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bursted tomato popovers by Annie Jefferson

Before moving to Los Angeles last year, I had been living in London for 4 years. Lazy Saturdays wandering the markets and too many rainy hours passed in the pub for Sunday roasts gave me time to wrap my head around the nuances of British cuisine. Many British classics are centered around meat, whether wrapped around a scotched egg or baked into a shepherd's pie or tucked inside a Cornish pasty. And often the meats are of the gamiest variety - hare, pheasant, partridge - that many Americans faced with the option would choose a cheeseburger. I learned about the vegetable side of things - aubergine, courgette, marrow, rocket - and the sweeter side of things - pudding, treacle, biscuits. I learned some non-meat recipes, like cream scones with clotted cream and nut roasts and the perfect vegetable curry. Here now in Southern California, drinking cold pressed juice and eating $14 avocado toast, these delicacies feel far away.

I wanted to make a traditional British dish, lightened up both for the season and the California palate. The most rudimentary of British comfort foods is the toad-in-the-hole, a homely and hearty meat 'n batter dish meant for keeping warm and padded in the colder climes. Traditionally a toad-in-the-hole is made with whole sausages baked into a deep dish of Yorkshire pudding and topped with gravy. It's a cheap and easy way to make any cut of meat - good or bad - stretch further by adding a filling batter and fatty gravy to it. Toad-in-the-holes have been made for centuries across England with anything from pigeon meat to rump steak, as well as any kind of banger - sausage - you can dream up. One thing I've learned is that the composition and cooking technique of the Yorkshire pudding batter is something Brits are very specific and polarized about, kind of like the American divide over cornbread

The inspiration for this dish comes from photographer and cook Marte Marie Forsberg, whose hazy photo collection documents the dreamlike beauty of slow life in the English countryside. My life in England was not nearly as slow or dreamy, but I miss it every day and find myself strangely relieved whenever it rains in Los Angeles.

This recipe takes the toad-in-the-hole and freshens it up using spring produce in place of sausage and a batter version that doesn't require a cup of pan drippings - Yorkshire pudding is traditionally served alongside a roast, and baked using drippings from the meat. We also opt for buttermilk over regular milk for its tangy depth. Forsberg makes a full pan-size version and sautés her vegetables with onions to get the flavor of the onion gravy in there. Here we add a teaspoon of caramelized onions to each cup, and rather than one large dish, we bake these puddings into individual muffin size making them perfect for an appetizer or side dish. In this form, they're similar to a popover, which is the American version of Yorkshire pudding.

The magic of the Yorkshire pudding - slash popover - is the impressive puff and rise produced by the egg-milk-flour batter. They blow up like balloons in the oven. The trick is maintaining high heat exposure throughout the cooking process. The little puffs get their height by heating the oil-filled muffin pan at a high temperature before adding the batter, then quickly putting the pan back in the oven before it's able to cool down too much. To achieve maximum pop-over, you can invest in a popover pan, made of separate metal cups held together by bars, which increases the amount of surface area exposed to the heat. Long ago the pans were made of cast iron, which is the best material for holding heat, and I've read oven-glass cups also do the trick. I settled on a lower rise in favor of my jumbo muffin pan...and jumbo popovers.

Once you master the art of the popover, you can add anything to the center - like chocolate or cheese! - or nothing at all and enjoy them on their own in all their puffed up glory.

BURSTED TOMATO POPOVERS
I used a 6-round jumbo muffin tin here. The quantities below would also be enough for one large 9-inch square pan pudding or a 6-round popover pan. For a 12-round regular size muffin tin, double the recipe below (you may have batter leftover). 

INGREDIENTS
2 large eggs
6 tablespoons buttermilk
6 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon vegetable oil, plus 1 teaspoon per muffin tin
3/4 cup all-purpose flour (light spelt flour will also work)
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, sliced
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
olive oil for drizzling
salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Heat oven to 400°F.

