Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Brunch

I think brunch might be my favorite meal. Oh sure, I love the food - fluffy scrambled eggs, thick wedges of frittata, bright salads, all manner of baked things, and fresh grapefruit juice (sometimes bubbly!) - but the best thing about brunch is that you don't eat it every day.

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner all happen on a daily basis, albeit with varying degrees of decadence, but brunch? Brunch is special. It's a weekend-only affair, and really, only the best weekends are punctuated by brunch. Brunch is for sleepy days that just float by; for days when it seems wholly un-extraordinary to stretch a meal from 10am to 2pm. But isn't it, though? Brunch feels good on sunny days and rainy days, when it's chilly and when it's warm, when you've spent all of yesterday baking and when five minutes is plenty of time to put some eggs and toast on the table. Brunch is anything, so long as it's relaxed and filled with pleasant company.

[passing the eggs]

On Sunday, I had a few friends over to celebrate the occasion of brunch and, perhaps, the (hesitant) arrival of spring. The sole shortcoming was that Jonathan wasn't here to join us; he's out hiking and camping his way around the distant desert of Utah for the week, which, ironically, was one of the things that motivated me to host the brunch in the first place. And while he surely is enjoying his wilderness adventures, he missed a memorable afternoon. Which I suppose means I'll just have to host another brunch when he returns.


His absence afforded me a solitary Saturday afternoon of baking and preparation, which I do love (the baking and preparation, not his absence). After the hustle and bustle of the week it's easy to settle into a few quiet hours of measuring, mixing, and waiting. I don't turn on the TV or listen to music; just tune in to the chop-chop of the knife and subtle purr of the oven.

[serving sweet potato home fries]

My guests arrived on Sunday at noon, just as I was setting out the plates and starting to crack the eggs. And although it was chilly outside, there was plenty of sun streaming in through the big windows, and tucked away on the 9th floor, I could have been convinced that outside was just as warm and cozy as my little kitchen, perpetually on the verge of overheating from the work of the stove and the oven.


Kara was gracious enough to come with an armful of tulips, which made the table truly come alive. As much as I'd like to be a plant person, it's still something I'm aspiring to, and it didn't even cross my mind to put flowers on the table. Maybe next time I'll remember, because they somehow made the whole day that much better.

[and she hasn't even eaten yet!]
The thing about brunch is that I tend to go overboard with the food preparations. I wouldn't say I had too much food necessarily (I would hate to not have leftovers!), but I certainly provided ample variety. Biscuits or muffins? Why not make both?

And in addition to the chive biscuits and mini citrus corn muffins, there were herby scrambled eggs, homemade granola with my favorite plain yogurt, fresh berries, asparagus with mustard-lemon dressing, sweet potato home fries, and juice. Jonathan is the resident coffee guru, so we did suffer in that respect. But all in all, it had everything that brunch should.


Although brunch can often be decadent, I prefer a homier, heartier menu. Eggs for me are a must-have; any other main affair - pancakes, french toast, waffles - can result in a bread overload, especially if combined with pastries (and how can you not have pastries?) That said, I don't have a particularly interesting brunch recipe to share. The citrus corn muffins are suspiciously similar to my sunny citrus cake; nobody, I'm sure, wants to hear more about granola; and the scrambled eggs? Here's a hint: add chives, stir, cook, serve.

[At least somebody thought my eggs were exciting]

Instead, how about a recipe for a brunch menu? I'll leave out the pinches of laughter and handfuls of good friends, but here are the basics:

Mia's Guide to a Lovely Brunch Menu

Fresh-squeezed juice (it's OK if Whole Foods does the squeezing)
Tea or coffee
1 variety of pastry: muffins, biscuits, scones, coffee cake, bagels, etc.
1 main dish, preferably a protein: eggs, filled crepes, poached salmon
1-2 vegetable side dishes: green salad, blanched asparagus, home fries (make sure to have something green in addition to potatoes, though)
Fresh fruit: whatever is in season
Optional: granola, yogurt, oatmeal, toast, champagne

And if you remember, or have lovely, thoughtful friends to remember for you, try some flowers for the table. Who wants to come to my next brunch?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Something to Hold You Over


Well it seems (from looking at the calendar, not the weather report) that spring is finally here. And although I could have been fooled into thinking it was still February during my shorter-than-short walk to Whole Foods this evening (where else would I be going at 9pm on a Sunday night?), there are indeed glimmers of hope and sunshine.

Most of all though, there are asparagus, leeks, chives, and other green, springy things that are finding their way into my kitchen. OK, so maybe those asparagus were flown into town, and maybe I'm not yet over the whole soup-making thing, but I'm slowly making the transition from winter to spring eating, and it's been wonderful so far.


In fact, I was lucky enough to host a few lovely friends for brunch today, and the set table, with tulips, white linen, and plenty of fresh food, was pure spring. I promise to tell you more about the menu, because a) it was quite tasty and b) I love brunch-time entertaining so much that I can hardly contain myself. The food is simple, yet somehow decadent; the atmosphere is relaxed; and everyone is in a good mood during weekend brunch. How could one not be? Scrambled eggs with a side of sun, streaming in through windows, is about as perfect as it gets.

