Cookbook #14: Crêpes

Adapted from Cookbook #14:  Crêpes (2002)

Recipe: Spinach Crêpes with Asparagus

March.  It makes us all feel as if spring is finally here.   It's 50 degrees all over the place.  Trees are in full blossom here in California, and some are even shaking off the tail ends of their bloom.  The Japanese maples have either budded or fully leafed, the daffodils are in their final blush, and it's time to start digging with purpose in the garden.  Funny how spring sprung about three weeks ago, but because of my Midwestern roots, I don't feel as if spring is here until the end of March.  Nonetheless, finally, it feels as if we have turned the calendar year into spring.

Spring is also the time for Paris.  While we're not quite to the requisite month, can't you just hear Ella Fitzgerald crooning it now:  "April in Paris, chestnuts in blossom"?  All those wonderful clichés about Paris in springtime.  Doris Day prancing around with Ray Bolger.  The City of Romance.  Home of bohemians and ex-pats.  There's nothing better than spring in France, oui?

And to boot, crêpes are the national dish of France.  Back in 2000, I spent some time in Cambridge, and a dear friend of mine met me at the conclusion of the program I was doing there.  We took the Chunnel train and found ourselves in sweet, wonderful Paris.  Paris.  We ate stinky cheeses at a sidewalk cafe; we wandered bookstalls along the Seine.  We went to Camille Claudel's house and shook our fists at the injustices of single women who must conform to the demands of their time.  We hiked up to Montmartre at sunset, the city sparkling and turning from white to pink to gray below us.  We stood beneath the Eiffel Tower, climbed to the top of Notre Dame, walked the gardens of Versailles, and took all the requisite photos.  And one sweet afternoon, we wandered around the Place de la Concord eating crêpes with powdered sugar and lemons, before riding the Roué de Paris, the ferris wheel erected for the millennium celebrations.  I can still remember the couples seated on benches, the smell of lemon, and that sweet, hot, flat pancake.

I like to think of my time in Paris as a honeyed, hazy occasion, but when in Paris I also got to argue, and argue with vigor.  When we arrived, I had tucked all the British currency I had into one of the drawers in our hotel room; I was due to fly out of London and I needed it for my last night in England before I returned to the US.  One afternoon, after traipsing around Paris, I discovered that the money was gone.  I went to the front desk to speak to the night manager: all in French.  He was polite, sympathetic, and, let's face it, probably humoring me.  But the next morning, the owner of the hotel came to our room and stood with puffed chest, accusing me of never having the money to begin with and of trying to rob the hotel.

All I can remember is standing my ground--both literally and figuratively.  I wouldn't budge from the doorway, and I said that indeed I was merely pointing out I didn't have the money that I had the day before.  His voice raised.  Mine did, too.  But the best part was that I was doing all of this in French.  All of it.  After the owner stormed off, I remember feeling elated, even though I never saw that 60 pounds ever again.  I had just had a fight in French and I hadn't needed to struggle for the words.  They were just there.

So I love Paris.  All of it.  The sugary clichés and the engorged arguments. So bring on the gritty underbelly of the neighborhood around Montmartre.  Bring on the arrogance of Marie Antoinette with her faux peasant village in Versailles. But also bring on the sentimental songs about April and the clichés about the City of Lights.  Bring on the boulangeries, the patisseries, and the crêperies.  And most of all bring on the spring.

Late this morning, the husband and I went to the farmer's market, where I snapped up the requisite spinach and asparagus (and some flowers and pea shoots and green garlic and onions).  Then we came home to try to unearth the garden.  Once the afternoon rolled around, it was time to get down to the real business of spring.  It was time to cook.  I discovered that I couldn't go to page 210 or even 120 with this little book.  I didn't have rules for a cookbook this small.  So I went to both page 12 (basic crêpe recipe) and page 20 (the spinach addition to the crêpe and the asparagus filling).   This recipe takes a little time because there are many steps.  Mais il vaut le peine. Et voilà, il est temps de manger des crêpes épinards aux asperges.

4 servings

for spinach crêpes
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
a pinch of salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups milk
light olive oil, vegetable oil or butter, for greasing pan
1/2 pound of washed, trimmed spinach

for béchamel sauce
1 1/2 cups milk
1 small onion, roughly chopped
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
salt and pepper

24 asparagus spears, trimmed
vegetable oil for greasing baking dish
1/2 cup mild white cheddar cheese, grated

1.    Preheat broiler.  First make infused milk for the béchamel sauce. Put the milk, onion, and bay leaf into a saucepan and heat until just boiling.  Remove from the heat and set aside for 20 minutes to infuse.  Strain the milk and reserve.

2.   Meanwhile make the crêpes:  Put spinach leaves in a heavy-based saucepan. Cover and cook the spinach for 2 minutes or until wilted.  Drain thoroughly, pressing out any excess water.  Chop finely and set aside.

3.  Put the flour and salt in a bowl and make a well in the center.  Pour the egg and some of the milk into the well.  Whisk the liquid, gradually incorporating the flour to make a smooth paste.  Whisk in the remaining milk and the spinach, then pour the batter into a measuring cup with a pouring spout.  Allow to rest 5 minutes, if desired.  If the batter is a little thick, pour a little more milk into it so that it pours.

4.  Pour a little oil or butter into a 7-inch crepe pan or heavy-based skillet and heat until oil starts to smoke.  Pour off the excess oil and pour a little batter into the pan, tilting it until the base is coated with a think layer.  Cook for 1-2 minutes until the underside begins to turn golden.

5.  Flip the crêpe with a spatula and cook a further 30-45 seconds until it is golden on the second side.  Slide the crêpe out of the pan and make the remaining crêpes (should equal 8 crêpes), greasing the pan as necessary and set them aside.

6.  Return to making the béchamel sauce.  Melt the butter in a saucepan, stir in the flour and cook over a low heat for 1 minute.  Remove from the heat and beat in the infused milk, a little at a time, until blended.  Return to a low heat and stir constantly until thickened.  Bring to a gentle boil, stirring, then simmer for 2 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper.

7.  Blanch the asparagus spears in a large pan of lightly salted boiled water for 2 minutes.  Drain, refresh under cold running water, and pat dry with a paper towel.

8.  Place 3 asparagus spears on each crêpe and roll them up.  Place crêpes seam-side down in a lightly greased, shallow baking dish.  Pour the béchamel sauce over them and sprinkle with the cheese.

9.  Place the dish under broiler and cook for 8-10 minutes until bubbling and golden.  Serve at once (two crêpes per serving).


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