Salad is the first thing I learned to make well. The story of my cooking education begins haphazardly, and in the event of my first husband, Karl, getting sick. The women in his family took for granted that all women could cook. My ineptitude inspired a fair amount of ribbing, some good-natured, some not so much.
But though my confidence faltered when it came to traditional stuff, which I mostly didn’t bother to eat, my status as a native Californian gave me one distinct edge: I knew a good salad. And frankly, torn iceberg lettuce—replete with a tennis ball flavored tomato and Wishbone salad dressing that you added at the table—did not qualify. So I divided and conquered. Soon, I was pretty much smoking them all in the salad department.
I’m not sure when I learned to make Greek salad, but it’s always a hit. If I’ve gotten into some weird funk where I’m too lazy to make salad, it reminds me that they are both easy and delish. The bouquet of dill, mint, and fresh lemon always sings Springtime to me. As part of the upcoming Greek Easter menu (in the works), a Greek salad adds a bunch of raw, crispy, vibrant green that nicely complements the richer items on the menu. It’s also a wonderful light dinner. At one point, I would have thought a crusty baguette on the side was necessary. But now, I’m good with it all by itself. Though the whole wheat naan pictured above served as an excellent scooper, if you like that sort of thing. And spanikopita on the side is yummy, too.
Greek Salad: The Steps
Mince garlic, salt it, and add some lemon juice. The salt and lemon juice help the garlic break down. You can do this any time up to 4 hours but at least 20 minutes before you put the salad together.
Either dice some really fresh tomatoes if great tomatoes are available, or quarter some cherry tomatoes. Of course, all tomatoes are best picked right out of the garden in August and September, but cherries are pretty good year-round. Peel a cucumber, seed, and cube it. Put both together in a colander, sprinkle with salt. Let drain, at least 20 minutes and up to an hour or so.
Depending on how you feel about raw garlic, either remove the garlic pieces from the lemon (you can use them to cook in something else), or leave them in. Add oil so that you have a proportion of maximum one half part lemon juice to one whole part olive oil. Because you’ve got some fat here—from the feta cheese and olives—you can get away with a little more acid. Just be judicious. I don’t like my salad swimming in dressing, so I’m inclined to go lemon juice light—maximum one tablespoon. Whisk the lemon juice and olive oil together.
Pit some olives. Slice a red onion very thin. Add them to the dressing. If you like, artichoke hearts, sliced cooked or spiralized raw beets, grated carrot, and minced sun dried tomatoes can go in this layer as well.
Crumble on some feta, the best you can find. I like to go to Mediterranean Market in Ann Arbor, the closest Middle Eastern food supplier, and see what’s in the deli counter.
Add the drained tomatoes and cucumbers.
Top with a mix of greens. Romaine is essential, in my mind. Something dark but not too tough, like a baby kale, arugula, or spinach, is also great. Spring mix is a little flimsy given all the hearty components in this, so I recommend you don’t use it here. I do add plenty of herbs, and I keep the leaves whole. They look pretty, and they taste amazing.
Top with pepper to your heart’s content, and chomp away. Play bouzouki and afterward, dance like these guys.
It’s brunch season, and if you don’t believe take a look at any of the glossy cooking magazines out there. Or, if you’re one of the cool kids who only gets recipes online, the blogs. I guess it’s the whammy of Easter, Mother’s Day, Graduation, spring time, and just kind of being ready for something sprightly on the table in general.
Meanwhile, here at good old LCF, Steve and I dug the Mushroom Arugula crepes enough that I dug up another old fave from Mr. Bert Greene, these Bloody Mary Crabmeat Crepes are super festive, and ridiculously easy.
And of course, you can skip the crabmeat and substitute some other kind of filling—though given that crepes are kinda delicate things, and also the strength of the Bloody Mary flavor (really a pretty great idea), you want something mild. Smoked chicken would be my go-to if I wanted a different meat, or chickpeas if I wanted a veg option.
Let’s get going.
Bloody Mary Crabmeat Crepes: Steps
The great things about crepes is how easy they are to assemble; it’s the cooking that’s a little tricky, but honestly, not that big of a deal. Just throw the following in a blender: 1/4 c Bloody Mary mix, 3/4 c milk, 1 egg, 1/3 c flour—I used spelt, which is nice and fine but also has an earthy undertone, and 2 T oil. (I used avocado.) Add spices; I used 1/4 t paprika and 1 t chili powder. Blend, and let stand 30 minutes.
