WHEN THEY record the second decline and fall of Western civilization, brunch will undoubtedly be mentioned as one of the early clues that we were bent on pleasure and self-indulgence. Unlike W dinner parties, which tend to fall at the end of a day of hard work or hard play, brunches come early enough in the day so that we haven't accomplished anything serious, yet late enough so that we have been able to get a full measure of sleep, rise at a leisurely pace, snuggle with our loved ones or work in a quick game of tennis. If the host has exercised good sense, the group will be composed of good friends or amiable acquaintances ripe for mellow conversation, affectionate joking and the kind of food you simply don't have time or appetite for the rest of the week, presented with the kind of flair that is far more heartwarming Sundays at noon than it is Saturday evenings at 8.
A good brunch is a feast for the senses: the bright colors of fresh fruit and refreshing drinks caught in the morning light, the compelling aroma of hot coffee and bacon or sausages, the tantalizing sweetness of a sticky bun, the saltiness of smoked fish, the richness of a waffle in maple syrup or a cheese omelet, the soft yellowness of butter spread on nut bread, the simple pleasure of a fresh croissant dipped in cafe au lait, the succulence and beauty of the season's first cherries, the civilized sound of Vivaldi mingled with the morning chatter of good friends in a good mood, the chirping of birds outside, the cessation, however briefly, of the week's tension and frustrations.
Brunch offers nothing but advantages. On the whole, it's cheaper than an evening meal (or can be), it's easy to prepare--indeed, lends itself to foods that don't need preparing or can be prepared the day before--and although it can be elegant, is generally more informal than other meals, so that once you set the food out the guests can help themselves.
Breakfast is generally a bland meal, but brunch needn't be, although it should include bland components, and must include those staples without which some people cannot begin a day: coffee and tea, some kind of fruit or fruit juice and something akin to, though probably fancier than, toast or cereal (in short, a starch). For many people, the first meal of the day means eggs, and if you're a good hand at an omelet, or are capable of making eggs benedict en masse, you may opt for a traditional egg dish. Consider whether your friends will be made happier by a plate of sticky buns or an elegant presentation of blini with melted butter, sour cream and caviar. Or perhaps you will decide to mix the reassuringly familiar with the exotic, serving french toast or waffles and mango with cream cheese.
If money is no object, you can make things easy with clever grocery shopping. A bowl of smoked whitefish or trout salad from a deli, a bowl of grapes, an assortment of cheeses and cold sausages, a platter of figs and prosciutto and several kinds of bread provide an exquisite start to the day.
Your brunch menu may include two or three items or as many as 20. Julia Child, in the delicious "Julia Child & Company," gives recipes for a breakfast party menu that includes eggs benedict with homemade english muffins, corned beef hash, saute'ed chicken livers, sour cream and bread crumb flapjacks, scrapple, homemade sausage cakes, fresh fruit, milk, fruit juices and bloody marys. A meal to dream on, but one of the nicest brunches I attended featured only scrambled eggs, steak and kidney pie, and white wine--plus coffee, of course, and juice. And I shall never forget a brunch that stretched on through the afternoon despite a menu of a single dish, huevos rancheros, fried eggs served on a tortilla surrounded by a salsa of tomatoes and jalapeno peppers, served with flour tortillas and butter on the side, and washed down by more margaritas than I care to, or can, remember.
On the whole, simpler is better. You can knock yourself out making a fancy dish only to discover that the crowd is gravitating to a bowl of fresh cherries or the platter of ham. If it gives you pleasure to offer your guests something exotic, the possibilities are endless-- scrambled eggs served with caviar in a brioche and scrambled eggs cooked with smoked salmon are just a start. Whatever you serve, do as much shopping and preparation as possible the day before, make at least one or two dishes a day in advance, set the table the night before and organize things so that the morning of the brunch all you have to do is assemble everything and prepare at most one or two special dishes that can be done only at the last minute. Be sure to allow enough space in your refrigerator for drinks and food, and have coffee available the minute the first guest arrives.
To help you plan your next brunch, here are some menu possibilities, by category, followed by some recipes that have proved successful.
Egg dishes: Crepes or omelets (perhaps with a choice of two or three main-course fillings, and a dessert filling later), quiches, cheese strata, souffle's, frittatas, eggs benedict or mornay as well as fried or scrambled, huevos rancheros.
In the flapjack line: Pancakes (plain or special--for example, with blueberries, sour cream or corn), waffles, french toast.
On the lunchier side: Dumplings and other dim sum specialties, veal or another pa te', fish or vegetable terrine, spinach pie, brie en croute, seafood salad, steak and kidney pie, casseroles, blintzes, blini, deli salads.
