The end of winter and beginning of spring can be a challenging period for many home cooks. We’re sick of winter root vegetables, but those optimistic spring greens, peas, and asparagus are still at least a month away. But fear not, I’ve got a few French-inspired tricks for you to get you through the end of the winter season with your dinner inspiration intact.
Tip #1: Rethink Your Salad
Salads in the spring, summer, and fall are easy to make because there are so many delicious vegetables and fruits in season. Just throw a combination in a bowl, add a dressing, and you’re set. But a good salad can feature all sorts of ingredients that don’t rely on the weather. Think nuts, cheeses, beans or lentils, and proteins. Take, for example, this Frisée Salad with Baguette Croutons. This traditional French salad is lovely for this time of year because it really just requires some good hardy greens, like a head of frisée lettuce. Add a mustardy vinaigrette, lardons, a poached egg, and baguette croutons toasted in bacon fat, and you’ve got a winner that you’ll actually want to make year-round.
Frisée Salad with Baguette Croutons
For the Vinaigrette
1 T. chopped shallots
2 t. Dijon mustard
1.5 T. red wine vinegar
4.5 T. olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
For the Salad
1/2 baguette, cubed (day old preferred)
4 eggs (use 8 if you’d like to serve as a main course)
1 head frisée lettuce
First, prepare the vinaigrette by whisking together the shallots, mustard, and red wine vinegar in a small bowl. Then drizzle in the olive oil, whisking constantly, until the dressing comes together. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Sauté lardons in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, until crispy, 8-10 minutes. Remove lardons from pan and set aside on a paper towel-lined plate. Add baguette cubes to the pan, turning the heat down slightly. Sauté until croutons are golden brown, about 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Season baguette cubes with salt and pepper, to taste.
To prepare the salad, rinse frisée lettuce and pat dry. Toss lettuce with half of the vinaigrette, then divide among four plates.
Bring a large wide saucepan or deep skillet of water to a simmer. Crack each egg into a small bowl by itself, then hold each bowl just over the simmering water and tip in the egg. Stir the water a bit with a spoon to make sure the eggs aren’t sticking to the bottom of the pan. Cook for 3–4 minutes, depending on how runny you like your poached eggs. Then remove with a slotted spoon and place either directly on each salad plate, or, on a paper towel-lined plate so you can remove some of the moisture before adding to your salad.
Top each plate with crispy lardons and croutons. Serve with remaining vinaigrette drizzled on top.
Tip #2: Lean Into Your Roots
I know, I know, I said we’re all sick of root vegetables. But why not think outside the box with a new presentation of those winter stand-bys. I’m thinking here of the classic French dish Hachis Parmentier. Parmentier just means “with potatoes” and that’s why you’ll see all sorts of versions of this dish, from Duck Parmentier to Fish Parmentier (that one really sounds better in French). But Hachis Parmentier is a classic, very similar to the British Shepard’s Pie. Super comforting, hearty, and cozy on a cold day. Plus, it’s easy to double this recipe and freeze some for later.
1 small onion
2 large carrots
2 garlic cloves
1 kg potatoes
2 T. olive oil
2.5 T. tomato paste
1/2 t. herbes de provence
700g steak haché (lean ground beef)
1 egg yolk
1/4 c. (28g) grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1 T. chopped parsley, plus more to garnish
120 ml demi-écrémé (low-fat) milk
3 T. (27g) grated gruyère cheese
Freshly ground black pepper
Nutmeg clove (optional)
Preheat oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Peel and chop onion and carrots into very small pieces (about 1 cm chunks). Peel and finely chop garlic cloves. Peel potatoes, and cut into large chunks. Heat olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat, and add chopped onion, garlic, and carrots. Sauté for 4 minutes, stirring frequently, until softened. Add tomato paste, herbes de provence, 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt, and ground beef. Cook for 8-10 minutes, until beef, loses its pink color and is fully cooked.
Meanwhile, bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil, then add potato chunks. Boil potato chunks for 15-20 minutes, or until fully tender.
After the beef mixture has cooled for several minutes, season with salt and pepper. Now stir in egg yolk, 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese, and chopped parsley. Pour meat mixture into a gratin dish.
When potatoes are done, drain them, then return to pan. Add butter, milk, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Mash with fork or with an electric mixer, until they have the consistency of the mashed potatoes you enjoy (they can be more rustic or more smooth, as you prefer!) Taste and add more salt or pepper if necessary. Spread potatoes on top of meat mixture in baking dish, then grate a little bit of the nutmeg clove over the top (if you like). Sprinkle the remaining 2 tablespoons of Parmesan cheese and the Gruyère cheese over the top. Bake for 25-35 min, until Hachis Parmentier is hot and the cheese is beginning to brown on top.
