- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 27, 2005

As I worked on my new book “The New American Cooking,” peeking into kitchens from California to Connecticut, I kept thinking that brunch, more than any other meal, reflects the way American food has changed during the past 40 years.

With our increasingly diverse culture and the melting pot of ingredients that suddenly have become American — wasabi, fresh ginger root and cilantro, sugar snap peas, goat cheese, kiwi and mango, to name a few — our food is becoming a global mix. It seems fun and appropriate to celebrate some of these new flavors on New Year’s Day, and what better setting than brunch — that wonderful meal, peculiar to America, that gives us time to slow down and savor our friends and our food.

Although this late-morning repast has been around for years, it has taken the place of the more formal Sunday lunch. Brunch can be elaborate, as all-you-can-eat buffets at hotels and restaurants have shown us, or it can be quite simple, with dishes such as huevos rancheros, a hearty Latin American breakfast made of tortillas, eggs, beans and chili sauce. Brunch allows us time to try new flavors.

No one seems to eat ordinary pancakes anymore. Now it’s blue corn pancakes made popular by chef Bradley M. Ogden of the Lark Creek Restaurant Group in San Francisco, or ricotta pancakes with lemon and poppy seeds from the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco. Tropical smoothies are all the rage, as are Asian dim sum, South American burritos filled with eggs and beans, hearty Vietnamese meat soups and breakfast buns of all persuasions.

The following menu reflects the new American brunch. Traveling across the country, I tasted many versions of huevos rancheros in search of one I could serve in my own home. The recipe that follows is just about perfect.

When making French toast with egg-rich breads such as challah and brioche, you can slice the bread as thick as you want. I learned from my daughter Merissa to scatter apples and bananas on top of the butter and brown sugar. This make-ahead dish is wonderful for a brunch.

You can substitute strawberries or apples for the bananas, if you prefer. Serve the dish with bacon or sausage or sauteed apples, onions and grapes. I especially like a breakfast fruit salad with ginger root and mint, inspired by one I ate at Prune, a tiny, homey restaurant on New York’s Lower East Side. You can change the fruits you use with the season. If you don’t want to bother with ginger syrup, just sprinkle crystallized ginger over the fruit.

To round out the brunch, I would serve potica (pronounced po-TEET-sa), a paper-thin sweet bread filled with walnuts, honey, sugar and butter. Croatians who came to Minnesota’s Iron Range to work the mines at the turn of the century likely brought this delicacy with them. But now just about everyone in Hibbing, Minn., serves it at Christmas, weddings and other celebrations.

For years, most people in Hibbing bought potica at the Sunrise Bakery, which still makes it the old-fashioned way: stretching the dough until you can read through it, then sprinkling the nut filling on top and rolling it up. My easy version, which uses puff pastry instead of strudel dough, won accolades from a friend who was raised on the Iron Range and on the potica there.

So as we look forward toward 2006, let’s not forget to celebrate the old, which often can teach us important lessons about cooking, thinking and cherishing even as we sometimes use updated recipes that still have the authentic taste of our childhoods.

The following recipes tare from my book “The New American Cooking” (Knopf).

Huevos rancheros

1 cup black beans or pinto beans, cooked and drained, or 2 cups canned

1 cup red chili sauce (recipe follows)

6 blue or yellow corn tortillas

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1/4 cup ( stick) butter

10 large eggs

1/4 cup milk

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese

1 cup salsa

cup sour cream

cup chopped cilantro

Preheat broiler and grease a 9-by-13-inch casserole.Heat the beans and the red chili sauce separately, either in saucepans or in the microwave.

Brush each tortilla on both sides with vegetable oil. Set a dry skillet over high heat. When pan is hot, add tortillas, one at a time, and heat, turning once, until soft, about 5 seconds on each side. Wrap tortillas in a cotton towel to keep them warm.

Melt butter in skillet. Mix eggs with milk and salt and pepper to taste, and pour into pan. Cook slowly, stirring, until eggs are lightly scrambled and still moist. Remove from heat.

Place tortillas in prepared casserole, overlapping them to cover the entire bottom. Scatter beans over tortillas and top with eggs. Ladle dollops of chili sauce over eggs and sprinkle cheese over all. You can make this dish an hour or so ahead of time up to this point.

Place casserole under broiler for a few minutes until cheese melts. Garnish with dollops of salsa, sour cream and chopped cilantro, and serve immediately. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

RED CHILI SAUCE:

15 dried red New Mexico chilies, about 2 packed cups, stemmed, seeded and rinsed

onion, coarsely chopped

2 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon kosher salt or more

teaspoon ground cumin

Place dried chilies in an enameled or other nonreactive pot and cover with about 2 cups water. To keep chilies submerged, cover them with a plate slightly smaller than the circumference of the pot and soak them until they’re soft, about 20 minutes.