Breads: Rye, pumpernickel, white or wheat (a good loaf, not standard prepackaged fare), croissants, brioches, english muffins, bran muffins, bagels (don't forget the cream cheese), scones (hot, with Devonshire cream and berries or preserves), biscuits, Irish soda bread, corn bread, even regular toast, or perhaps a platter of raisin bread toast for old time's sake.
Meat and fish: Bacon, ham, sausage links or patties, spicy Italian sausages, steak, pork chops, saute'ed chicken livers, cold sausages, mixed grill (especially sausages and lamb kidneys), creamed chipped beef on toast, broiled kippered herring, Nova Scotia salmon or lox, sable and other smoked fish, finnan haddie, poached salmon or trout.
Potatoes and other side dishes: Hash browns, corned beef hash, potato pancakes, scrapple, grits.
Fresh fruits and vegetables: Fruit bowl (possibly in a hollowed-out melon), cherry tomatoes or tomato wedges, grilled tomato halves, fried green tomatoes, crudites, spinach souffle', fruit or vegetable salads, tossed green salad, stewed rhubarb, prosciutto and melon or figs, or just a bowl of fruit or fruits: figs, melon, grapes, orange sections or slices, cherries, berries, papaya, mango, kiwi, bananas, citrus fruits.
Pastries (at least one): Danish, coffee cake, sticky buns (cinnamon rolls, pecan rolls, whatever), nut cakes, doughnuts, berry tarts, cheesecake, madeleines or other cookies.
Condiments: Sugar, cream, sugar substitute, jams, jellies, preserves or marmalades, cream cheese (and chives), butter and margarine, salt, pepper.
Hot drinks: Coffee, tea, cocoa, possibly Postum or Ovaltine, cappuccino, espresso, cafe au lait (espresso or strong coffee with hot milk, in equal parts), or cocoa mocha. To make your hot drinks fancier, offer whipped cream to top them.
Cold non-alcoholic drinks: Orange juice, tomato juice, grapefruit juice, a yogurt smoothie (yogurt, fruit and honey in a blender), frulatta di frutta.
Alcoholic drinks: Mimosa (orange juice and champagne), kir, white wine, champagne, bloody marys, frozen daiquiris (especially strawberry), French 75s, pina coladas, whiskey sours, margaritas. It's nice to serve these in frosted glasses; simply dip a wine glass in water and put it in the freezer a few minutes until it frosts over. FRULATTA DI FRUTTA (1 or 2 servings)
I discovered this wonderful way to start the day near the Piazza Navona in Rome. 2 or 3 ripe peaches 1 teaspoon sugar (or to taste) 1 cup milk (or to taste)
Combine in a blender and drink while foamy. The tastier the peach, the better the frulatta, and you can vary the taste by tossing in berries or whichever other fruit is looking good that day. Serves 1 as a whole breakfast, two as a drink taken with other foods. COCOA MOCHA (12 servings)
Any camper will tell you that there is nothing better than a mixture of instant cocoa and instant coffee for breakfast on the trail. You can mix a little cocoa with your coffee in the coffee maker, or you can get a little fancier, as with this recipe. This mix keeps for up to one week in the refrigerator. 4-ounce bar German sweet chocolate, melted 15-ounce can sweetened condensed milk 1 cup whipping cream, whipped
Melt chocolate with condensed milk in the top of a double boiler over low heat. Stir occasionally. Cool. Fold whipped cream into cooled chocolate mixture. To serve: put 1/4 cup of mixture into a mug. Fill to the top with hot coffee. Stir and serve. Store any remaining mixture covered in the refrigerator. From "The Brunch Cookbook" FRENCH 75 (1 serving)
Few drinks go down so easily as the elegant French 75, but it is devastating if drunk in a large quantity, so limit the amount served. 1 cube superfine sugar 1 ounce good brandy Chilled champagne to fill glass 1 or 2 pieces fresh fruit (orange slice, berry, etc.)
