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Although crêpes are often thought of as the province of the French, similar pancakes abound in countries as diverse as Greece and Iceland.  Crêpes were a staple in my household when I was growing up. We knew them as palancinka, the paper think pancake ubiquitous in the countries formerly belonging to the Austro-Hungarian empire. We would have them as a simple dessert on weekends, smothering them with jam or preserves, cinnamon, or cottage cheese and sugar.

Crêpes were the first thing I ever successfully made in the kitchen without a recipe. I would mix together an egg with some milk, throw in some flour and a pinch of salt and voila! the perfect little pancakes. I had no idea how I did it, but they were always delicious. I’d whip up stacks of them for my friends, who would look at me as if I were Julia Child incarnate.

Then somehow I stopped.

Years went by without my making a single crêpe. I cannot now fathom the reason. Perhaps I was busy with school and work and trying to create a life for myself. My twenties are a crêpeless blur.

Then one night, facing an empty fridge and an intense craving for something doughy and sweet, I decided to revisit my old friend.

The results were disastrous. The crêpes were rubbery. They stuck to the pan and tasted plain awful. What had I done wrong? Had I not once been the crêpe master?

I turned to the only person whom I knew could help me out of this mess.

Julia Child.

One of her books, aptly named Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom, contained a simple, master recipe that you can use for both sweet and savory crêpes. Although some recipes for sweet crêpes call for sugar, I find that this makes them stick to the pan.

Be sure to allow the batter to refrigerate for at least half an hour, to allow the flour particles to absorb the liquid, which will give you a tender crêpe. Instant-blending or all-purpose flour may be used, although the former will need less time in the fridge. You may have to experiment with the temperature of your range to get the heat right; the crepes must cook through to a golden color without burning,

If you are not using them right away, cool the crêpes thoroughly, stack and refrigerate for two days, or freeze them for several weeks.

This recipe makes about twenty 5-inch crepes or ten 8-inch crepes.

Julia Child’s Master Crêpe Recipe

Ingredients:

1 cup flour

2/3 cup cold milk

2/3 cup cold water

3 large eggs

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons melted butter, plus more for brushing on pan

Directions:

1) Mix all ingredients until smooth in a blender or with a whisk. Refrigerate.

2) Heat a non-stick frying pan over medium heat. Brush with melted butter.

3) Pour in 2 to 3 tablespoons of batter into the center of the pan and then tilt the pan in all directions to cover the bottom evenly. Cook about 1 minute, or until browned on the bottom. Turn and cook briefly on the other side.

4) Cool on a rack or plate as you finish making the rest. Serve as desired.



It had been a while since I’d had pasta. An almost daily staple in my diet for most of my life, I pretty much stopped making it when I became more adventurous in the kitchen. A year ago I promised myself to really learn how to cook.  Not just a handful of dishes which I’d learn to cook to perfection but a wide repertoire culled from a variety of cuisines around the globe. I began with French food, as I assumed that French techniques were the foundation of much of Western cuisine. I was instantly enamored with it and my love for Italian food fell by the wayside.

What you see on this blog, however, is a small sampling of what I have been cooking. I’ve been dabbling in the foods of Thailand, China, the Middle East. I love all sorts of food, but because I really wanted to learn how to cook French food, I made it the focus of my blog.

Yet lately I have missed pasta and the limitless choices it offers at dinner. I have missed gnocchi, and crespelle, and creamy risottos. By immersing myself completely in the world of cooking and food, I have come to yearn not for the standard Italian American fare that was a staple in my diet for so many years but the real stuff, the authentic tastes specific to the various regions of Italy and almost unknown outside them.

Enter The Essentials of Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan, the Julia Child of Italian Cooking. This book is considered a classic for its truly authentic recipes and exploration of the regions of Italy, which each have their own culinary dialect. Though I have a collection of books on Italian cooking, this is the book I now turn to when I feel like cooking Italian. If I could only have one book on this simple yet wonderful cuisine, this would be the one.

