FOOD & DRINK: Flipping great

The pancake used to be a handy way to use up goodies before Lent, but Mark Hix reckons it's a feast in itself

AS SURE as eggs is eggs, we'll be doing the ceremonial flipping as usual this coming Tuesday.

Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, is the last day before Lent and in one form or another, pancakes are made all over Europe to mark the start of the fast that lasts until Easter.

It's a tradition that's worth keeping alive. But it seems a shame that we turn our back on pancakes for the rest of the year. I don't know why we don't cook them more, because they are simple to make, delicious and especially fun for kids. Maybe what puts parents off is having to stand over the stove instead of throwing dinner in the oven and getting on with something else.

At least most of us don't have to go to the same lengths as the women of Olney in Buckinghamshire, where there's been a Shrove Tuesday pancake race since 1445. Only local housewives can take part and they must make the pancakes themselves. Setting off when the church bells ring, contestants must wear an apron and a hat or scarf and toss and catch the pancake three times over the course. The winner and runner-up receive prayer books as a prize.

I'm all for a mad tradition, but can't help feeling that the French approach to pancakes is a little more dignified. I mean, flambeing a crepe Suzette with a good dose of Curacao sounds tastier than what's left in the pan after the merry wives of Bucks have run down the road while their old men are down the pub.

Or give me an Asian pancake any day. Just the other night in my local Vietnamese we were soaking our own rice-paper pancakes in warm water and rolling them round paper-thin slivers of beef that we'd cooked ourselves at the table.

Basic pancake batter

Makes 8-10 pancakes

These basic pancakes can be transformed into all sorts of sweet and savoury delights, by omitting the sugar, adding chopped herbs and so on. Savoury pancake fillings can vary from simple chicken and ham in a creamy cheese sauce, or you could go completely veggie and fill them with creamed wild mushrooms and herbs. Alternatively go for the classic sweet options like crepe Suzette, or my kids' favourite - just caster sugar and lemon juice.

250ml milk

120g flour

1 small egg

1 tsp caster sugar

Pinch salt

Vegetable oil for frying

Whisk all the ingredients together with one third of the milk until smooth. Whisk in the remaining milk then strain if necessary. Heat a non-stick frying pan or a good favourite black pan, rub with a little vegetable oil then pour in a little pancake mix, and immediately tilt the pan so that the mixture spreads evenly. Turn after one minute with a spatula or palette knife.

If you need to make a large quantity of pancakes, make them in advance and stack them up between squares of greaseproof paper. When you're ready to serve them re-heat in the oven for a minute or so. Batter keeps in the fridge for up to two days; just re-whisk it before using.

Vietnamese savoury crepes (Banh xeo)

Serves 4-6

Banh xeo are often referred to as Vietnamese crepes, although they look more like an omelette. In Vietnam the recipe also calls for yellow split mung beans, soaked in water and blended with coconut milk. If you can find these beans, soak about 40g in cold water for 1-2 hours, drain them and blend in a liquidiser with the coconut milk.

The filling for these crepes can vary, but the vegetables need to be crunchy, so bean sprouts, spring onion and white radish make a good start, then you can add some Asian herbs and leaves such as Thai basil, perilla, coriander, Vietnamese mint and mizuna, plus shredded cooked chicken or prawns. Pickled white radish and carrot (either bought from Asian stores or made by pickling the sliced vegetable in rice vinegar, rather like the Korean kim che) can also be added for a little acidity.

for the pancakes

100g rice flour, or potato flour

1/2tsp turmeric

150-200ml coconut milk

40g yellow split mung beans soaked in water (optional)

Salt

Vegetable oil for frying

for the filling

1 carrot, peeled and shredded

6-7cm mooli, shredded

3 spring onions, shredded on the angle

A selection of Asian leaves and herbs (see above)

120-150g shredded cooked chicken, or cooked and peeled king prawns

to serve

Nuoc cham (fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, rice vinegar, chillies and garlic mixed to taste)

Sweet chilli sauce

Soy sauce f

If using mung beans, drain and liquidise with the coconut milk. Then, to make the pancakes, put the rice flour and turmeric in a bowl and slowly whisk in enough coconut milk to make a smooth batter. Season with salt. Heat about 1/2 a tablespoon of vegetable oil in an 18-20cm non-stick pan, pour in a quarter of the pancake mixture and turn the pan from side to side to spread the mixture evenly. Cook for 2-3 minutes on each side until crisp. Remove with a spatula on to some kitchen paper and keep warm. Repeat with the rest of the mixture. To serve, mix the vegetable, herbs and chicken or prawns together and arrange on one half of the pancake so that it can be folded. Serve with nuoc cham or some sweet chilli sauce or soy for dipping.

Crepe ris de veau forestiere

Serves 4

I fondly remember this dish from my days working in the kitchens of the Grosvenor House hotel. I could never resist the combination of delicate sweetbreads and earthy chanterelles or ceps wrapped in that herby pancake and glazed in a creamy sauce. Instead of sweetbreads you can use chicken breast or thigh. You can make a vegetarian version with various mushrooms.

4 pancakes made from half the quantity of pancake batter from the first recipe, without the sugar, mixed with 1tbsp chopped parsley

2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped

500g sweetbreads, lamb or veal, trimmed

60g butter

150g wild mushrooms, cleaned and cut into pieces about the same size as the sweetbreads

120ml chicken stock

50ml white wine

300ml double cream

1tbsp chopped parsley

2tsp chopped tarragon

1 egg yolk

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

If you are using veal sweetbreads, cut them into 2-3cm nuggets; lamb sweetbreads are small so they can be left whole. Heat half the butter in a frying pan or heavy-bottomed sauce pan then season and gently cook the sweetbreads and shallots for 3-4 minutes, turning them occasionally until lightly coloured. Add the white wine and chicken stock and simmer gently for 10 minutes.

Remove the sweetbreads with a slotted spoon and put to one side. Boil the cooking liquid until it has reduced by two thirds. Add the double cream and continue simmering until it has reduced by about two thirds again and is fairly thick, then add the parsley and tarragon and season to taste.

Meanwhile saute the wild mushrooms in the rest of the butter for 2-3 minutes, then add the sweetbreads and bind with about half of the sauce. Spoon a quarter of the mixture on to half of each of the pancakes. Fold the pancakes over and put them on an oven-proof dish. Pre-heat a grill to its hottest setting. Mix the egg yolk with the rest of the sauce and spoon over the pancakes and glaze under the grill for 2-3 minutes, or until lightly coloured. Serve immediately, with spinach, if it's your supper. E

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