Start by making the batter. Whisk together eggs, buttermilk, water and oil in a medium bowl. Combine salt and flour, and slowly whisk dry ingredients into wet. Let the batter stand for 30 minutes.

Melt butter in a medium cast iron over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook until soft and translucent. Add garlic and a pinch of salt, stir, and turn the heat down to medium. Continue to stir until onions are caramelized - sticky in consistency and deep brown in color.

Meanwhile, toss your halved tomatoes with olive oil, salt and pepper and spread in a baking pan. Roast tomatoes for 15-20 minutes in the oven, or until soft, wrinkled, and the pan is pooled with syrupy juice and seeds. Remove from oven and let rest.

Once oven has come to temperature, pour 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil into each muffin round and heat the muffin pan for 10 minutes in the oven. After 10 minutes, remove pan and add batter to each muffin round so that the well is 1/3 full. Quickly add a spoonful of caramelized onion to the center of each round, and a spoonful of tomatoes on top of the onions. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until golden brown and raised over the lid of the muffin round (the time will vary depending on your pan, so watch carefully around the 20 minute mark). Top with a teaspoon of pest (recipe below) and serve warm.

PESTO

INGREDIENTS
2 cups tightly packed fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons chopped walnuts
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/3 cup good quality extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely minced and mashed with the back of a knife
1/3 cup freshly grated parmesan

METHOD
Bring a saucepan of water to boil and fill a medium bowl with ice water. Once boiling, add basil to water and count to 5, using a spoon to make sure all leaves are submerged. Remove the basil from the hot water with a slotted spoon and immediately transfer to the ice water. Drain the basil and push down on it to remove any excess water.

Pulse walnuts in a food processor and until ground into small pebble-size pieces. Add basil and salt and process until finely chopped. With your machine still running, slowly pour in the olive oil and continue to process until the mixture is puréed. Transfer to a bowl and stir in mashed garlic and parmesan until thoroughly incorporated.

onion oil pancakes with maple soy dipping sauce by Annie Jefferson

Scallion pancakes are a thing most of us have accepted as restaurant food, best enjoyed on Chinese porcelain or out of a take-away cardboard Oyster pail...not freshly fried up on the cast iron in your home kitchen. These folded little art forms are so intricately layered, only someone native to their cuisine could possibly hold the secrets to their perfect croissant-like composition.

My scallion pancake memories have been boxed up and tucked away, frozen in a childhood corner of my mind along with the woody smell of oolong tea, the sound of single-use chopsticks being snapped apart and rubbed together, and the pastel chalkiness of the little after-dinner sweets from the candy tray by the exit of our local Chinese restaurant. My dad has been fluent in Mandarin for as long as I can remember. With years of research trips to Beijing and Shanghai under his belt, he eventually could no longer politely avoid such delicacies as grilled scorpions and roasted dog and fried fish lips, and so by comparison he felt easily at ease at the friendly little Yangtze River restaurant near our house, which boasted, among other American Chinese food dishes, the best Lo Mein in town.

While I'd fumble with my chopsticks, peeling plump dumpling dough away from pork fillings and pushing aside the latter, and slathering sugary plum sauce onto Moo Shu pancakes, he would find a way to talk to the waiter in strange, undulating tones, but with a clear - even to me - sense of mutual understanding. I made sure the understanding was especially clear when it came to one thing: Con You Bing.

The literal translation from Chinese is 'onion oil pancake' and you can make them at home. As the name suggests, oil and onion - along with flour and water - are the main ingredients of this savory, unleavened pancake. Traditionally, Con You Bing is served alongside a hearty and saucy meat dish or as a street food-style snack served - often for breakfast - with dipping sauce. It's the Chinese take on the flatbread, and many cuisines across the world have their own versions. In India it's the Paratha, in Korea the Pajeon and with the the addition of a little leavening it's the Middle Eastern pita, the South Asian naan bread or the Italian pizza.