While that’s going on, make your filling: Some cream cheese (I used 4 oz), crabmeat—I used an 8 oz container of lump from Whole Foods. Don’t use a can, because that stuff is no good. I also added a big minced shallot, about 1/4 cup Greek yogurt, and chopped dill and cherry tomatoes. A splash of sake helped thin down the cream cheese.
I decided to try a smaller pan to make my first couple of crepes. First, it was great….
….but then, nope. The crepe was too hard to turn.
Then I switched to the big pan, pouring in about 3 tablespoons., let the crepe bubble, then turned it. Success.
You fill up the crepe with filling, and brunch heaven is yours. Enjoy.
I love a good sandwich: great bread, some spread that the bread soaks up, and a mix of vegetables to add both crunch and lush textures to complement whatever the protein is.
But it took me a long time to get with a Reuben. For years, I saw them made with pastrami, and I don’t do beef. Furthermore, not so crazy about sauerkraut. Then again, Swiss cheese with maybe smoked turkey on rye, with fresh cabbage stirred into 1000 Island dressing….it’s one of those combos that should be all wrong, but works together like a charm.
Recently, all recipes magazine featured a Reuben pizza. The crust is homemade and has rye flour, then you smear on some 1000 Island before you add corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss, and pickles. I loved the idea, just not a bread crust or the corned beef. But I thought, hmmm. I could change this into a plant-based meal that would make a groovy Meatless Monday dinner.
The particulars were pretty simple. I’ve made cauliflower pizza crust pretty often and at this point, actually prefer it to the bread version. I had some whole rye in the cupboard, boiled it up, and mixed it in. It added a nice earthy chewiness to the cauliflower, though it’s completely unnecessary. If you don’t have rye on hand, you can skip it.
Then I marinated some tempeh and baked it in the oven. When the crust came out, I put on some homemade 1000 Island—if you have a store-bought one you like, by all means use it. Topped with the baked tempeh, plenty of sauerkraut, and Swiss cheese, I baked it about 7 minutes to get the cheese all melty. Out of the oven, I topped it with carrots and dill in place of the the pickles. After all, the sauerkraut is pickle-y enough for me, and the raw carrot added a really lovely sweet crunch.
Like a lot of my recipes, it has a number of steps, but you can easily take shortcuts, like using store-bought dressing and already marinated tempeh or tofu (or replacing it with meat if that’s your thing). You can probably buy a cauliflower crust, or use a regular bread crust if you like. But here’s how you make the whole thing from scratch, which honestly doesn’t take much time at all.
Vegetarian Reuben Pizza: Step by Step
Marinate your tempeh: Mix soy sauce, sake, and rice vinegar together. Slice the tempeh into strips, toss in the marinade, and let them sit while you make the other stuff. An hour or so makes sure the tempeh has some flavor and doesn’t taste like, well, tempeh.
Make the 1000 Island Dressing: I used this recipe, more or less, combining mayo, ketchup, chopped pickles and a little pickle brine, with chopped onions and garlic. Dash in a little hot sauce if you like.
Make the crust: Mix your riced cauliflower with some bread crumbs, mustard, celery seeds, caraway seeds, and, if you have it handy, cooked whole rye.
Bake the tempeh. I give it about 20 minutes with a flip halfway through.
Bake the crust in the oven; this only takes about 15 minutes, so you can time this with the tempeh. Get out the sauerkraut, grate the Swiss, and grate or spiralize the carrot.
Top the baked crust with the tempeh. Strew on some sauerkraut, then top the whole thing with cheese. Bake until melty, about 6 or 7 minutes.
Top the finished pizza with raw carrot and chopped dill.
When I was a kid growing up in Monte Sereno, California, we had Greek neighbors. Let’s call them the Constantines. All the Constantines had dark brown eyes and black hair, which, in my world of blond-blue-eyedness, I found beautiful.
At Easter, the family dyed all their Easter eggs red, to signify “God’s blood,” Greg’s older sister Andi told me. Eastern Christian, or Eastern Orthodox Easter does indeed opt for bright red eggs as opposed to the pastel rainbow favored by Western Easter, both secular and religious.
However, in my over-romanticized child’s view of the world, I was sure she said, “the gods’ blood.” I managed to convince myself that the family worshiped all the Greek gods—and since my Greek mythology book was one of my favorites, I thought that was very cool indeed. Those red eggs surely symbolized some exotic ritual that had something to do with pomegranates. It was wildly exciting.
