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Cooking Local Savory French Toast

March 01, 2013


            Welcome back to the kitchen. Today we are going to play one of my favorite kitchen games: make something up with the things you’ve got! I think this is a really great way to teach yourself to be a better cook, because necessity really is the mother of invention.
            I think far too many people are afraid to let themselves cook “off book”, and are much happier to follow an exact recipe to a t. But what if you run out of something or can’t find a specific ingredient? Are you prepared to wing it? I think one of the best skills home cooks can foster is the ability to imagine different flavors together and come up with new and winning combinations. Instead of studying recipes, study cooking techniques and know all the different ways to use an ingredient. And think of classifying ingredients into different flavor and texture categories, so you can pick and choose at will.
            Today’s recipe was a completely made up dish I stumbled across a few Sundays back. A friend of mine was visiting, and she is a huge fan of French toast. I like good French toast as much as the next person, but I am not the biggest fan of sweet breakfasts. Plus, I have run out of my 100% pure grade B maple syrup, so sweet French toast was completely out of the question for a New England born food snob like me.
            But I did have some good bread that was getting long in the tooth, some local eggs, some great locally smoked salmon, a big bag of local shallots I’ve been keeping in storage, and a big bag of baby spinach.
            So, while surveying my possible ingredients I was struck with inspiration to attempt a dish I’d never tried or even tasted before: why not make French toast savory? Why is this dish always served sweet? We often have eggs and toast together for a savory breakfast, so why not combine them?!
            Basically, the idea is just to omit any vanilla, cinnamon, and other sweeter spices in the egg mixture, and add in some more savory spices (in this case herbs de Provence). Then we are going to top the savory French toast with sautéed spinach with shallots and smoked salmon. Without a syrup component, the French toast may end up a little dry. I think a white sauce or a hollandaise would be very decadent and delicious, and that might be how I would serve it in a restaurant, but that extra step for the sauce will be a real pain. So instead I’m opting for some sweet/savory tomato jam as a topping. Fresh tomato would be good too.
            And before we get started with the actual recipe, let me just reiterate that this was a totally made up recipe (which I have since tweaked ever so slightly) truly based on what I had on hand. So please feel more than free to change out ingredients or make up a completely different version depending on your tastes and ingredient availability. The point here is to try and free us from the strictures of exact recipes and just let our palates run wild.
            So, for Savory French Toast with Sautéed Spinach, Shallots, and Smoked Salmon we will need:
-4 thick slices day old baguette, challah, country bread, or other nice, relatively light bread
-2 eggs
-2/3 c. milk
-pinch of salt
-grind of black pepper
-big pinch or herbs de Provence spice mix (or other savory spices)
-1 Tbsp. high heat oil (sunflower or safflower)
-1 Tbsp. butter
For the sautéed spinach and salmon we will need:
-about 1 pound washed spinach leaves (baby or otherwise)
-3 or 4 shallots (mine were on the smaller side), peeled and sliced into thin strips (yes, shallots are a pain to peel, but they have an amazingly sweet and delicious flavor and I prefer them to onions when I can get them, but of course you could substitute onions, leeks, or any other allium)
-about 4-6 ounces smoked salmon (there are some great local options if you can find them)
-1 clove garlic, peeled and chopped fine
-2 tablespoons olive oil
-ground black pepper and salt to taste
            So to cook up this delicious breakfast creation, let’s start by beating the eggs together in a pie pan or other shallow, walled dish with the milk, salt, pepper, and herbs de Provence until everything is nicely blended. You can use day old bread for the savory French toast, or you can dry it out a little bit in the toaster oven on a low heat until it is a little dry, but not all the way toasted brown. This will allow the bread to soak up even more of the egg mixture, giving it a better and more custardy texture throughout.
            Let the bread slices soak up as much of the egg mixture as possible while you heat up the butter and oil mixture on a medium high heat. Flip the slices of bread several times so the eggs get a good chance to absorb all the way through. Then place the slices into the buttered pan and let them brown, about 4 minutes or so, on each side, or until they are cooked through but not burnt or dried out.
            Now, in an ideal world you have also been sautéing the spinach and salmon topping during this time, so everything is ready to serve and eat nice and hot. But if not, just cover the savory French toast in foil and place in the oven or toaster oven on a low heat to keep warm.
            For the sautéed spinach, heat up the olive oil in the skillet over medium high heat. When the oil starts to shimmer, add in the sliced shallots. After a few minutes, stir the shallots and add in the chopped garlic. Once the shallots have turned translucent and sweet, crumble in the smoked salmon, being careful to remove any bones you come across. Then add in all the spinach leaves. As the leaves start to wilt and get smaller, it will be easier to stir the pan. Add the salt and pepper to taste, and sauté and stir the spinach until it is just wilted, not all mushy and overcooked. Immediately remove the pan from the heat when the spinach is done, which won’t take more than a couple minutes.
            Serve the savory French toast both topped with and surrounded by the delicious sautéed spinach, shallots, and smoked salmon plus a nice big blob of that sweet/savory tomato jam or slices of fresh tomatoes. I think salsa could also work here. Originally I served this dish topped with some plain yogurt as well, but the flavor wasn’t quite right to me. So I might try sour cream next time, or just leave off that extra dairy entirely.
            And there you have it, a beautiful breakfast dish made up on the spot! Now, I have since searched around and found that I am by no means the first to try savory French toast. In fact, come summer time when tomatoes are in season, I’m going to have to try a thick cut bacon BLT with savory French toast and plenty of ripe garden tomatoes. But for now I am pleased with how this dish came out, and I’d be curious how your version turns out. Send me any questions, comments, or suggestions to Cooking local in the KOHO Kitchen, I’m Isaac Kaplan-Woolner.