This recipe is by no means complicated, but it is one of my favorites when I want the soothing comfort of a creamy pasta. I like to serve the sauce over a broader noodle like pappardelle or fettuccine

Mushroom, Ham, and Cream Sauce

Adapted from the Essentials of Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan

Serves 6-8 people

Ingredients:

3/4 pound cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

3 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons shallot or onion, chopped fine

salt

freshly ground black pepper

6 ounces boiled unsmoked ham, cut into narrow julienne strips

6 tablespoons heavy whipping cream

For tossing the pasta:

2 tablespoons butter

6 tablespoons heavy whipping cream

1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese

Directions:

1) Put the shallot in a large skillet with butter and cook over medium heat until it becomes golden. Turn up the heat to high and add mushrooms. Do not crowd the pan; cook in batches if necessary. Cook the mushrooms until they have soaked up all the butter. Turn the heat down to low and add salt and pepper. Turn mushrooms over 2 or 3 times.

2) As soon as the mushrooms release their liquid, turn the heat up high and boil the liquid away, stirring frequently.

3) Turn the heat down to medium and cook the ham for about 1 minute. Add the cream and cook just long enough for it to become reduced and slightly thickened. Taste and correct salt and pepper.

4) Put the butter and cream for tossing the pasta into another pot and heat over low. When the butter melts, stir the butter and cream together. Transfer cooked pasta to the pot and toss to coat. Add half the mushroom sauce, tossing again. Add the 1/2 cup grated Parmesan, toss again and turn off heat. Pour the remainder of the mushroom sauce over the pasta and serve at once, with extra cheese on the side.

Baked snails–escargots, as the French call them–is not a dish that many children outside of France recall from their childhood. For my brother and I, escargots conjure up memories of elegant dining rooms with heavy silverware and courteous waiters. Although they were hard-working, middle-class immigrants, my parents liked the good life. They traveled, made their own wine, ate in fine restaurants–and saw no reason to exclude their children from any of that. For this I am forever grateful. Their attitude has had a large part in shaping who I am in a positive way.

As a kid, I always had very firm ideas about what I liked to eat; although I was not as adventurous as my younger brother, I was always willing to try new things. I vividly remember tasting my first escargot, slightly squeamish at first, but ultimately reveling in the strange and unfamiliar texture and the intense flavor of the hot butter and crushed garlic. I would eat the sole of a shoe if it were browned in butter.

Still, I always had trouble connecting escargots to the snails that crawled along the underbrush of lettuce in our garden, much in the way many people fail to connect the perfectly packaged meat in the supermarket to animals in slaughterhouses. Some people can do this really well and become vegetarians. Others, like myself, remain unrepentant carnivores.

Then my mother told me how she had made escargots for our family while she was in Serbia. I was dumbfounded . “But where did you get the snails?” I asked her. I couldn’t imagine you could find cans of snails in Serbian supermarkets. Back then it was difficult to even find feta cheese.

My mother laughed. “Well, the garden, of course.”

“Good thing you didn’t poison anyone,” I said, feeling sick to my stomach. But at least now I got it.

Making snails edible is a lot of work. You have to purge them of toxins, clean them, simmer them, and extract the snails from their shells before you can eat them. No wonder most people buy them already prepared–and still in those attractive shells. For less than a couple of dollars, though, you can buy canned escargots the world over. Rinse them and they’re ready to sauté with parsley and garlic butter. When I confess that I sometimes make escargots for lunch, people look at my as though I’m a lunatic. Or at least extremely self-indulgent. I won’t argue with the latter. But making escargots doesn’t have to take any longer than putting together a sandwich, and eating them can be a lot more exciting.

This recipe is from The Country Cooking of France by Anne Willan, my favorite French cookbooks of late. Anne has a whole chapter on snails and frog legs in this beautiful book, and even a write-up on how to catch and prepare your own snails for hard-core escargot enthusiasts.

Bon appetit!

Escargots à la Bourguignonne


Serves 6

Ingredients

one 14-ounce/390-g can large or medium snails

1 shallot

2 or more garlic cloves, to taste

1 cup/250-g  butter, softened

3 tablespoons/45-ml cognac

salt and pepper

3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Directions

1) Preheat oven to 425F/220C. Drain and thoroughly rinse the snails. To make the compound butter, combine the shallot and garlic in a food processor or chopper and pulse to chop coarsely. Add the butter and pulse until blended.

2) Work in the cognac, salt, pepper, and then the parsley. Taste and adjust the seasoning. If more garlic is desired, mince it first so it mixes into the compound butter evenly.

3) Add a small dollop of butter to each section of escargots baking dishes. Set the snails over the butter and finish with more butter. Bake until very hot and bubbly, about 5-10  minutes. * The broiler may be turned on for the last few minutes for extra browning.