But for now, it's late, and there's work tomorrow, and I just wanted to give you a little bite to hold you over until we can really sort out this whole brunch thing. It's no secret that I'm a little bit obsessed with granola; eating it, yes, but, more importantly, perfecting my recipe. But alas, the thing about granola is that it's not quite as portable as I'd like it be. Which is where the granola bars come in.

I can't believe I've never thought to make granola bars before, but this weekend I gave them my all and tried to make up for lost time. Three experimental batches later (I hope they keep well, because they'll be lingering here for a while), I've come up with some quite tasty - a touch of sweet, a bit of salty, a little crunch and a hint of chew. They're not perfect yet, but they hold their shape well enough to be thrown into my work bag and hopefully will perform equally well at satisfying my 5pm hunger pangs.


It feels premature to give a formal recipe, since I literally just tossed these together, after having done a little bit of recipe research. But, my basic dry mix consisted of:

1 c. regular rolled oats
1/2 c. sunflower and/or pumpkin seeds
1 handful wheat germ
1 handful chopped, toasted almonds
a bit of salt, cinnamon, and ground ginger
raisins and chopped crystallized ginger

I heated a mixture of brown rice syrup, maple syrup, and a touch of almond butter, poured it hot over the dry mixture along with some pasteurized egg white (to help everything adhere), and then packed it tightly into a loaf pan and popped it into the oven.

The resulting bars were dense and hearty, and I'm looking forward to nibbling on them tomorrow. Nothing too exciting, I suppose, but I take a certain pride in creating something that normally just comes from a box. As my granola-bar prowess develops, I'll be sure to let you in on my best recipes. But for now, enjoy!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Preserving My Sanity, Among Other Things


I've always said that no matter how busy life gets, there's always time to whip up a batch of homemade marmalade.

OK, I don't really say that. But lately, life has been pretty busy, and I still managed to find a worthy Saturday time slot for slicing and dicing a few pounds of blood oranges for a surprisingly tasty homemade treat. This isn't to say that homemade marmalade is a working girl's best friend, but if you want your marmalade badly enough, you can find a way to make some. Finding time really is the hardest part; once you've got that, all you need is a sharp knife, a big pot, and a loaf of toast-worthy bread.


The first time I remember enjoying marmalade was when I was in South America, where breakfast is never more than toast with a few sacred condiments: dulce de leche, queso de crema (like fromage blanc), and of course, mermelada. And although I don't always conjure fond memories of the food I ate in Argentina and Chile, I distinctly remember the delicious homemade marmalade that I ate in a small inn in the wine-growing region of Chile. Long, pliant strands of orange rind preserved in a fragrant and bitter-sweet stickiness, the maramalade was complex and perfect on a crisped slice of bread.


I haven't had that type of marmalade since, even though I sometimes keep a jar of store-bought grapefruit marmalade in the refrigerator. An abundance of citrus and an episode of culinary adventurousness, though, persuaded me to see if I couldn't recreate my Chilean marmalade awakening.

So far, I've made three batches of the stuff - two blood orange, and one meyer lemon. The blood orange is by far my favorite, and seems to me perfect for this use; I'll admit that, although I love the drama of a blood orange, the taste is just OK. For eating, it's hard to beat a sweet, juicy, (seedless) navel orange, as boring as that may be. But for maramalade, I'll take the mottled rinds and crimson flesh of blood oranges any day.


The thing about marmalade is that it's really pretty easy to make. You have to boil it twice, each time for nearly an hour, and slicing the oranges into tiny little strips is a bit labor-intensive. But at the end of the juice-stained day, it's just a big pot of oranges, water, and sugar, poured hot into jars and saved for many breakfasts to come. Actually making shelf-stable (preserved) marmalade is a bit more challenging, and involves boiling, sealing, sterilizing, etc., but you can skip all of that if all you want is a few jars of marmalade that will be eaten in the short term and stored in the refrigerator. I tried both - "canned" and not, and, while the sealed jars have been making adorable gifts, the refrigerator version lasts plenty long and tastes just as good.


So, the recipe. I hesitate to include a recipe here, because I stuck with the formulas that I found on other blogs. You can find examples of marmalade recipes here and here, although the basic recipe is equal parts chopped fruit and water, boiled for about an hour, then measured and mixed with an equal volume of sugar, then boiled again. Some sources say to use the seeds for added pectin, which worked marvelously well for me with the meyer lemon batch because those little devils were so chock-full of seeds. My blood oranges were comparatively seedless, which made for a runnier, though still spreadable marmalade.

The point, of course, is that homemade marmalade is both a culinary adventure and a pure delight on morning toast. I can't get enough of it, and spread it on everything in sight. And even though life has been busy, and time has come at a steep premium recently, I can't think of a better way of spending a few chilly, when-will-spring-come weekend hours.