I miss my robin. Okay, she wasn’t mine, but she and her mate constructed a nest in a low-hanging branch of the giant maple tree in my front yard. My sister remembers helping our father plant that tree as a sapling. When I would get home from work in the afternoon, there she would be on the nest. Her mate was always nearby, perched on a near branch, on on the roof right over my head, chattering to warn her not to talk to me as I stood and watched her before going inside to drop an armload of books and whatnot, and feed the animals. I picked up a bag of mealworms and would leave a handful on the ledge of the squirrel feeder I mounted on the tree’s trunk a couple of summers ago (My Favorite Farmer is shocked that I actually feed squirrels). Her mate took to ferrying them to her, feeding her as she sat her nest. She never appeared alarmed by me or my attention to her. I took many photos of her, and she seemed to prefer being photographed in profile. I’d never been able to observe a nest and its occupants so closely, and I loved sharing the yard with them.
The nest itself looked like a pretty solid piece of engineering, and I was struck by how well it rode the afternoon breezes. Montana can be a windy place. One day was exceptionally so. I arrived home to find the nest lying upside down in the grass. I shrieked when I saw it, dropped everything in my arms, and ran to it. I gingerly turned it over. It was empty, save for two halves of a beautiful blue shell, also empty. It was early in the summer, but to my knowledge they did not return to build another nest, start another family. At least not in my untrustworthy tree.
I kept the nest. Its construction is fascinating. It weighs about 10 ounces. It is made of twigs from various plants, pine needles, and lots and lots of mud. A foundation of pure mud both cemented it to the tree branch and captured the initial layers of twigs. In addition to an actual piece of string, woven into the mix are what appear to be strings from an old disintegrated blue tarp, small leaves, even part of a wrapper from a pack of cigarettes.
In fact, the only portion of it that is not solid, firm, and unyielding is the tender cup of dried grasses that formed a soft bed for the bird and her egg. It sits on a table on my front porch now, a leaf maple leaf still fastened to its base. It sat there all winter, through some of the fiercest winds I’ve ever heard or experienced. Granted, there is a difference between riding a gale on the end of a long branch or from a somewhat sheltered spot. Would the nest have weathered the wind better if it had been built on a live branch rather than a dead one? I have no idea. I miss my robin.
ASIAN PANCAKES WITH SCRAMBLED EGGS
My friend Suzanne, who still lives in San Francisco, has a wonderful hand for Asian cooking. It comprises her favorite flavors, textures, combinations, and colors. So when she was married in a lovely, quiet vineyard in the Napa Valley, her menu naturally featured Asian foods. Small stations were set up all around the property, some serving cold foods, and some hot foods prepared for a fascinated audience.
I have no memory of the array of foods, save for pancakes with, I believe, some sort of meat filling. Truly, they could have been filled with dried leaves and they would have been as remarkable. They had a chewiness I’ve never experienced before or since. And a texture. Seeds of some sort? And a flavor all their own. They were not mere vehicles for a filling.
Tonight is an egg sort of night. I need some gently scrambled eggs. But not eggs alone. I need something to hold them tight. I’m on a mission.
I looked around through various of my cookbooks and on the web seeking recipes for Asian pancakes. All recipes agree that the ingredients are few: all-purpose flour and boiling water in a general ratio of 1.5 parts flour to 1 part water. Some include either salt or sugar, as much as a teaspoon of the latter. Some recipes call for sesame oil in the dough, while others want the pancakes brushed just before cooking. All recipes call for resting the dough after kneading it briefly, for anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes. I used Ming Tsai’s method of shaping it after kneading: he instructs us to roll it into a log about 2 inches in diameter so that it can easily be cut into equal portions for shaping the pancakes. Some specify that two pancakes should be rolled together, then cooked together, and separated afterwards. Ming Tsai rolls and cooks his individually. I know that the ones I am remembering were cooked individually.