I didn’t try Greek food until years later, when I lived in Ithaca, NY, for an interesting experiment of a year at Cornell. (I was in the MFA acting program and it didn’t really take, particularly since I got a chance to move to New York City and live in a downtown apartment for $265 a month.) The Greek restaurants—really diners—in Ithaca are wonderful. It was there that I ate spanikopita for the first time.
Greek diner spanikopita tends to come in a big pan, kind of like lasagna with filo. Fun fact: Filo (or phyllo, depending on which box you buy) and strudel are basically the same thing. Why?, you may ask. Well, think about geography. The Austrian-Hungarian empire went pretty far east; Turkey and Greece, as you can see, are not that far to the south.
Those inventive cooks and bakers who transformed a handful of flour, water, and fat into a Nerf-ball-sized lump of dough, which they then rolled out to about the size of a bed sheet, inspired and probably taught the Magyars, Serbs, Croats, and Bulgarians how to make the same stuff. Next time you tuck into a crispy, shattery apple strudel, realize it could just as well be spinach and feta cheese, or honey and pistachio nuts between those layers.
By the way, you can use this same recipe to make the lasagna-esque version of spanikopita. Still, I prefer these little triangles, which are only a little time consuming, and otherwise easy. And while it helps to have a decent size counter to work on, I have made these in tiny NYC kitchens. So it can be done.
Take a package of frozen spinach, thaw it, and squeeze the hell out of it, until it’s as dry as possible. I always use thawed frozen spinach. The volume of raw spinach necessary to cook down to 10 ounces takes up a ton of room in the fridge.
Chop scallions, dill, and parsley. Add to a bowl with the squeezed-dry spinach. Mix in one egg, a pinch of salt, a sprinkle of nutmeg, and 4-6 ounces of crumbled feta. Naturally, the better quality the feta, the yummier this will be.
Melt about a stick of butter and have a pastry brush ready. (If you use coconut oil instead, you will have a cracklier spanikopita, which may be fine for you.) Line a counter-top the size of a cookie sheet with parchment. You can work directly on your baking sheet if you want, but it will have some butter on it afterward, and that could smoke up your oven.
As lightly as possible, brush the sheet with butter, then lay down your first sheet of filo. Brush that lightly with butter, lay down another sheet, until you have 3 sheets.
Put a heaping tablespoon of filling at the top of the sheet. Then repeat so you have four tablespoons going across the sheet.
Take a sharp paring knife and cut rows down the length of the sheet.
Fold one corner of the sheet over in a triangle, the way you’re supposed to fold a flag. Just keep flipping, until….voila.
Repeat, then repeat the whole exercise until you run out of filling.
When you’re done, brush the tops of completed triangles with butter. You can either freeze them in layers. Or you can bake the spanikopita in a preheated 350º oven for about 12-15 minutes. They should be nicely golden.
Spanikopita are, to my mind, the absolutely perfect Easter meal appetizer. But they are really pretty darn wonderful any time of year. Just hunker down, do the work, and feel safe and secure that you have a store of yum in your freezer for the next 6 months. You probably won’t need a reminder to eat them.
There was a period in, I think, the late 70s, when the crepe pan was the must-have appliance—kind of like the instant pot today.
Everybody who had a respectable kitchen owned a crepe pan. It was just a round, 8 or 9-inch skillet with a perfectly flat bottom, and I know Dad rushed out and bought one. And for a few weeks we ate a lot of crepes.
My dad was a pancake guy, and he made excellent ones. He loved to cook; Julia Child was his girl. He’d sit in front of her PBS show and take notes. Mom got a kick out of it; she never liked cooking, and was happy to abdicate the fancy stuff to Dad. She always said, “I think he likes her because she’s so messy.” As was Dad. Stuff got spilled, experiments went wrong. But he also embodied joy and tranquility in the kitchen. I remember him focused on flipping flapjacks in our cast iron skillet, or on kneading bread with his giant powerful hands, his breathing even and deep.
As noted, Dad’s pancakes were outstanding; he made his own starter dough. But his crepe pan flirtation was brief. The issue, I think, was that, rather than fluffy pillows to absorb a blob of butter and a hearty pour of syrup, crepes by their very nature require a delicate touch. They’re also often wrapped around filling. Dad wasn’t big on cooking that involved steps. He liked to get things done in one go. Eventually, the crepe pan moved to the back of the cupboard and the pancakes returned.
