We hosted brunch on Sunday for a small group: just four guests plus ourselves. Our table seats six (or eight with great intimacy) so the invitation list was judiciously selected and I had to take care not to mention the brunch to those not invited, for fear of upsetting them.
We could invite larger groups but I find if we have more than the six or tight eight, the party has to become a buffet where people are sitting on the couch and elsewhere to eat. That is an unwieldy thing to do, limiting the menu options and increasing the work for the hosts. I like brunch to be an easy, fun affair.
We invited Ken and Chai, Roka and Doug, the same group who joined for Christmas Eve dinner at Bacco Italian restaurant. The conversation had been lively, ranging across myriad topics and especially literature and travel, so I wanted to resurrect the spirit of that evening but in an afternoon setting.
The menu was mostly make-ahead:
- 24-hour omelet from Cook’s Illustrated “The Best Make-Ahead Recipe” cookbook
- Mixed greens salad with sesame dressing
- Steamed artichokes with balsamic mayonnaise sauce
- Mixed breads
- Chunky lemon meringue pie from Sunset Magazine
The 24-hour omelet is similar to a strata, but with less bread, and is combined in a dish and refrigerated overnight so all the work is done in advance. I managed to not follow the recipe carefully and had to do a little improvisation halfway through, resulting in a little drier, breadier dish than it is supposed to be.
Top: Ingredients are assembled including buttered sandwich bread, eggs, cheese, roasted green chilies, minced onion, and milk. I managed to forget the milk so after assembly had to mix two more eggs and some milk together and pour it on top of the dish, poking holes with a fork so it would soak into the bread. Ultimately, too many eggs and not enough milk. I’ll follow the recipe correctly next time.
Above left and right: The dish right after assembly and then the dish after a night soaking in the refrigerator.
Below: The finished product, crispy and cheesy and puffed up and golden brown. And some cookies behind it for the guests to take home.
Chunky Lemon Meringue Pie
Sunset magazine is a staple of my childhood and young adulthood living in the Western United States (“Living in the West” is their tagline) and I continue to subscribe to it because it captures a lifestyle and way of living that is appealing to me. This lifestyle is exemplified by the patio, and outdoor space that in most Western US states you can spend much of your time throughout the year, entertaining, barbecueing, having drinks, etc.
The recipe for chunky lemon meringue pie caught my eye because I like lemon meringue but often feel the lemon filling is a bit monotone when it comes to texture. The idea of macerating very thinly sliced lemons for twenty-four hours until they became edible was an interesting twist.
Sadly, lemons in Thailand (imported from somewhere despite our abundance of home grown limes) don’t seem to be the same as lemons in the US and despite my best efforts to slice them as thin as possible, the pie ended up a little too chunky and a little too tart, even with two cups of sugar added!
Also, the recipe didn’t specify the doneness the lemon filling should be at before removing it from the oven, only a time and temperature. When I pulled it out, it was still a little soft in the center, but I rationalized that since there was another 25 minutes to cook once the meringue was added, maybe it would set up during that time. In fact, I should have cooked it until it was more set, maybe with only the slightest of jiggles in the center.
Below left: Before baking. Below right: After baking.
You can see how the center of the pie has oozed out and not held its shape, so the meringue, when being cut, didn’t have any support underneath and crushed into nothingness.
The meringue was also interesting because the recipe called for adding both brown and white sugars, resulting in a tan colored meringue that was visually less appealing than the usual contrast between the bright white interior and the browned exterior.
Despite the challenges, the look was impressive after it was all finished, below.
So the cooking of the brunch proved to be much less interesting than the brunch itself. We still had leftover flowers from the photo shoot, so decoration was very easy. The conversation ran smoothly and we had an enjoyable time all the way until the guests left about three hours later. The two bottles of Chardonnay were tasty, one from Napa and the other from the Santa Cruz Mountains and they were so different, despite being grown just 100 miles apart, and gave the afternoon sort of a hazy quality that Anita and Colleen (two of my roommates in San Francisco) liked to as Chardonnay Sunday.
The entertainment for the day came from Chai , for whom coming to eat at my house must be torture. He had never seen a whole artichoke nor had any idea what to do with it. When I was growing up, since I grew up just 30 miles from the artichoke capital of the world, we would steam artichokes and eat them with melted butter for dinner.
Chai just looked at the thistle as if I were a crazy man for even suggesting that he try it.
Below we have a picture of Ken pointing to one of the leaves of the choke, trying to convince Chai that it is in fact edible. I think he tried one leaf and that was enough.
Also, once the chunky lemon pie arrived he was busily scraping out the chunky pieces and saying to Tawn, in Thai, that he had never eaten something like that before – so bitter and so many pieces you couldn’t chew. I promised him that next time I’ll stick with more standard food!
Now, before anyone pulls out the Miss Manners book and talks about being a good guest, let me just say in Chai’s defense that I like having friends who will be appreciative of the work I’ve put into the meal but will also share with me their honest thoughts. That helps me improve my cooking and choose foods that are appropriate for my diverse group of guests.
Finally, while we were setting up for the party, Tawn asked me to take a picture of him with his favorite guru, Ina Garten. For any of you who don’t know, Garten is a contemporary of Martha Stewart with a series of cookbooks and a TV show on the Food Network.
The difference that I perceive between Garten and Stewart is that Stewart is more about meticulous perfection, whereas Garten is willing to take shortcuts (frozen pastry dough, for example) so long as the quality remains high. As she points out, if you can’t have fun at your own parties because you’re busy running around, then there’s no point in having parties.
Garten started out with a store called Barefoot Contessa in East Hampton, NY. I became familiar with the store (which was shown in early scenes in the 2003 Nancy Meyers’ film starring Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson, Something’s Gotta Give) the two years I worked as an operations manager at the Hampton International Film Festival. Sadly, the store closed in 2004 although the brand lives on through cookbooks.
Anyhow, I’d debate that Tawn is probably more Martha Stewart and I am more Ina Garten, but at least we agree on the ideals of simplicity and enjoyment when entertaining. And one of these days we’ll actually achieve those ideals!