Word on the web is that the best scallion pancake in Shanghai comes from a small stall on Nanchang Road owned by a hunchbacked old man named Mr. Wu who, starting at 5am each day, turns out hours upon hours of individual fried cakes, each with the most perfect crisp to cloud ratio. His secret is finishing off the pancakes with a couple minutes in a high- heat kiln, achieving that ultimate combination of crunchy golden crisp on the outside, and soft airy cloud on the inside.

What I love about the scallion pancake is this tension between fresh and the opposite of fresh...rich, dense, heavy. It's fried to a brittle crisp, but it's also soft and tender. Salt dominates, but there's a lingering sweetness. It's a dough, but the fresh greens taste like spring. Scallions are a young form of the regular onion we're familiar with - they're just picked before they can fully develop a root bulb. Spring onions, green onions (what we use here), young leek and young shallots are all part of the Scallion family. The fresh bite of this baby vegetable is an important key to the complexity of the otherwise simple flavor profile in this dish. Note that we discard the dark green ends, as they can have a bitter flavor

Another key lies in the importance of the gluten development of the dough. Here we use hot water dough, which actually destroys the gluten composition, resulting in less of a stretchy, fluffy dough (for example, like a hole-filled loaf of bread) and instead more of a tender chew (similar to a dumpling dough). Both resting times - before and after creating the individual pancakes - are also critical to allow the little gluten that does exist to relax and to end up with that thin, flaky dough.

Finally, Mr. Wu-like patience in frying time is your ticket to that perfect crisp to cloud ratio. So, hunch yourself over that frying pan and get Con You Bing-ing!

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MAPLE SOY DIPPING SAUCE

INGREDIENTS
4 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons almond butter
1 tablespoon maple syurp
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1/4 teaspoon garlic, finely diced
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon chili oil
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1 tablespoon sesame seeds

METHOD
Start by making your dipping sauce. Simply whisk ingredients together until fully incorporated and you have a thick brown sauce. Allow to marinate while you make your pancakes.

 

ONION OIL PANCAKES
It can be challenging and take a few practice runs to get your dough right with scallion pancakes. Here is a video from chef Martin Yan showing his process. Kneading and resting is a critical step.

INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon red hot pepper flakes
2 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
3 scallions, thinly sliced with dark green ends discarded
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, minced
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/3 cup toasted sesame oil
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 cup boiling water
2 scallions, thinly sliced with dark green ends discarded
vegetable oil for frying

METHOD
Start by making the chili scallion brushing oil. In a large pot combine the red pepper flakes, garlic, scallions, ginger, and oils. Over medium-low heat and stirring occasionally, bring to a low, bubbly simmer. Cook gently for 15 minutes (the temperature shouldn't rise above 250 degrees). Set aside to cool.

Make the dough. Using your fingertips, mix together flour, salt and sugar at the base of a large mixing bowl. Slowly add boiling water, continuing to stir with your fingers as you go until a wet, shaggy ball of dough has formed.  Knead the dough with the palm of your hand at the base of the bowl for 5 minutes, adding more flour if necessary, until the dough forms into a ball that stays together and doesn't stick to your hands. Return dough to mixing bowl, cover with a cloth and let it rest for at least 30 minutes to an hour.

After resting, take the dough and pull / roll it into a long rope. Divide the dough into 3 equal sections. Take each section and roll it into a flat rectangle, getting as thin as you can using a rolling pin. Brush the chili scallion oil onto the flattened dough, getting as close as you can to the edges. Sprinkle additional chopped scallions on top of the oil.

One by one, starting from the long edge, roll each piece of dough into a tube. Then starting at one end, roll into a coil, like a cinnamon roll, and tuck the opposite end under the roll. Allow to rest, covered with a cloth, for another 30 minutes.

Coat a frying pan with vegetable oil and heat over moderate heat. Using the palm of your hand (not the rolling pin), gently flatten each coil into a pancake. Cook pancakes about 6 minutes on each side, shaking the pan as you go to ensure even dispersement of oil and peeking underneath to check for burning.