Mushroom Arugula Crepes: Steps
I didn’t try cooking crepes for years, and in the late 80s, when I began to learn to cook, they were out of fashion. But when I whipped up my first batch for brunch, I was stunned at how easy they were.
Recently, I bought some mushrooms and had no idea why. So I thought, as I often do, what would Bert Greene do? If you’ve spent any time here, first, thank you. Second, you know Bert Greene is one of my cooking heroes. I stumbled on this recipe, which incorporated mushrooms and watercress. And while I had no watercress—alas, because watercress is amazing—I did have arugula. I thought, mushroom arugula crepes. Whoa. Also, why the hell not?
Greene loved to experiment, and over the course of his cookbooks, you find lots of variations on the crepe theme. And due to the fact that hardly anyone outside of Normandy eats crepes any more, I thought, wow, that sounds good. High time for a renaissance, don’t you think?
Crepe batter isn’t hugely different from pancake batter, though it’s thinner. It also lends itself to flavoring and improvisation. This version sautés mushrooms before throwing them in the blender. There, they go together in a flash, achieving the perfect aerated consistency, and a pretty pale green color.
You pour out a few tablespoons on a hot pan, swirl the pan to get the crepe thin. Let it sit for a minute or so….
…then flip it. Less than a minute later, it’s done, and you place it on a parchment-lined plate, run the end of a stick of butter over your pan, and pour in the next batch.
Now, Mr. Greene said the mix would yield 12 crepes. I don’t have a crepe pan, just a big flat skillet. So I couldn’t do quite the fancy wrist spin I could have done with Dad’s old crepe pan, due to the pan’s weight. I ended up with 6 crepes that are a little thicker, but so, so tasty. I filled them with the remainder of the mushrooms sauteed and dressed up with more arugula and a touch of blue cheese since I didn’t have sour cream. Oh, and I threw on a little bacon, which is totally optional.
Crepes are a luxurious lovely meal. Your eaters should feel thoroughly pampered; you may want to insist people recline on chaises upholstered in deep red velvet while you play louche German songs in the background. There’s zero need to tell anyone how easy they are. A good thing, as, once you serve a batch, you’re likely to get requests for more.
All right kids, ye olde update is back—now on a monthly basis, as beyond that I feel like I start to blather. Why the radio silence since December? Why the crickets? Well, many of you know me (and to those of you don’t, thank you for dropping by). In which case you also know that Steve and I have been on an epic trip to study Spanish in South America. I’ll post more about that in days to come.
Oh, and we went here:
That’s Iguazu Falls. It’s not one big horseshoe of falls like Niagara, but a system of more than 200 falls (or cataratas in Spanish, isn’t that pretty?) in 2 beautiful parks, one in Brazil, the bigger one in Argentina. We went to both. You walk along paths, and every time you turn a corner there are more falls. In a fortunate lifetime of seeing many beautiful places, this is the one that blew both of away the most.
But more than anything that we saw or did, the trip helped me with some “what the hell am I doing here?” issues that I’ve been trying to cut my way through like so much shrubbery for a few years. Ever since Steve said, “Honey, quit your job. Just write and make videos,” I’ve struggled. Since college I’ve worked. After my first husband died and ever since, I’ve been my primary breadwinner. Not to discount the tremendous help from family and four awesome siblings over the years, nor the contributions of my kids’ fathers.
That was the purpose: to support my family. Along the way, I had some wonderful times working for the Criterion Collection and for Enlighten. But I always felt like most of what I produced in that setting was for the company, not for me. I never amassed a slammin’ portfolio because I always felt that I was kind of treading water, waiting to create some big personal statement, like a book, or a movie.
Well, when you get up every morning and go to school for four hours and then come home and study, you have a sense of purpose. And I was freaking out a little, saying, look, we get home and I don’t know what my purpose is. At this point, I don’t have to keep the wolf from the door or even a yippy chihuahua. But I realized that, because I’d been in that mode for so much of my life, ever since it stopped, I’ve frankly been a little lost.
Why Routine Rocks
A while ago I had been thinking about the joy of routine. There is something wonderful to knowing what you’re going to be doing at specific times in your day, in your week, in your year. I’ve tried to establish one, sort of, but I haven’t been successful.
Then yesterday, in a chance encounter, I mentioned routine to a friend, and she immediately added, “And rhythm.”
Whoa. Yes! Of course I can’t get traction, because not only have I not bothered with a routine, the rhythm to my days is utterly jagged. On some levels, the so-called Free Spirit in me says, no, Coyote! You cannot be contained. You must run, run like the wind, you wild, impetuous creature.