4) Serve immediately alongside slices of fresh or lightly toasted French baguette.

*Be sure not to overcook or they will become very tough.

In the last couple of years, Vancouver has been home to a proliferation of bistro-style restaurants serving up the kind of rustic fare you might find in a French country kitchen–onion tarts, bubbling gratins, and hearty stews.  Exactly my favorite type of food. When I’m not cooking it, I’m making my way across this fair city, fork in hand, sampling the best these little French-style eateries have to offer.

Enter La Brasserie, bistro cooking with flare. Unlike its cousins Les Faux Bourgeois or Bistrot Bistro, this eatery offers French specialties with a German twist.  Sauerbrauten sits on the menu comfortably next to the steak frites, which shouldn’t be as surprising as it seems. This is exactly the kind of food you would find in Alsace, the region of France that shares a border with Germany. Fittingly enough, Alsace is also where the brasserie originated.

I had been wanting to visit La Brasserie since it opened, and finally rounded up a couple of food bloggers to come with me. It’s a small space, with only 35 seats and does not take reservations, so I met Sherman from Sherman’s Food Adventures and Kim-Kiu from I’m Only Here for the Food right after work, at 5:30. Showing up shortly after opening turned out to be a good idea. We were the first patrons of the evening but the place filled up quickly after our arrival.

I had briefly perused the menu online but as I thought about what I might order, I realized that the starters appealed to me more than the mains. There was an Alsatian onion tart, a truffle poutine, and a French onion soup gratinee–one of my favorite dishes. If you live outside of Canada, you might not have heard of poutine. It’s a French Canadian specialty which basically consists of fries topped with cheese curds and smothered with gravy. I finally decided to order the mussels and frites and pass up an appetizer, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to eat it all if I ordered anything more.

Our waitress brought us a couple of selections of bread on a wooden board, accompanied by some butter and a pork and chicken rillette. My table mates were not terribly impressed but I enjoyed it, gobbling down more than my fair share. I’ve rarely met a baguette I didn’t like. My philosophy about bread is … even when it’s not good it’s not that bad. The rillette, had a nice texture but was underseasoned for my tastes. Still, I really liked the idea of serving a rillette with bread.

However, I did sample Sherman’s poutine and Kim’s starter–the steak tartare.  I can say that it was a better than a lot of poutine I’ve had, though I didn’t particularly notice anything even vaguely truffly about it. The cheese curds provided the requisite “squeek” but the amount of gravy on the fries was overkill, leading them to become soggy quickly; this bothered my friends, who also thought the gravy was too peppery. I myself didn’t find this to be the case.

Kim’s steak tartare came with some thin and deliciously crispy toasts. The steak tartare had an overtone of horseradish  that overpowered the beef, and had some chives and onion in it to give it more texture. It was a nice touch, but like the rillette, I felt it was a bit on the bland side.

Our mains came in due time, and we all took turns sampling each other’s orders. Sherman and Kim had focused on the Germanic side of things by ordering suckling pig and lamb cheeks respectively; I felt as though I were dining in a Belgian restaurant with my mussels and fries. My mollusks came in a broth of saffron, white wine and garlic. It is hard to go wrong with mussels, and these were plump and delicious, though I didn’t really taste much saffron in the dish, if any at all. But the fries! Can I just tell you about these frites?  Piping hot and crispy on the inside with a soft, mealy center and a deeply potatoey taste. Dipped in a side of fresh mayonnaise, they were incredible and absolutely worth the price of admission.

Sherman’s pork was served with sauerkraut and schupfnudel–a dumpling that looks (as Kim put it) like oversized gnocchi. As these are staples at the Eastern European table, this dish was not something I would have ordered myself. The dumplings were heavier than they were supposed to be. The suckling pig was slightly dry but had a browned crispy skin–the best part of any pork dish, in my opinion. The sauerkraut, with its tartness, balanced the meal out nicely, which is the point of sauerkraut, is it not?

I sampled Kim’s braised lamb cheeks as well, which came with celery root puree, caramelized vegetables, and a rosemary jus. The vegetables were well prepared, which should be a given but it’s surprising how many restaurants fail in this regard. Although I love lamb, I had never had lamb cheeks before, and found them too gamey.

Overall, I had an enjoyable meal at La Brasserie, though the food was generally underseasoned for my palette. I don’t think my blogger friends will rush to go back to this place, but I see a bucket of those frites in my near future. Plus, I want to try that onion tart.

