Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Baby, You Were Born to Brunch

I turned 25 a few weeks ago. They call these round number birthdays milestones, but 25 feels less like a major landmark and more like a nice rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, with a clean bathroom and a Cinnabon--diverting, but nothing to write to Trip Advisor about.

I've been identifying as 25 for at least six months, since I like round numbers and hate that rookie post-birthday "24--no, 25" stutter. And I like getting older: I've always felt like a 40-year-old in a younger woman's body, and as the years pass, I feel less like a precocious kid who should learn to keep her mouth shut (and more like a twenty-something woman who should keep her mouth only slightly ajar...). My face is still wrinkle-free and will probably stay that way for some time thanks to my Exxon-Valdez complexion. My step is still sprightly, despite the warning my high school teacher gave that once you hit your mid-twenties you start to feel the age in your bones as you climb the stairs. At 25, I'm more or less who I thought I'd be at this age when I was 15: reliable enough to take care of myself and others, and independent enough to pick up and head someplace else should the fancy strike.

Of course, I'm still learning, in life and in the kitchen, and this birthday was no different.

Lesson 1: My mother is usually right. To celebrate the not-so-big bday, I decided to cook up a few dishes, invite a few of my favorite people, and serve brunch on board the LIRR for a day at the beach. (Per the invitation: "Perambulatory Pastries: Muffins and Mimosas on the Move. Aka my future graduate thesis.") My mother's advice for great entertaining is to always serve booze, whatever the occasion, and to make more food than you think you need. Let me tell you, there's nothing like tipsy mingling on a commuter train, and despite cooking for 30, my 15 passenger-guests finished every crumb.

Mini muffins and manicure the color of a mid-June sky
Lesson 2: Shortcuts don't always make things easy. Picking a menu was tough because I usually don't cook big brunches (not enough room in my apartment) and I had a closet full of recipes to try. I knew I wanted something with protein, maybe a lox and onion combo, and as soon as I saw these donut muffins I knew I needed to try them (with butter, not margarine). I wanted one more dish, but I also didn't want to be cooking forever. So I cut some corners with an easy sounding pizza dough cinnamon bun recipe--just roll out, slather, and bake.

Guess what? Pizza dough gets real fussy when you try to roll it out without a roller. I ended up stretching it with my fingers, filling in the holes with balls of dough, and slapping a ton of extra butter and sugar on top. The finished rolls were like baked Play Doh: stiff, bland, and misshapen, as though they had been extruded through a Mega Fun Factory and manhandled by grubby, clumsy fingers. Meanwhile, those donut muffins? Couldn't be easier. Just mix up a few ingredients, toss 'em in a mini-muffin tin, coat in sugar, and enjoy. They turned out marvelous and left my kitchen and ego intact. 

One of these things tastes way better than the other.
Lesson 3: People will eat (just about) anything you serve them. When I realized I had a mess on my hands with those cinnamon buns, I immediately began obsessing over whether I should serve them. I tossed together another batch of donut muffins (seriously, so easy) so I'd have enough food, but threw the Ziploc bag of buns in at the last minute. By the end of the day, everything was gone, including the buns. Turns out, anything carby and vaguely sweet hits the spot after a day in the sun, and sometimes "just fine" is good enough.

So thanks to everyone who showed up to the beach and the brunch. Twenty-five may not have felt like much of a landmark, but sometimes being on the move is just as good.

Mini frittatas
Egg base:
10 eggs
1 cup heavy cream or milk
1/2 teaspoon pepper

Traditional bagel toppings taste great in a frittata
Smoked salmon and goat cheese, inspired by Ina Garten:
1/2 pound smoked salmon, chopped
1 medium onion any color, diced
2 oz cream cheese
Birthday gifts smell good, taste good, lift off, scratch off

2 oz goat cheese (for topping)
1 tomato, chopped and drained of liquid in a colander
3 chives, chopped
1 tablespoon dried dill

Caramelized onion, roasted tomato, and veggie:
2 onions any color, sliced
1/2 pint grape tomatoes
1/2 cup asparagus, frozen or fresh (if fresh, microwave until tender), chopped
1/2 cup frozen artichoke hearts, chopped
1 handful basil, chopped
3 chives, chopped
2 oz goat cheese
2 oz parmesan, grated (for topping)
1 teaspoon salt

Prepare the fillings first.
For smoked salmon and goat cheese:

  • Saute the onion in a bit of butter or oil on medium high, stirring occasionally, until translucent, about five minutes. Add the cream cheese and mix thoroughly.
For veggie:
  • Recommended do-ahead: Saute the onion in a bit of butter or oil on medium high, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Sprinkle a bit of salt on the onions, stir, and let cook for 20-30 minutes. Stir occasionally (I did every 5-10 minutes)--a lot of sites have detailed advice on how to "let them alone enough to brown (if you stir them too often, they won't brown), but not so long so that they burn." Add some water to the pan, a little extra oil if it's burning, reduce the heat, etc. After 20-30 minutes, taste them--they should be rich and delicious and sweet. If you want to cook them down further, you may need to stir more often.
  • Recommended do-ahead: Slice the tomatoes in half. Coat them in olive oil and a very light sprinkling of salt, pepper, and dried herb if you'd like (I used parsley). Spread on a roasting pan in one layer, cut side up, and roast in an oven at 250 degrees until tomatoes are shriveled, about 1-1 1/2 hours.
  • Saute the asparagus and artichokes quickly in some olive oil, about 2-3 minutes. Add in the goat cheese, salt, onions, and tomatoes, and stir until mixed.
  • Prepare the egg mixture by whisking together eggs, cream and milk, and pepper.
  • Pull it all together: Grease muffin tins thoroughly with butter or oil. Put a spoonful of fillings (any of those you've cooked, plus the fresh ones--chives, basil, etc.) into each muffin cup. Top with egg mixture until 3/4 full.
  • Bake in 375 degree oven for 12-18 minutes (this will vary by your oven) until eggs are set.
  • Top with cheese, and place under broiler until melted and lightly browned.
I got a little overzealous and ripped my list.
Because I love planning that much.
Notes for the Naked:
  • With elaborate recipes like this one, I'm all about fixing things ahead of time. I made the caramelized onions and roasted tomatoes on Tuesday night and froze them. Just defrost in a microwave before mixing with the other ingredients.
  • I am an obsessive planner. With a detailed prep list, there's no need to consult recipes or stay up way later than you thought cooking. I used Excel to list out the steps for each recipe and estimated how long each would take. I recommend it to my fellow compulsive cooks.

1 comment:

  1. Does your mother hang by the stove, with martini glass in hand, e-cig dangling, tossing off bon mots??