As for that texture, clearly some of it is going to derive from rapidly mixing flour to which boiling water has been added, developing a good amount of gluten. I also added some brown sesame and chia seeds. And the boiling water. I know I want mushrooms with my eggs, so I used some dried shitakes. I poured boiling water over them and let them sit for 15 minutes to soften and also to infuse the water with some of their wonderful, concentrated flavor. And that water went into the pancake dough to also deepen its flavor.
For the Pancakes
1/2 cup dried shitake mushrooms, about 1/4 ounce
8 ounces boiling water
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon brown sesame seeds
2 teaspoons chia seeds
Reserved water from the mushrooms
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon sea or kosher salt
1 teaspoon sesame oil
Additional flour for kneading, about 1/4 cup
- Measure mushrooms into a heat-proof bowl. Add the boiling water, then cover the bowl with a plate to retain the heat. Allow to sit for 15 minutes. Drain the mushroom liquid into a small saucepan. Add the salt and sugar and bring back to a boil.
- Measure the flour and seeds into a mixing bowl. Add the boiling mushroom water and the sesame oil. Stir quickly to blend. When stirring no longer is effective, turn dough out onto a work surface. Press it together with your hands, then begin kneading it. Kneading this warm, soft dough is pure pleasure. When dough begins to stick to your hands, add a tablespoon or so of flour. Continue kneading and adding bits of flour until dough is no longer sticky. You probably won’t need the entire 1/4 cup of additional flour, but keep it handy because you’ll use some for rolling the pancakes. The whole process of mixing, kneading, and shaping only takes about 5 minutes.
- To shape into a cylinder, roll dough into a general log shape. Stand it up on each end and press gently against the work surface to square off the ends, creating a uniformly shaped cylinder about 2″ in diameter and about 6 inches long. Wrap with plastic and allow to rest for 15 minutes.
For the Scrambled Eggs
4 large eggs, whisked together
Sea or kosher salt and pepper
Red pepper flakes
Greens of 4 scallions, 1/4″ dice
12 Whole sprigs of cilantro
4 long greens of scallions
Gather all the ingredients for the scrambled eggs while the pancake dough is resting. Everything is going to come together very fast.
To Shape, Cook, and Fill the Pancakes
- Use a bench scraper to cut the dough into 8 pieces. Work with 1 pancake at a time. Sprinkle a bit of flour (a tablespoon or so) on your work surface. Press it flat and thin with the palm of your hand. With a rolling pin, roll each out to about 7 inches in diameter. Set each aside with a piece of parchment between them. This will also take about 5 minutes.
- To cook, warm an 8 inch skillet over medium-high heat. Cook pancakes one at a time in the dry skillet. They should bubble on the top side while browning on the underside. Use tongs to turn them over and remove from the skillet. Stack them on a plate with the pieces of parchment between them. Once all have been cooked, wrap a kitchen towel around them to keep them warm while you cook the eggs.
- Use the same skillet to cook the eggs that you used to cook the pancakes. Warm it, with some olive oil to film the bottom, over medium heat. Add the eggs, some salt and pepper (I’m sure you know about how much is right for you), and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Move them around very gently. When they are half done, add the mushrooms and scallions. Continue moving everything around gently. Remove the skillet from the heat before the eggs are completely dry. They want to be very tender, and will finish cooking on their way to being wrapped up.
- Lay out 4 pancakes. Arrange 2 whole sprigs of cilantro along the center of each one. Divide the eggs between them, and top each with another spring of cilantro. Roll the pancakes up into cylinders and tie closed with the scallion greens. Garnish plates with drops of Sriracha. Consume immediately. The pancakes should be chewy, but tenderly so, and with a subtle crunch from the seeds. And the eggs should be as gently soft as can be.
- Wrap the remaining pancakes in plastic and store in refrigerator, or freezer. To reheat, lay between 2 damp (not wet!) paper towels, and warm in a microwave on medium setting.