The Pickle, a food and cooking advice column, was written by The Art of Gay Cooking author Daniel J. Isengart. You can follow all of his work at his website.
I am one of those “I don’t cook” people you find so puzzling. I live in a big city and don’t generally invite people over to my small apartment, but Sunday brunch feels like something even I can manage. My question: What brunchy dish has the best “easy to make” to “impressive to behold and taste” ratio?
By definition, brunch is a toss-up between breakfast and lunch, which means a leisurely extended meal that goes from sweet to savory. Three separate dishes are the minimum you should serve forth, but more variety won’t really be necessary if your selection is well-curated. Here is what I propose: a fruit macédoine, a quark mousse, and cheddar and scallion scones with bresaola (cured beef). That’s right: no pancakes and bacon; no bagels, lox, and cream cheese; no home fries; no frittata; no quiche.
When I accepted my first job as a private chef in the Hamptons, my original job description included the task of preparing breakfast, and I remember how my client proposed that all I would need to do is get fresh bagels with all the trimmings and “put out some fruit.” My interpretation of the latter was a fruit macédoine, a salad of finely diced fruit. It should contain at least five kinds of fruit and berries, peeled and diced to cubes no larger than ½ inch wide, preferably smaller. The trick is that you should never mix them, but instead pile them on top of each other, going from light and firm to dark and fragile. That way, the salad stays fresh longer and looks prettier: melons, apples, and pears (the latter two drizzled with lemon juice to prevent discoloration) on the bottom; topped by peaches, apricot, or mangoes; followed by strawberries, kiwis, plums, and grapes (which must be seedless or seeded, and halved); and finally, whole raspberries and blueberries. I never use bananas, finding them too dominating. Trust me, it’s always a hit, and looks like a bowl of jewels.
My quark mousse was one of the most-requested items at the popular potluck brunches that were common in my teenage years when I lived in Munich. Quark is a German fresh cheese—hard to find stateside, but fresh ricotta (not the stale kind found in sealed plastic containers next to cottage cheese in the dairy isle of generic supermarkets) or a really thick, full-fat Greek yogurt will do as a substitute.
Rinse 1 cup of dark raisins and soak them in warm water. When they are plump, drain them and lay them out on paper towels to soak up extra moisture. Rub the scraped seeds of a vanilla bean into ¾ cup of sugar, add the finely grated zest of 1 lemon and 4 egg yolks and beat everything to a soft ribbon (until the sugar is completely dissolved). Stir 1 quart of quark, fresh ricotta (previously passed through a fine-mesh sieve), or very thick, full-fat Greek yogurt into this mix. Add the drained raisins. Beat 2 egg whites, seasoned with a pinch of salt, to soft peaks and gently fold them into the cream. Serve chilled. The next level would be to make paper-thin crêpes, spreading some of the cream onto each before folding it over twice, layering the filled crêpes in on overlapping pattern into a buttered baking dish and baking them at 350 F for about 20 minutes until the filling is lightly puffed but still not fully set. Dust with confectioners’ sugar and serve warm. But I prefer the mousse chilled, eaten with a spoon.
For the scones, coarsely work ¾ stick of unsalted butter into 2 cups of flour mixed with 1 teaspoon of baking powder and 1½ teaspoons of kosher salt, using a pastry cutter, your fingers, or a food processor. Add one bunch of not-too-thinly sliced scallions, 1 cup of shredded sharp cheddar, and some coarsely crushed black pepper corns, toss everything with about ¾ cup of buttermilk until the dough barely holds together. Shape it into a flattened log; brush it with cream or milk; sprinkle it with poppy, anise, or caraway seeds; cut it into irregular triangles; and bake them at 375 F on a parchment paper–lined sheet pan for about 25 minutes, until golden brown. Serve with a platter of thinly sliced bresaola and some tender microgreens one the side.
I work from home. Every day I tell myself I’m going to eat something healthy-ish for lunch, and on way too many of those days, I end up making nachos. The problem with nachos is that they meet every single one of my lunch preferences other than healthy-ishness: They are crunchy, spicy, easy, and delicious. Please help me get out of this rut! I cook a nice, well-rounded dinner every night for my family, but when I’m alone, I revert to savagery.
