Mouths to Feed: Spring Awakening

By Celia Barbour

I was 15 the summer my parents sent my big sister and me to France to live with our third-cousin Christine and her family in an old stucco villa overlooking a vineyard by the sea, just south of Brittany.

Fifteen is one of those years you spend constantly recalibrating who you are in the world — trying to align the person you always believed yourself to be with how others see you. For me, a geek from Indiana with less than a year of public-school French under my belt, negotiating those contradictions in a foreign land was both exhilarating and terrifying.

Christine’s friends, a gang of two dozen or so French kids ranging in age from just older than I was to 22 or 23, might as well have been a flock of pelicans as far as I was concerned. Their daily lives seemed governed by inexplicable collective urges. Out of the blue, they would all decide to go to Pornic or Les Moutiers, and I’d find myself on the back of a Vespa zipping down the coast, my arms flung around the waist of some Gitaine-smoking mec; or drinking wine at an outdoor café while they argued vehement politics; or swing-dancing late at night on abandoned tennis courts to rockabilly 45s spun on a portable turntable.

One afternoon, my sister and I returned from a walk to find Christine’s friends sprawled around her living room while Christine made crèpes in the kitchen. As soon as one was ready, someone would jump up to claim it, folding it around a few thin slices of cheese or cured ham, or sprinkling it with sugar and a squeeze of lemon. No forks or plates, no gathering á table, just a constant stream of fresh crèpes arriving from the stove, and a constant stream of grateful friends popping up to eat them.

Christine could flip a crèpe with a flick of her wrist, an entrancingly sophisticated skill in my eyes, and after the summer was over, I practiced until I could send crèpes somersaulting gracefully through the air. In my 20s, I graduated from plain white-flour to buckwheat, preferring its deep mineral tang, its beautiful cashmere color. I never acquired a troupe of friends with which to share my skill, however. (I never again rode on the back of a Vespa, either.)

Bundle up: buckwheat crèpes for wrapping around asparagus, ham, and gruyere (Photo by Henry Weed)

Last Monday, I was seized by a powerful craving for buckwheat crèpes, perhaps prompted by this year’s idea of spring, which is behaving an awful lot like a teenager who doesn’t know what it wants to be, and is pissed off at having to even try.

Or perhaps I was prompted by the fact that an unexpected snow day landed me with a troupe of actual teenagers lounging around my house.

As it happens, crèpes, like teens, don’t respond well to sudden demands; the batter needs to rest two hours in the fridge before it’s ready to cook. Fortunately, that’s enough time to contemplate a full repertoire of fillings. If you know how to turn a roux into a Mornay with milk and Gruyere, or into a veloute with broth, you can make a fancy baked-crèpe dish using almost anything in your fridge — mushrooms, chicken, ham, spinach, eggs, even scallops or shrimp — with said sauce poured over the top.

But on Monday, I wanted a more spontaneous crèpe in which to collect a few spears of asparagus, a slice of Gruyere, a piece of ham. Indeed, I’m now convinced that such hand-held DIY crèpes are a perfect dish for this uncertain season, when yearnings (for asparagus, ramps, strawberries) are being constantly dashed by reality (another 3 inches of snow). They allow you to gather up your tender, green hopes along with your winter comforts, enfold them together in a little buckwheat jacket, crisp at the edges and pliant within, cradle them in your hand, then devour them. And what better way to resolve contradictions than with a single, happy gulp?

Buckwheat Crèpes

The first crèpe always fails. Don’t worry — the rest will be better. Finished crèpes can be stacked between sheets of waxed paper and frozen for up to two months; reheat in a skillet over medium-low heat before serving.

For fillings:

Blanched asparagus; sliced Gruyere and ham; poached eggs
Smoked salmon; crème fraiche with lemon zest
Sautéed apples; Brie
Sautéed spinach or chard; cheddar, Brie or Mornay sauce
Sautéed mushrooms with shallots and thyme; Mornay sauce
Sautéed ramps; scrambled eggs; mint

For crepes:

3 tablespoons butter, plus more for frying crepes
1 cup low-fat milk
3 eggs
½ teaspoon salt
¾ cup buckwheat flour
½ cup white flour
⅓ to ½ cup water, to thin

Prepare fillings of your choice; set aside

Melt the 3 tablespoons of butter and set aside to cool slightly. In a blender, combine the milk, eggs and salt, and blend on low speed. With the blender running, add the flours and melted butter. Turn the speed to high and whisk for one minute. Transfer to a pitcher, cover and refrigerate for at least two hours, or up to 6.

Heat a medium skillet over medium heat for two minutes. Brush with butter, and return to heat. Pour in about ¼ cup batter, tilting and swirling the pan to distribute it evenly. Cook two minutes, or until crepe loosens easily from the pan. Flip and cook 30 seconds on the reverse side.

Fill and eat as they’re ready, or set aside to serve later. To serve, heat crepes briefly in a dry skillet, melting optional cheese onto each as you go. Add remaining filling, roll up and serve.

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