For brunch, eggs that deserve to be coddled
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Most chefs I know refer to brunch disdainfully as the b-word. Aside from the fact that they generally are not morning people, their aversion comes down to this: Eggs can mean trouble.
Diners are ultra-picky about eggs. Coordinating their preparation (two at a time, in various styles, to precise degrees of doneness) requires finesse and the kind of patience that usually is in short supply after an arduous Saturday night.
Eggs and the people who eat them can be unforgiving; the former might go from great to awful in an instant, and the latter might have no problem sending back mistakes with the flick of a hand. If you want to test a chef's mettle, hand him eggs, not steaks.
The same goes for a host. That eggs are tricky doesn't disqualify them as party fare. On the contrary, they represent a good way to strut your skills, provided you prepare the eggs in a way that allows for some kind of control.
The inspiration for today's fall brunch for eight came to me at a sunny lunch last June in the courtyard terrace of Le Relais du Parc in Paris, a colony in acclaimed chef Alain Ducasse's restaurant empire. For a first course, the waiter brought an oeuf en cocotte baked with spinach and chanterelle mushrooms. With its pumpkin-colored yolk, perfectly set white and earthy accompaniments, the egg was certainly delicious. And its cunning presentation -- in a glass canning jar with a hinged lid -- was an effect I planned to borrow.
I had forgotten how good baked eggs could be and how easy they were to make. My grandmother called them shirred. Just put some fillings, if desired, in ramekins, top them with eggs and a bit of cream, and bake them in a water bath for 10 minutes or so. I resolved right then and there to plan a Real Entertaining brunch menu around them, making a mental note to include some version of Ducasse's dish. That would be the story behind the meal, the kind of conversational reference point that makes a gathering more interesting. It was also a convenient ploy to brag about my summer vacation.
To make the brunch more manageable, I let the hinged-jar idea go. Originally I thought it a good plan to use tall eight-ounce jars and serve individual eggs with three kinds of fillings. That was a way to offer a vegetarian option and mix things up, but it proved unwieldy (and painful; I burned myself on the rims of the too-tall jars while trying to scoop out the eggs).
For the redo, wide-mouth eight-ounce jars with two-egg servings worked perfectly. Two options, one vegetarian, sufficed: curried spinach-shiitake mushroom and bacon-leek-Gruyere cheese.
For a side dish, I opted to serve hash brown potatoes. Have you noticed how many bad renditions of them are out there? I know it's a matter of personal taste, but I like the potatoes crispy, not mushy, and chunky, not shredded. No peppers, please. The onions: slightly caramelized but not burnt and not white. The whole lot needs to be seasoned far beyond salt and pepper.
It has taken me 20 years to get hash browns just right. Here's what I have figured out: The onions and potatoes must be cooked separately to ensure both are spot-on perfect. If you cook them together, you run the risk that the moisture in the onions will make the potatoes too soft. Saute the onions until golden brown, then mix them with garlic and thyme. The potatoes should preferably be day-old baked, cubed russets; deep-fry them in canola oil until crisp. Then unite the main components and finish with smoked and sweet paprikas, onion and garlic powders, cayenne and black peppers, and salt. Optimally, hash browns should be served immediately after they're made.
A meal that features eggs has to be timed correctly, because eggs cannot wait. That means either having the eggs and potatoes working at the same time or, if you must, cooking the potatoes first and keeping them warm (either held in a warming drawer or reheated quickly in a separate skillet). So don't hesitate to ask for help.
Brunch should be casual and interactive but still do-ahead where possible. For this one, I started with a small cheese, fruit and charcuterie assortment. Mimosas to drink. I served a side salad of radicchio, oranges and pepitas (toasted pumpkin seeds) with the main course and ended with a dessert of poached pears. All of that was prepped in advance. Before guests arrived, I assembled the jars of eggs and their fillings so they were ready for the oven.