Ingredient note: I get my ground beef from one of the meat vendors at my market. They grind it on-site, and you can order it by the number of steak hachés you want (they will press the steak into hamburger molds for you) or by the kilogram. I’m not sure the actual fat percentage, but it seems much leaner than ground beef I would buy in the United States. As a result, my beef mixture in this dish is not soupy at all. If yours is soupy after the meat has browned, drain off some of the extra fat. A little bit of moisture is nice, but too much will make for a less appealing final dish.
More great recipes from Molly Pisula: Deliciously Easy Pantry Meals for Surviving Quarantine
Tip #3: Don’t Forget the Freezer
You know what I do when I’m missing in-season fruits and berries? I make myself a big old smoothie with frozen ingredients. Frozen fruits and berries are often very high quality – picked at the peak of freshness and quickly frozen. The texture is certainly not the same as fresh fruit, but the flavor is all there. Frozen fruit and berries can be used in smoothies of course, but also in cakes and pies. You can make a fruit compote to go over ice cream or yogurt or even add frozen berries directly to pancake batter. In this recipe, I’m using frozen blueberries to make a sauce for some sweet crêpes. This dish would make a fantastic breakfast or dessert, and if you buy the crêpes instead of making them, you can have this on the table in 10 minutes.
Lemon Blueberry Crêpes
For the Crêpes
1 c. all-purpose flour (125 grams)
1 c. milk
1/2 c. water
2 T. unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly (28g)
1/2 t. vanilla extract
1 t. lemon zest, divided
1/4 t. kosher salt
1 cup fromage blanc (230g)
1 T. sugar
2 T. unsalted butter, for cooking crêpes
Powdered sugar, to garnish (optional)
For the Blueberry Sauce
200g frozen blueberries (1.5 cups)
2 T. sugar
1/2 t. lemon zest
1/2 t. lemon juice
1 t. cornstarch
Combine the flour, milk, water, eggs, butter, vanilla extract, 1/2 teaspoon of lemon zest, and salt in large bowl and whisk vigorously until well-combined (about a minute). You can also use a blender for this step – blend for about 10 seconds. The batter should be much thinner than pancake batter – closer to the consistency of heavy cream. Let the batter rest for at least 30 minutes. You can leave it up to overnight, but move into the refrigerator if you are not using right away.
While the crêpe batter is resting, prepare the filling and the sauce. Stir together the fromage blanc with 1 tablespoon of sugar and 1/2 teaspoon of lemon zest. Set aside. In a small saucepan, combine the frozen blueberries, sugar, lemon zest, and lemon juice. Heat over medium-high for about 5 minutes, or until the blueberries have fully thawed and create a sauce. Stir in cornstarch and let cook for another minute, until sauce begins to thicken. Set aside while you make the crêpes.
After resting the crêpe batter, give it another quick whisking. Now heat a 9- or 10-inch crepe pan or nonstick skillet on medium heat, cut off a sliver of butter, and swirl it around your pan. Use a paper towel to coat the pan evenly.
Pour about 1/4 cup of batter directly in the center of the pan, then quickly lift the pan up and roll your wrist around as you hold it, so that the batter spreads out in a thin even layer over the pan. Cook without disturbing the crepe until you see the edges beginning to brown, then use a non-scratch spatula to flip your crepe and cook the other side. You can use your spatula to peek if you need to – you want the bottom to be golden brown in spots. Keep an eye on your heat – the crepes should take about 1 minute to cook on the first side, and 30 seconds or so on the second side. Repeat with the rest of the batter, including buttering the pan between each crêpe. As you finish your crepes, stack them on a plate separated by squares of wax paper or parchment paper.
To serve, spread 2 tablespoons of the fromage blanc mixture on one crêpe, and fold twice into a triangle shape. Place 2 filled and folded crepes on each plate, then drizzle with lemon-blueberry sauce. Garnish with powdered sugar, if desired.
Bon appetit à tous et à bientôt!
I hope these tips have given you a little bit of inspiration to get you through the next few weeks. Soon enough, the sun will come out and temperatures will rise, and with them our spirits as well (I hope!) Don’t hesitate to reach out and let me know what you think of the recipes above. Leave a note in the comments section or take a photo and tag me on my @vanillabeancuisine Instagram feed. And for more great recipes, join me for an online cooking class – see details below!