Photo: A.A. Newton
We've all stared down a sad, empty fridge at too-late-for-a-grocery-run-o'clock on a weeknight, willing some higher power to magically replenish the shelves while our eyes are closed.
Welcome to Cheap Chow week! Food is more expensive than ever, and it may seem like your only cost-effective options are fast food or instant ramen. But it doesn't have to the that way. This week we'll be showing you how to buy, cook, and eat food in a fiscally effective manner, without sacrificing fun or flavor.
Using up what you have is a great way to save money and minimize waste, but so many "empty fridge" recipes play fast and loose with what people actually keep in their pantries, making them, at best, minimally useful. Everyone's pantry staples are different, and when those recipes call for cheese, lemons, anchovies, fresh herbs, or similar, I usually roll my eyes. As much as I love those things and try to keep them around, sometimes I end up with like, one carrot, a handful of scallions that somehow haven't turned to ooze, a sweet potato of indeterminate age, a rapidly-softening bell pepper, and a fridge door groaning under the weight of my condiment addiction. Add in a powerful hunger and a budget that cannot support another pizza delivery and I'm well on my way to Meltdown City.
Enter, once again, Maangchi, who has broadened my repertoire in uncountably many ways. As a depressed person who sometimes struggles to feel worthy of not starving to death, I have not been the same (in a good way!) since I found her recipe for yachaejon, or spring vegetable pancakes. This is the sad-fridge recipe to end all sad-fridge recipes: not only does it make use of whatever random produce you have, it transforms them into something unbelievably good. These aren't fluffy hotcakes folded with leftover steamed broccoli or whatever—they're crunchy, salty, fried goodness that happens to be mostly made of vegetables. All you need to make them is roughly a pound of thinly-sliced vegetables, plus flour, water, salt, and a bit of oil for frying; no eggs, no leaveners, no milk, and no bullshit.
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Facts are facts, America: not everyone hoards tinned Sicilian anchovies or fresh parsley for a rainy day, but most people probably have a cup of flour somewhere. Furthermore, most people have a tap in their kitchen that dispenses potable water (though, even in this land of alleged plenty, this is still not true for everyone), a dash of salt, and some cooking oil. If you have these things and a fridge full of sad produce, you can make something absolutely delicious in very little time. Here's how to do it.
Empty-Fridge Vegetable Pancakes
Photo: A.A. Newton
It bears repeating that you can use just about any vegetables you like so long as at least one of them is an onion (scallions are my favorite). Other than that, go wild: sturdy greens like kale and collards are great, but spinach, cabbage, or even lettuce will work when finely shredded. Root veg should get ribboned with a peeler; anything else should be julienned or sliced on the bias as finely as you can manage. If you're gluten-free, I recommend a GF all-purpose flour blend over cornstarch or potato starch, which fry up crispy on the edges but get weird and gummy on the inside.
As written, this recipe yields five large pancakes or ten to twelve small ones. Feel free to scale the vegetables and flour/water up and down to suit your needs; as long as you end up with a similar ratio of vegetable to batter, it'll be fine.
- 1 ½ pounds (680 grams) assorted vegetables, including some form of onion
- ¾ cup (roughly 100 grams, depending on brand) all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon table salt
- ¾ cup (roughly 175 milliliters) water
- Vegetable or canola oil for shallow-frying (I rarely use more than a quarter cup)
Set a wide, heavy-bottomed skillet over low heat while you prepare the vegetables. A good nonstick pan is great if you have one, but I usually make mine in a nine-inch cast-iron or stainless steel skillet. If I'm making more than two pancakes, I'll use both my twelve- and nine-inch cast iron skillets in tandem.
Today's lineup: a bunch of stuff I wanted to use up before going on a trip. Photo: A.A. Newton
Shred, julienne, ribbon or otherwise very finely slice your vegetables into a large bowl. The thinner the slices, the more likely the batter is to hang together and flip nicely.
Add the flour and water to the bowl, then season with half a teaspoon of salt. If you want to add some dried spices, now's the time. Stir until the batter is completely distributed through the vegetables, using your hands if needed to really work everything together.
Photo: A.A. Newton
Increase the heat under the skillet(s) to medium-high, wait a minute, then add enough vegetable or canola oil to cover the bottom. Continue heating the oil until it's shimmering and just barely smoking, then add the vegetable batter to the skillet by the handful, allowing any excess liquid to drip back into the mixing bowl. If you're making small pancakes, you can probably fit two or three in a nine-inch skillet, but I tend to make plate-sized ones.
Use a sturdy spatula to smash the pancakes into thin disks, and cook for at least three minutes per side, or however long it takes to develop a dark, golden-brown crust. I make very large pancakes, so these sometimes take up to five minutes perside. Check in frequently and adjust the heat if it seems too high.
When the first side is crisped to your liking, carefully flip the pancakes using your spatula or a fancy-schmancy sauté flip. (My cast iron skillets are excellently seasoned, but nowhere near enough for a perfect flip—I wouldn't attempt a flip without a nonstick pan.) Add a bit more oil to the pan and lift the edges to distribute it, then cook until thoroughly browned on that side, too.
Transfer to a wire rack set over a baking sheet and warm in a low oven (200ºF should do it) if you like, or serve as soon as they come off the pan. Sprinkle some extra salt on them while they're piping hot, and nibble on a crunchy edge to make sure they're good. (They always are, but it can't hurt to check.)
Photo: A.A. Newton
Depending on the vegetables you've chosen, you can take these little pancakes in any culinary direction you can think of. Kale, chard, onions, chopped herbs, and some crumbled feta make a neat little spanakopita-esque pancake; plain old onions and potatoes make an extra-easy, extra-crunchy rosti. Regardless of the contents, I usually stay true to the spirit of Maangchi's recipe and serve mine with rice, soy sauce, chili garlic sauce—and, if I have 'em, poached eggs.