Place a sugar cube in the bottom of a tall, thin fluted wine glass and pour an ounce of brandy over it. You can do this before guests arrive. When the sugar has dissolved, and you are ready to serve the drink, fill the glass with chilled champagne and serve with a piece or two of fresh fruit in it. KIR (1 serving)
Nothing could be simpler to make than this popular white-wine-and-liqueur combination. 1 teaspoon cre me de cassis, raspberry syrup or pureed frozen raspberries White wine for the glass
For each serving, put a teaspoonful of creme de cassis (a black currant liqueur) into a wine glass and fill the glass with a chilled, crisp, dry white wine--an inexpensive one will do nicely. You can also substitute raspberry syrup for the liqueur (though it will be hard to find), or use seeded, pure'ed frozen raspberries--but then you increase the proportion of flavoring to wine. MIMOSA
This classic brunch drink is called Bucks Fizz in England. For each serving you simply combine equal parts freshly squeezed orange juice and champagne, and if you can't afford champagne you'll find that most of your guests will be perfectly content with sparkling wine. Do make the effort to squeeze the orange juice yourself, though--it improves the drink greatly. RAMONA KASHE'S WHISKEY SOUR PUNCH (4 servings) 2/3 cup lemon juice 1/3 cup sugar 8 ounces bourbon 28-ounce bottle club soda Crushed ice
Mix lemon juice, sugar and bourbon and shake. Add club soda, stir briefly to mix and pour over crushed ice. (To increase the quantity and fill a punch bowl, use 2 cups lemon juice, 1 cup sugar, a fifth of bourbon and 3 bottles of soda.) When she has the time, and they're the right price, Kashe squeezes fresh lemon juice. JANE BUTEL'S HUEVOS RANCHEROS (4 servings)
This variation of the spicy huevos rancheros is the favorite of Jane Butel, who discovered it in a sunny little Mexican border restaurant and included it in "Jane Butel's Tex-Mex Cookbook." She suggests serving it with additional warm flour or corn tortillas on the side, with sweet butter and honey. For the sauce: 8 to 12 green jalapeno chilies, parched (see below), peeled and chopped 2 tablespoons bacon drippings or melted butter 2 medium-sized onions, thinly sliced and separated into rings 4 medium-sized tomatoes, sliced into thin wedges 1/4 cup flour 1 clove garlic, finely minced 1 teaspoon salt Dash of ground cumin 3 cups chicken stock (or less)
For huevos rancheros: 4 to 8 flour tortillas (corn tortillas can be substituted) 4 to 8 eggs 1 cup grated monterrey jack or cheddar cheese 2 cups coarsely shredded romaine lettuce 1 medium-sized tomato, cut into 12 thin wedges, or 12 cherry tomatoes
To parch green chilies, rinse the chilies, drain them and pierce each chili close to the stem, using a sharp pointed knife or toothpick, and piercing twice if the chili is large. Place the chilies on a cookie sheet covered with foil and broil--about 4 to 6 inches from an electric broiler unit, or in top position under a gas broiler. Rotate chilies as they turn amber and the skin blisters. Blister uniformly. Remove chilies from cookie sheet and place in a bowl, covered with a cold, damp towel for 10 minutes to steam the chilies and make peeling easier. (Don't put them in ice water or they will get soggy.) Starting at the stem end, peel the outer skin downward, removing the seeds and ribs after taking off the stem. (If you leave the seeds in, you get a fiery sauce.) Chilies can be frozen either before or after peeling. They peel much easier after freezing, and retain their shape better if frozen with peeling on.
To prepare sauce, melt butter in a frying pan over medium heat. Add the onions, tomatoes and chilies, and cook until onions are translucent. Add the flour and stir and cook until well blended.
Add garlic and seasonings and the stock (use less stock if a very thick sauce is desired). Cook until the sauce becomes smooth and continue to cook for about 15 minutes to blend the flavors. You can freeze the sauce for up to three months. Meanwhile, prepare the rest of recipe:
Wrap tortillas in foil, allowing 1 or 2 per person. Place foil packages on plates to be used for serving (Mexican pottery is nice) and set in 350-degree oven. (At the same time, you can also warm the extra tortillas you are serving as a bread.)
Just before serving, poach the eggs in boiling water with a tablespoon of vinegar in it. To serve, unwrap the warm tortillas and place them in the center of the warmed plates. Top each tortilla with 1 or 2 poached eggs.