But….well, let’s get real. I DO want to leave tracks. I want people to find me, and I want, after I’ve slipped the surly bonds, a record. Yes, it’s one of millions, probably billions at this point, so all the more reason it should be coherent.
I don’t like to make promises or predictions. But I can say that it’s become vital to me to stay in better touch with the world via Le Chou Fou. Feel free to hold me to this statement.
Of paramount importance in establishing this routine, I didn’t want to have to think too much when I got home. So I made a shopping list based on Tieghan Gerard’s weekly “Nine Favorite Things” post over at Half Baked Harvest, a blog that I tend to follow a bit slavishly. In it, she lists the dinners she plans to make during the week. Besides getting some inspiration from her Szechuan Noodle recipe (though it’s pasta and mine ended up different enough that I recorded the changes in the zoodle recipe mentioned above), I basically just outright followed her recipes for her Vibrant Spring Buddha Bowl, a vegan wonder….
…and this outstanding Cobb Salad. I did brine the chicken for this, because I can’t eat chicken if it hasn’t been brined. Additionally, I increased the marinade time to an hour, as well as searing off the chicken before baking it. Becky, my sister, always bakes bacon in the oven, and I did it for the first time, and it rocks.
Honestly, it was kind of a heavy meat eating week for me, probably 7 ounces. For me, that’s a ton. So I had a ball at the new Fresh Forage in Ann Arbor, which my son discovered while I was gone. You can make your own bowl, but I had the teriyaki tofu one, and it rocked.
Meanwhile, my son happened to perfectly capture this tiny tree-shaped sprout on his fork. Also, he found an orange sweatshirt while cleaning his closet.
LCF Update March 2019: Brain Food
Said son and I had, prior to this fine dinner, seen Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. While Steve and I were gone, he texted me: Mom, we HAVE to see this together. Sure enough, I loved it. The wit and thrills and imagination of this absolutely delightful movie had me smiling in a big way. I avoid a lot of genre stuff, particularly chick flicks and rom-coms. But man, do I love a good action movie. This one is great and so, so pretty. Also, tons of mini-tributes. When I pointed out to my son that a scientist in the movie looks like the Magic Schoolbus lady, he gave a little man scream. “Yes!! Miss Frizzle!! That’s been driving me crazy.” Truly inspired.
For a shortish read, I loved this article on the Inuit philosophy of raising kids. When you live in a harsh environment, you don’t really have time for anger and temper tantrums. You have to just stop being an ass and fix stuff. This article’s beautifully written by Michaeleen Doucleff, as well as illustrated with the tender photos of Johan Hailberg-Campbell. Doucleff went to the Inuit community after reading anthropoligist Jean Briggs’ book on her experience in the community. It’s about a 20-minute read, and well worth it. Even better, it’s part of series “The Other Side of Anger,” introduced with the very truthful statement, “we live in angry times.”
On the plane, I watched Boy Erased. The fact that the Oscars completely ignored it tells me everything I ever needed to know about the Oscars. Oh, I used to love them, seeing every nominated movie for a few years. This year…..basta. Meanwhile, the acting and shooting in this movie define excellence, and I loved the script by Joel Edgerton, who also plays the main converter in the conversion therapy camp that Lucas Hedges’ character is subjected to. I don’t always get Hedges, but after this movie…wow. Kidman and Crowe are, as usual, superb.
I started reading The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal while still in South America. This is my year to slow down and actually absorb what I read, rather than rack up a ton of book points and then not remember what the hell I just finished. So I’m taking my time with this one, and it will be a while before I finish because it’s hella long. David McCullough always finds the humanity in his historical figures and has a great eye for the odd and telling incident. Right now, I’m in the process of learning about Ferdinand deLesseps ego as grand as the Panama Canal is ambitious, and what that meant for his French investors. No spoilers, please! They finished it, right?
I also started Isabel Allende’s memoir My Invented Country while headed to Chile, then abandoned it in Argentina, then picked it up again once back in Chile, and will likely finish it this week. Allende writes so effortlessly, or at least seems to, and her exploration of what it means to be Chilean, as well as an exile and now an immigrant who lives in San Francisco is a beautiful read. She’s elegant without being starchy, elegiac without getting melodramatic, and at times wryly and gently funny.
All right, that’s enough. Please tell me your discoveries this week in the comments. Subscribe if you haven’t yet, and I’d be grateful if you follow me on instagram, twitter, or pinterest @nanlechou. Have a lovely week.