La Brasserie is open seven days a week from 5:00 pm to midnight.

La Brasserie

1091 Davie Street

Vancouver, BC

(604) 568-6399

All photographs are courtesy of Kim-Kiu Ho of the blog I’m Only Here for the food. Thanks Kim!

For more photos, or reviews of the Vancouver restaurant scene, check out Kim’s blog.

Shermans’ review can be found here and Kim’s here.

La Brasserie on Urbanspoon

Thanks to everyone who commented on their favorite holiday appetizer for the giveaway of the Le Creuset mortar and pestle. The randomly drawn winner of this lovely gift is Kristin from the blog Dinner du Jour.

If you want to make sure you don’t miss any future giveaways, be sure to subscribe to my feed or join my email list.

I hope everyone’s New Year is off to a great start.

Darina

If you think about chicken, it’s quite an interesting bird, wouldn’t you say? I can’t think of any food that is as versatile. There’s chicken soup, fried chicken, chicken pot pie, chicken fricassee, and butter chicken. There’s lemon chicken, chicken teriyaki, stewed chicken–you get the picture.  Look at the All Recipes database and you will find over 3910 chicken recipes. There’s no doubt about it, chicken is definitely one of the most popular global foods, which is why it sometimes bores me silly. There’s something that is inherently limiting in having so much choice. It’s like trying to choose between 100 different brands of cereal at the supermarket. Faced with so many options, I get confused and often walk away with none. This is how I feel about chicken.

But the other way I was trying to think of what to serve at a family dinner. I wanted a one-pot deal, something easy-peasy, requiring few ingredients and little time, but something that would still comfort and satisfy. Although I hadn’t made it in years, chicken and dumplings came to mind and I got out my dusty old Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book–which is exactly the type of cookbook you should have on hand when you want to make good ol’ American comfort food. It goes over all the basics of ingredients, kitchen appliances and equipment, and even includes shopping strategies for shopping, menu creation, and saving time in the kitchen. It’s one of those type of cookbooks that you always forget you seem to bypass for the glossier, high-profile ones, which is really too bad, because it contains a lot of useful information and tasty recipes galore.

The next time you’re wondering what to cook, pull out one of those classic books that are gathering dust on your shelves. You may find something new to add to your repertoire.

Chicken & Dumplings

Makes 6 servings

Ingredients:

2-2 1/2 pounds meaty chicken pieces (thighs, breasts, drumsticks)

3 cups water

1 medium onion, cut into wedges

1 teaspoon dried basil, crushed

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram, crushed

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1 bay leaf

1 cup sliced celery

1 cup thinly sliced carrots

1/2 cup sliced fresh mushrooms

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon snipped fresh parsley

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon dried oregano, crushed

1 beaten egg

1/4 cup milk

2 tablespoons cooking oil

1/2 cup cold water

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

Directions:

1) Skin chicken, if desired. Rinse pieces. In a large pot combine chicken, the 3 cups water, onion, basil, the 1/2 teaspoon salt, marjoram, pepper and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat. Simmer for 25 minutes.

2) Add celery, carrots, and mushrooms. Return mixture to boiling; reduce heat. Cover and simmer for ten more minutes or until the chicken pieces and vegetables are tender. Discard the bay leaf.

3) T make the dumplings, combine the 1 cup flour, parsley, baking powder, the 1/4 teaspoon salt, and oregano in a mixing bowl. In another bowl combine the egg, milk, and oil; add to flour mixture. Stir with a fork until just moistened.

4) Drop the batter onto the hot chicken in broth, making 6-8 dumplings. Do not drop the dumpling into the liquid. Return to boiling, then reduce heat. Cover and simmer for 10-12 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into a dumpling comes out clean. Do not lift the cover while simmering. Transfer chicken, dumplings, and vegetables to a serving platter. Keep warm.

5) To make the gravy, pour the broth into a large measuring cup. Skim the fat from the broth and discard. Measure out 2 cups of the broth and return to pot. Combine the 1/2 cup cold water and the 1/4 cup flour. Stir into the broth.

6) Cook and stir until the mixture is thickened and bubbly. Cook and stir for one minute more. Serve gravy over chicken and dumplings.

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QUOTE

"Noncooks think it's silly to invest two hours' work in two minutes' enjoyment; but if cooking is evanescent, so is the ballet." -Julia Child

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