Spoon on sauce, dividing it equally among the four servings. Top each serving with 1/4 cup grated cheese. Return to the oven until cheese melts, 2 to 5 minutes. Encircle each plate with shredded lettuce, and place 3 tomato wedges or cherry tomatoes on top of the lettuce. Serve immediately. SHRIMP AND CHEESE STRATA (4 to 6 servings)
The texture of a strata is similar to that of a souffle', but stratas are much less temperamental. You can bake them and serve them half an hour to an hour later, though they are best served while still warm. 6 slices firm white bread, crusts removed 4 tablespoons melted butter 1 cup grated swiss cheese 2 scallions, chopped 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley 1/2 pound tiny cooked shrimp 3 eggs 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon dijon mustard 1 1/2 cups milk 1/2 cup sour cream
Cut each slice of bread in half on the diagonal, or cut into cubes. Dip in melted butter. Arrange half the bread slices or cubes in an unbuttered 8-inch baking or pie dish. Sprinkle with half the cheese, onions, parsley and shrimp. Add remaining bread and repeat process. Beat eggs, salt, mustard, milk and sour cream together. Pour over casserole. Cover and chill overnight. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes, or until puffed and golden. Cut into squares or wedges and serve. From "The Brunch Cookbook" FRESH ZUCCHINI FRITTATA (4 servings)
A magazine-cover bright and pretty dish that will lend a festive note to your brunch table, this is easy to prepare and tastes good, too. 2 tablespoons butter or margarine 1/4 cup thinly sliced scallions 2 cups thinly sliced zucchini (unpeeled, but with ends trimmed) 8 eggs 1/2 cup water 1 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/8 teaspoon hot pepper sauce 1/2 cup finely diced fresh tomato
Melt butter in ovenproof skillet or any pan that can be used both on the range and in the oven. Add onion and zucchini and saute' quickly until just crisp-tender. Beat eggs just to blend whites and yolks; stir in water, salt and hot pepper sauce. Pour over zucchini in skillet; sprinkle tomato over top. Let cook on medium heat for about 5 minutes, then bake in 350-degree oven for 20 minutes or until eggs are set and top is dry. From "The Greengrocer Cookbook" ONION AND CHEESE QUICHE (4 to 6 servings)
You can make this easy quiche ahead of time and warm it up for brunch. It is also excellent when you return home from work short on time. 9-inch unbaked pie shell 1/2 pint whipping cream 4 eggs, plus a couple of extra yolks for richness (optional) Dash of nutmeg 2 dashes salt and pepper 4 medium-sized onions 3 tablespoons butter 1 tablespoon vegetable oil 1/2 cup grated swiss or gruyere cheese
Bake the pie shell in 450-degree oven for 5 minutes, then remove and set aside. Reduce oven heat to 375 degrees.
Make custard by combining the whipping cream, 4 eggs, nutmeg, salt and pepper and beating until smooth.
Slice onions in thin rings, and saute' them in the butter and oil until they are limp but not brown. Some recipes say to cook them slowly for about an hour, but this quiche tastes good even if you don't do that, and you can even put the onions in raw.
Spread the onions in the partially baked pie shell, then the grated cheese, then pour the custard over the cheese and onions; it will fill the pie shell to the top. Bake on a cookie sheet in a 375-degree oven for about 30 minutes, or until the top is lightly browned and a knife inserted in the custard comes out clean. Allow the pie to rest before cutting it. MAYBELLE SCOTT'S BANANA NUT BREAD (Makes a 9-by-5-inch loaf)
This super-easy banana bread is an excellent way to use overripe bananas, which can be peeled and frozen until you're ready to use them (never mind that they turn black and mushy). Make this bread a day or two ahead of time, because it tastes better if it ripens a bit before you eat it. At the brunch, slice it thinly and let the slices fall forward from the loaf in a pretty pattern. Serve with butter on the side, for those who can afford to butter dessert breads. 2/3 cup butter 1 1/2 cups sugar 2 eggs 4 bananas, mashed with a fork 3 tablespoons milk 2 teaspoons vinegar 1 teaspoon vanilla 2 cups flour 1 teaspoon baking soda 1 teaspoon baking powder Dash of salt 1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
Cream butter and sugar, make a well in that mixture and add the eggs. Beat them lightly and then work them into the creamed sugar. Add the mashed bananas and all the liquid ingredients, mix a little, then add the flour and all the dry ingredients. Add the walnuts last. Except for a bowl to mash the bananas in, this can be a one-bowl batter. Lightly grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan, and bake bread 30 to 45 minutes in a 325-degree oven--baking time varies widely, probably related to the moistness of the bananas. The cake-bread is done when a toothpick inserted comes out clean, by which time the bread will pull away from the sides of the loaf pan, too.
For an interesting variation, add about a cup of pumpkin pure'e, an extra half cup or so of flour and a dash of nutmeg or cinnamon. CLIFF READ'S LEMON CHEESECAKE (Makes a 9-inch pie)
Adapted from a recipe Read saw on television years ago, this cheesecake recipe has a tartness that cuts the sweet blandness of most cheesecakes, but not the calories. For the pie crust: 1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs (about 9 double crackers) 1/2 cup butter, melted 1 teaspoon cinnamon
For the filling: 12 ounces cream cheese 2/3 cup sugar 2 eggs, lightly beaten 1 tablespoon lemon juice Grated rind of 2 lemons (grate only 1 lemon for milder taste)
For the topping: 1 cup sour cream 2 tablespoons sugar 1 tablespoon lemon juice
Crush the graham crackers between pieces of waxed paper with a bottle or rolling pin, and mix the crumbs well with the melted butter and cinnamon. Spread this mixture with your fingers in the bottom of a 9-inch pie pan, and let stand in the refrigerator for 10 minutes.
Mix the ingredients for the filling until smooth. Add to the pie shell and cook for 35 minutes at 350 degrees. Turn oven off, and remove cheesecake. Mix the ingredients for the topping, add the topping to the cheesecake, return cheesecake to the oven (which is turned off now), and leave for 5 minutes so topping can set. Put cheesecake in the refrigerator overnight.