When brunch is in the works, keep things appetizing yet easy to prepare

December 26, 1993|By Richard Sax | Richard Sax,Contributing Writer United Feature Syndicate

Rereading a column that James Beard wrote almost 20 years ago, I was amused to come across this pronouncement:

"Instead of the hearty, leisurely breakfasts of old, we now have a new institution and new word -- brunch. Brunch, which is essentially a late breakfast to which guests are bidden as they would be to lunch, is one of those contractions that fall disagreeably upon the ear. If you are going to invite people to a noontime meal, either call it a late breakfast or an early lunch, not a brunch. And do give some thought to what you serve." (From "James Beard's Simple Foods," Macmillan, 1993).

Well, yes and no. Disagreeable as the word "brunch" might sound, it still conveys a leisurely attitude to entertaining like no other. He was right about giving the menu some thought, however. At holiday time, thoughtful cooks look for perfect foods -- dishes that are tempting, delicious, healthful and, because time is at such a premium, easy to prepare.

Cranberry sunrise Makes about 14 cups

6 cups spiced cranberry syrup (recipe follows)

6 cups fresh orange juice

12 ounces (1 1/2 cups) Campari (optional)

ice cubes

seltzer or soda water

6 orange slices, halved

In a large pitcher, stir together cranberry syrup, orange juice and Campari, if using. Place several ice cubes in tall tumblers. Pour in the cranberry-orange mixture and add a splash of seltzer or soda water. Garnish with a slice of orange and serve immediately.

225 calories per cup: 1 gram protein; 0 grams fat; 58 grams carbohydrate; 2 milligrams sodium; 0 milligrams cholesterol.

Spiced cranberry syrup

Makes about 8 cups (and it's a nice pancake syrup, too)

3 1/2 cups sugar

2 lemons

3 pounds cranberries, picked over

6-8 thin slices fresh ginger

3 cinnamon sticks

Combine sugar with 6 cups cold water in a large heavy saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar has dissolved. Squeeze the juice from lemons, reserving rinds. Add the juice and rinds to the syrup, along with cranberries, ginger and cinnamon sticks. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and cook, uncovered, until most of the berries pop, 10 to 15 minutes, skimming any froth that rises to the surface. Remove from the heat and let stand for about a half hour.

Strain the syrup through a fine sieve, pressing down on the berries to release as much juice as possible. Cover and refrigerate until chilled. (The syrup can be stored, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.)

26 calories per tablespoon: 0 grams protein; 0 grams fat; 7 grams carbohydrate; 0 milligrams sodium; 0 milligrams cholesterol.

Tomato and spinach strata

Serves 12

TOMATO SAUCE:

1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil

1 onion, coarsely chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 28-ounce cans plum tomatoes, drained

1 bay leaf

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme or oregano

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste

STRATA:

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 onions, chopped

3/4 pound mushrooms, trimmed and thinly sliced (4 cups)

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 pounds nonfat cottage cheese

2 10-ounce packages chopped frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry, or 3 pounds fresh spinach, cooked, squeezed dry and chopped

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1 1-pound loaf best-quality Italian bread (preferably day-old), sliced into 1/4 -inch-thick slices

1/2 pound part-skim mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced

4 large eggs

4 large egg whites

2 cups skim milk

cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

TO MAKE TOMATO SAUCE: Heat olive oil in a large, heavy (preferably nonstick) saucepan over medium heat. Add onions and saute until softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Add garlic and saute 2 minutes longer. Add tomatoes, bay leaf and thyme or oregano. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring and breaking up tomatoes well with a fork or wooden spoon, until thickened, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove bay leaf. Stir in parsley and season with salt and pepper. Let cool. (The sauce can be made ahead and stored, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.)

TO MAKE STRATA: Lightly brush two 8-by-12-inch or similar shallow 2-quart baking dishes with vegetable oil, or spray with nonstick cooking spray. Heat 1 1/2 teaspoons of the olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and saute for 2 to 3 minutes. Lower heat to medium and cook until the onions are softened but not browned, 3 to 5 minutes longer. Transfer onions to a bowl.

Add the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil to the skillet; raise heat to medium-high. Add mushrooms and saute until the moisture has evaporated, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to the bowl with the onions and season the mixture with 1/4 teaspoon of the salt and 1/4 teaspoon of the pepper.

Line a medium-sized bowl with a double thickness of cheesecloth and spoon cottage cheese into center. Gather up the cheesecloth, squeeze and discard all the liquid from the cottage cheese. In the bowl, combine the pressed cottage cheese, spinach, nutmeg, the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.

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