If you have a professional life in food, it will happen to you, too. Along the way you’ll learn/create/take ownership of a recipe that never lets you down, sells like crazy (or just brings ‘em running as soon as it’s detected), and becomes something people associate with you.
After graduating from culinary school, the first job I took was at Lydia Shire’s restaurant Biba, situated on the Boston Common. My first position was on the bar food station, cranking out everything from a la carte Porgie pies to chicken wings to really, really good chowder made with Finnan Haddie, to pork and duck rillette to scallion pancakes with dipping sauce.
Scallion pancakes are fun to make, fun to cook, and damn near irresistible. They’re crispy, chewy, salty, aromatic, and sooooo satisfying. They also just happen to be vegan, but in the best possible way: meaning you don’t notice, because you’re too busy angling to get your next piece before they’re gone.
I’ve made these as a component of restaurant specials (they’re particularly good with duck, either confit or seared, sliced breasts), served them to students, friends, colleagues, family (at my wedding), and to Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue, who asked me to send the recipe to their private chef.
At Biba, I made huge batches in an 80-quart mixer, chopping up half a gallon of scallions at a time and pouring out peanut oil by the quart. I learned to do so by feel, not measuring anything. I’d shovel the flour into the mixer’s bowl with a giant scoop, then pour in warm water until the dough felt right. A quart or two of peanut oil on top of the dough kept it from drying out as I filled and shaped 100 at a time. I loved the “mud pie” factor – it was a messy job, but frankly my cuticles have never looked better ;-).
I also liked watching the product change as the batch aged. I’d sell about 20 a night, so by the time my prep was 3 or 4 days old the pancakes had started to ferment, getting puffier as I cooked them. Nowadays my batches are smaller, and frankly if I have them in the house it’s hard to make them last more than 3 days. I’ve made them for breakfast (they go surprisingly well with bacon and eggs), lunch, and dinner (perfectly suited next to anything teriyaki).
Which brings me to the dipping sauce, which is just as big a hero in its own way. I have had some in my refrigerator for pretty much my entire adult life. Need a quick marinade for chicken or pork? Just pour some over whatever you’re thinking about grilling an hour before you’re ready to cook. Want to make some fantabulous fried rice? A couple of tablespoons at the end of the cooking time will set you up nicely. It’s great mixed with some hoisin for a brush-on glaze, or mixed with some duck sauce or garlic chili paste for sweeter or more spicy versions. In general I don’t know how people live without it (kind of like my dry brine).
Yield: about 6 pancakes, 12 servings
1 1/4 cups (5 1/8 ounces, 145g) scallions, washed and cut on the bias
99g peanut oil
2 tablespoons (1 ounce, 28g) kosher salt
4 cups (17 ounces, 482g) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 1/2 to 2 cups water (12 to 16 ounces, 340g to 454g) warm water
In a medium bowl, combine the scallions, peanut oil, and kosher salt; set aside
For the dough: Put the flour in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle. Start the mixer at medium speed, and pour in 1 1/2 cups of the water in a steady stream. Mix until evenly moistened; it will look a bit like oatmeal at first.
Continue mixing for another minute; stop the mixer and touch the dough. It shouldn’t be so wet that it can coat your finger, but you should be able to pull up a bit by pinching it. It will be sticky. If the dough seems tight, add more water. Continue mixing at low speed for another 5 minutes.
As the dough develops, it will smooth out and become very stretchy. Pour enough peanut oil over the top of the dough to completely cover it and keep the surface from drying out.
To make the pancakes: Have a rimmed baking sheet and some fold-over sandwich bags on hand.
Pour some of the excess oil from the scallions on the baking sheet into a 3” puddle.
Take a handful of dough about the size of a baseball (roughly 4 ounces), and place it in the puddle. Grease your hands and spread the dough in all directions until it’s as thin as you can make it without tearing; you should almost be able to see through it.
Scoop up 2 tablespoons of the scallions and spread them evenly over the dough.
Working from the edge furthest from you, roll the dough up to enclose the scallions and form a log.
Hang on to one end and coil the log into a spiral, pinching the ends together. Put the pancake in the sandwich bag.
Repeat until all the dough is used. Refrigerate the pancakes until you’re ready to cook them.
To cook the pancakes: In a large heavy skillet over medium heat, pour enough peanut oil to coat the bottom of the pan to a depth of 1/4”. On a greased plate, spread the pancake out until it’s 3/8” thick and about 6” in diameter.
Now the tricky part: pick up the pancake with 2 hands and carefully place it into the oil. Cook for about 3 minutes, until the first side is golden brown.
Using tongs, turn the pancake and cook for another 3 minutes, until golden brown.
Remove the pancake from the pan and place on a cutting board lined with a couple layers of absorbent paper; turn it over to drain the second side. Repeat with the remaining pancakes. Hold the pancakes in a 250°F oven until ready to serve. Cut each pancake into 8 wedges, and serve with dipping sauce.
Yield: about 1 quart
Deftly balancing salt, sweet, aromatics and spice, this sauce is excellent as a marinade for chicken wings or skewers. Add a little hoisin sauce and it turns into a great barbecue sauce. It lasts indefinitely in the refrigerator, and is perfect for dipping scallion pancakes, of course, but also tempura vegetables or grilled shrimp.
2 cups (16 ounces, 454g) light soy sauce
1 cup (8 ounces, 226g) rice wine vinegar
1/2 cup (4 ounces, 113g) mirin or simple syrup
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1/2 cup (2 ounces, 56g) grated fresh ginger
1/4 cup (1 ounce, 28g) minced garlic
1 1/2 cups (2 bunches) scallions, white and green parts, sliced very thin on the bias
2 teaspoons chili garlic paste (optional)
2 tablespoons sesame seeds for garnish
Combine all of the ingredients except the sesame seeds and store, refrigerated, until needed. Stir before serving.