The contrast of seared and rare bison was welcome – sort of like salmon that’s seared on one side and raw on the other – and the flavours of the garnishes (plus the texture of the barley) worked in harmony with the bison. The persimmon was nice enough, but I didn’t see it as an essential component.

Everyone loved this dish, and, – since by this time in the evening we were all kind of sloppy from the wine – we hurried to “cook” trimmed scraps of the sous-vided bison on the rocks. Unfortunately, Chef C ran into a catastrophic squeeze bottle failure when attempting to anoint her second piece of bison with walnut pudding:

Garnish malfunction!