When chilies are fully rehydrated, remove plate and add onion, garlic, oregano, 1 teaspoon salt and cumin to the pot. Bring water to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes.

Drain contents of pot, reserving liquid. Working in batches, place chilies, onion and garlic in a blender, filling it about 3/4 full. Add about cup of the reserved liquid and blend to a thick, ketchuplike consistency. (You may need to adjust the amount of liquid you add.)

When sauce is blended, pass it through a fine-mesh strainer to remove unblended chilies and seeds. The finished chili sauce should be smooth and thick. Repeat until all chilies are used. Add more salt to taste, if desired. Store sauce in a plastic container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days or freeze it for up to 2 months. To heat, put sauce in a nonreactive pan over medium-low heat, stirring frequently to prevent scorching. Makes about 1 cups.

Breakfast fruit saladwith ginger and mint

GINGER SYRUP:

cup sugar

1 2-inch piece fresh ginger root, peeled

FRUIT SALAD:

1 apple, diced

1 pint blueberries

1 cup diced honeydew melon

1 cup diced cantaloupe

1 cup red or green grapes

2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

To make the syrup, put 1 cup water, sugar and ginger root in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer uncovered to reduce the liquid by half, about 20 minutes. Set aside.

To make the fruit salad, toss apple, blueberries, honeydew, cantaloupe and grapes together in a large bowl. Add a few tablespoons of the ginger syrup and sprinkle mint on top. Makes about 8 servings.

Baked French toast with caramelized fresh fruit

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

3/4 cup dark brown sugar

2 tablespoons maple or corn syrup

4 bananas or equal amounts of sliced apple or strawberries in season

6 1-inch-thick even-size slices of bread, such as challah or brioche

11/21/2 cups half-and-half

6 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

Confectioners’ sugar for garnish

Melt butter, brown sugar, and maple or corn syrup in a saucepan, stirring to break up brown sugar. Bring to a boil and continue to cook for 2 minutes without stirring. Then coat bottom of a 9-by-13-inch pan with this syrup and cool.

Cut bananas in -inch thick circles. (To use apples, peel and core them, then slice in rings; cut strawberries lengthwise.) Scatter fruit over syrup in pan. Trim crust from bread, if you wish, to make slices uniform (I don’t usually bother) and arrange bread over fruit.

Blend together half-and-half, eggs and vanilla in a large mixing bowl and carefully pour mixture over bread in pan, making sure that all the bread is well-soaked. You might have to use a spatula to pat down bread or spoon some of egg mixture over pieces. Refrigerate overnight.

When ready to bake, remove casserole from refrigerator. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 30 to 40 minutes, or until golden brown on top. Let cool 10 minutes before serving. Run a knife around inside of pan. Invert a platter on top and carefully flip pan over onto it. There will be a lovely fruit pattern on top. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar, cut into portions and serve immediately. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Toni’s caramelized California onions with apples

1/4 cup ( stick) butter

3 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil

1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced in rings

6 Granny Smith or other tart apples (about 3 pounds), unpeeled, cored and cut in 16 slices

1 cup red seedless grapes

Heat butter and oil in a large frying pan. Saute onion rings slowly over medium-low heat until limp. Add apple slices, stirring as you incorporate them with the onions, and cook for about 15 minutes. When apples have softened, toss in grapes, stirring for a few minutes until everything is warmed through. Turn out onto a serving platter and serve. Makes 6 servings.

Potica (Iron Range walnut coffee cake)

Butter for greasing pan

10 ounces walnuts (3 cups)

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup light brown sugar

2 tablespoons honey

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 large egg

4 tablespoons light or heavy cream, divided

2 sheets prepared puff pastry dough (about 17.3 ounces)

1 egg yolk

Grease a 9-by-1-inch jellyroll pan. To prepare filling, put walnuts in a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Add granulated and brown sugars, honey, cinnamon, egg and 3 tablespoons cream; pulse a few times, until mixture is consistency of a chunky paste.

Flour a table or other flat surface and roll out 1 sheet of puff pastry dough to form a 12- by 16-inch rectangle. Smear half the filling all over the dough, leaving a 1-inch border all around. Starting at the narrower 12-inch end, roll up puff pastry like a jellyroll, tightly but gently, tucking in the sides as you roll. Place dough in baking pan. Repeat with second sheet and remainder of filling. Mix egg yolk with the remaining tablespoon of cream and brush the glaze over the potica.

Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for about 45 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool slightly and transfer to a serving plate. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes 2 loaves; about 12 servings.

Joan Nathan’s other cookbooks include “The Foods of Israel Today” and “Jewish Cooking in America” (Knopf).

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