Every Wednesday I look forward to reading the Times dining section while eating my lunch. Last week’s feature on Mindful Eating caused a personal psychic crash of irony in which I realized I had read the article at the same frenetic pace at which I had inhaled my arugula, turkey, pear, fennel and tomato salad. The only reason I know what I was eating is that I eat it every day. Talk about Mindless. I was flying in the face of the principles espoused by the thoughtful eaters and knew there was really nothing I could do about it.
I understand why there are so many calls to get our culture to slow down. How many of us have freaked out when our internet service provider fails us, even if for just 10 minutes? “But I need to Google a synonym for Mindful?!” “What time does my train leave for Bronxville?!” Never mind that I have a thesaurus on my book shelf and a printed train schedule in my wallet. Once you adjust your expectations to jibe with technological innovation there’s no going back. Can you imagine saying to people who were finally used to their newfangled telephones, “Oh, sorry. Ma Bell is taking a nap. You’ll have to use the Pony Express.”
But what I liked about the article was just how many different ideas and points of view were expressed. Several scholars noted that, given our modern life, eating every single meal in a slow and mindful way is almost impossible. Better to tune in to your food and eat in silence for the first five minutes of a meal, or take three quiet sips of tea than to continue feeding your pie-hole in an inattentive way. Another said, “What’s on your mind when you’re eating: that’s mindful eating to me.” I like that. What I didn’t like was what they do at the Blue Cliff Monastery in Pine Bush, NY. They eat in complete silence. I could never sit at a table with others and not say a word. (Except of course if I were really mad at my dinner partner and felt the silent treatment was in fact the only way I could get through the meal. And there are probably a few Thanksgivings that would have benefited from a collective vow of silence vs. a heated debate that divided the group into teams and sub-teams.)
I think we all have our own ideas of what it means to eat mindfully. Enjoying the company is such a big part of the experience when I am dining with friends. That’s mindful to me. The conversation and the laughs are more important and life affirming to me than contemplating my quinoa and chewing my food 20 times before I swallow. That would be torture.
All of this was on my mind the other day when I was walking to the post office and stopped to look at the menu of the newly opened Vive La Crêpe on Columbus Avenue. Among the Sweet Fillings options of sugar and butter, marmalade and dulce de leche was my favorite, Nutella. I started to laugh to myself at an insane food memory. 17 years ago my sister and I went to Paris for a week in August. We had a free place to stay, frequent flyer miles donated to us by our generous parents, and two broken hearts that needed mending. Now at the time it didn’t occur to me that going to the most romantic city in the world without a romantic partner might not be the best way to cure oneself of being romance-free. But at least we were two people in the same position (from experience I know how annoying it is to be with someone way too cheerful when you are in the middle of processing your suffering), looking to shake off the blues with a change of scenery.
As anyone familiar with Parisian streets, there are crêpe stands everywhere. Almost like the pretzel and hot dog carts in New York. For days we’d walked passed them, ignoring the seductive scent of the sizzling vanilla batter, in the pursuit of getting in all the museums we wanted to visit, shops that needed our attention and neighborhoods we had to explore. But we were nearing the end of our week and on the one drizzly, surprisingly raw day I decided if I didn’t have a Nutella crêpe I would just die. The problem was that I had this I-Want-Crêpe-Now attack 15 minutes before we were due to arrive for dinner at the home of a friend of my sister’s who was known for his skill in the cuisine and his generous pours of vin rouge.
My eyes were focused on one thing, the ladle of batter being expertly poured and spread on the giant round griddle. “Une crêpe avec Nutella s’il vous plaît.” I requested while my sister screamed, “Are you crazy? We have to be there now and Jake is an incredible cook!” It was as if I couldn’t hear her. I had one goal and it was to shove that rolled pancake in my mouth immediately. Mon dieu, it was amazing. I still remember the first bite, the warm slick of Nutella oozing out from the layers coating my mouth in a symphony of chocolate and hazelnuts. I ate the entire thing in less than five minutes without pausing to take a breath or offer any to my sister. When it was over I wiped the chocolate spread from my mouth, threw away the paper wrapper and said, “Oh no. I’m so full.” My sister wanted to kill me.
But I knew I had to rally. We climbed the four flights to her friend’s apartment where he plied us with the most delicious tomato rosemary soup, a fantastic roast salmon with fines herbes, a tarte aux pommes and glass after glass of white, red and sweet wine. So many years later I still remember those three hours and all the deliciousness that was consumed within them. (I tried to forget how sick I felt after the gluttony). All of our senses were ignited: the smell of the rosemary, the sound of our host’s rapid fire French when speaking to his girlfriend, the rickety charm of his très bohème garret apartment, the heft of our wine glasses and of course the tastes of his incredible meal. To me it was a totally mindful experience. Even the speed at which I devoured the crêpe spoke to a mind filled with desire and excitement.
So, just as I had in Paris, after too many days passing the crêpe place I had to have one or I would die. My policy of not buying a sweet I could make myself kicked in, except I hadn’t made a crêpe since I was in pastry school when my results were really pathetic. But without the pressure of other students and the Chef Instructor I was able to easily churn out a stack of perfectly formed thin pancakes. And the most exciting thing was being able to flip them over by flicking my wrist up forcefully, releasing the crepe from the pan and catching it on the other side. It was fantastique! I folded my crêpe around a relatively thin and civilized layer of Nutella and a few sliced strawberries, sprinkled the little envelope with powdered sugar and inhaled it in four bites without taking a breath or uttering a word. That’s my kind of mindful.
Idea: How about a make your own crepe bar? Put out the stack of crepes, and offer Nutella, jams, nut butters, sugars and fruit.
Adapted from Dave Lieberman, The Food Network
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3/4 cup all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup whole milk
2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
1 Tablespoon butter, melted plus more for pan
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
In a large mixing bowl, stir flour and salt together. Gradually whisk in the milk. Whisk in the eggs, one at a time, followed by the sugar, melted butter and vanilla.
Whisk until very smooth. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and put in the fridge for an hour or longer.
Heat an 8-inch nonstick skillet over medium high heat. Melt a small bit of butter in the pan just to lightly grease it and swirl the pan till the butter coats the surface.
Pour a scant quarter cup of batter into the pan and move the pan in a circular pattern to coat with a thin layer of batter.
Cook for about one minute till the underside browns lightly then flip (I really flipped it like a short order cook! It was very exciting. Try it! Or use a spatula or your fingers) and cook 45 seconds-1 minute longer.
Slide crepe onto a plate and repeat the process with remaining batter.
NOTE: If you are making the crepes for future use layer a piece of wax paper between each crepe. Let the stack of crepes cool completely, wrap the stack in foil and refrigerate if using within a few days or store in freezer for up to a month. To reheat place crepe in hot pan for a few seconds till pliable and warm.
Spread the crepes with filling of your choice. Fold circle in half
and then in quarters, sprinkle with powdered sugar if desired and serve.
Or if you like, over-stuff the crepe with Nutella, roll and shove it in your mouth right before a dinner party.
Yield: 9-10 crepes