By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
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.
Because the eggs are the stars of this show, buy the very best farm-fresh variety you can find. I procured organic omega-3 large brown eggs from my local high-end grocery store, but they literally paled in comparison with the Grade AA eggs I bought at the Georgetown Farmers Market from Will Morrow. The lawyer-turned-farmer co-owns certified-organic Whitmore Farm in Emmitsburg, Md., where he specializes in heritage breed animals raised on pasture. (The market, at Rose Park at 26th and O streets NW, is open from 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesdays through October.)
That the Whitmore Farm eggs are special is obvious at first glance; some are white, others tan, pale blue or varying shades of brown with speckles. The eggs come from Leghorns and four specialty breeds of chickens (Ameraucana, Marans, Delaware and Welsummer), which explains the color array.
When I compared the store-bought with Whitmore's side by side, the color difference between their yolks was stunning.
"The rich yolk color is primarily due to the fact our chickens are moved daily to fresh clover and grasses high in the antioxidant vitamin beta carotene," Morrow said. "Butter made from milk from grass-fed cows also has a bright saturated color that would surprise most people. It's not that these foods are so unusually bright in color; it's that the bulk of our food nowadays is so unnaturally pale because it's coming from unhealthy animals."
The texture and taste differences were obvious, too. The whites of the grocery store eggs were thinner and the yolks blander than those of the Whitmore eggs, which had a more viscous mouth feel. Lesson to be learned? For an eggy brunch, spring for the $5-per-dozen eggs with the pedigree. It's only about 83 cents a serving.
Get some extra ones while you're at it. One of the most charming and memorable host gifts I ever received was a clutch of farm-fresh eggs nested in a square glass vase. I used the same vase, filled with Whitmore Farm eggs, as a centerpiece for my fall brunch. If I had wanted to expand on the theme, I could have written my guests' names on eggs, put them in egg cups and used them as place cards.
But I would have had to erase some other names first. Rose Woodsmall, who works for Morrow, writes the names of her favorite hens on some of the eggs they laid: Queen Beatrix, Madge, Emma, Laura and Martha Moo, to name a few.
When's the last time you ate an egg you knew on a first-name basis?
David Hagedorn is a chef and former restaurateur. His Real Entertaining column appears monthly. He can be reached at email@example.com.