There is a certain pleasure in eating alone and unobserved, but it’s true that primitive urges to gorge can come to the surface rather quickly. Best to plan ahead to prevent repeated excess. The first thing is to make sure that the things you try to avoid are not at hand. Avoid buying the stuff at all—I don’t know how you make your nachos but in the worst-case scenario, you might be using flavored corn chips and American yellow cheese.
The trick is to find a fun alternative that has a semblance of your beloved nachos and gives you the pleasure of crunch and intense flavor but won’t wreak havoc on your well-being in the long run. Here are some ideas before you can utter kale chips.
To ween yourself off fried corn chips, which are usually very oily and overly salty, you could make pita chips: split pocketed pita loaves into top and bottom halves (easier if you briefly microwave them), cut them into wedges, and toss them with a mix of water, soy sauce, olive oil, and spices of your choice—but hold off on garlic powder and “natural flavor”–saturated spice mixes, or you’ll end up at square one with something too close to what you are trying to avoid. One interesting flavor ingredient you might consider here in lieu of soy sauce is yeast flakes—quite salty and pleasantly complex, likely to hit your U-spot (U for umami). The ratio of pita and marinade should be about the same as dressing to a salad. Spread out the wedges on a parchment paper–lined sheet pan and bake at 350 F until crisp and golden, tossing them around now and then to make sure they are crisp throughout. You can make a large batch and store it in tin containers.
Next, since the combo of crunch and velvety is crucial (and Velveeta is out of the question), find an alternative for the gooey melted cheese. You could make a dip of Greek yogurt (or sour cream or a mix of the two) seasoned with za’atar (a Middle Eastern mix of crushed oregano, sesame seeds, and sumac, which adds a bit of acidity) or ground pecorino and hot sauce, or consider making a tahini dip (blend tahini with boiling hot water to the consistency of a creamy thick sauce and season it to taste). Bring yourself to incorporate some fresh ingredients like cucumber slices, sliced celery, and fennel or radishes, your body will thank you.
Another idea is to make quesadillas: two flour or corn tortillas, filled with grated Monterey Jack cheese and perhaps some slices of red onion and fresh jalapeño and a few cilantro leaves, pan-fried on both sides in an oil-sprayed pan until golden brown and served with sour cream, an avocado wedge, and hot sauce. Close enough to your nachos and yet so much more wholesome.
But should you suddenly find yourself—surprise!—in front of a bowl of chips after a blackout that led you to cheat and buy a pack of them, do the following: eat them with some fresh leaves of romaine or even iceberg lettuce. You can literally wrap the chips into the leaves before stuffing them into your mouth. You will still get the satisfaction of the salty-oily crunch, but you won’t feel dehydrated afterward, and you’ll probably eat less of them. For me, this has certainly been the final and most important game changer in my occasional potato chip cravings.
We’ve just upgraded to a new fridge in our house, and I’m wondering how you recommend organizing it. It has door sections of different sizes, three main shelves, two crisper drawers, and a narrower drawer, I think, for cheese? It’s so exciting to have a clean slate, and we want to set it up right!
What you store where is pretty much self-explanatory by the fridge’s layout, but the more people use it, the less likely you will be able to maintain the kind of order you’re dreaming of. The way I see it, it’s not so much the where but the how. Here are the basics:
Keep bottled drinks and milk on the tall top shelf; place condiments, jams, and butter in the door shelves. Store other dairy (yogurt, sour cream, etc.), larger condiments like that big jar of pickles, as well as all meats and fish in the middle part with the separate door sections; keep vegetables and berries in the crisper. That narrow drawer is probably not large enough to hold all your cheese (and if you buy it in chunks from an actual cheese store, like me, it definitely won’t), and we are past the days when keeping cheeses at room temperature, on the counter, arranged on a cheeseboard and protected by a glass dome, was the norm. I find that it’s good to have a large, designated cheese container, preferably made of glass or stainless steel, and sealable. Even so, each chunk should always be individually wrapped in plastic film or wax or parchment paper. The same goes for cold cuts, by the way.
A note on fruit: stone fruit, apples, and pears do not belong in the fridge, but should be neatly arranged in a large bowl, preferably made of wood, and please, please remove those ugly plastic stickers—they are a thorn in the eye of any aesthete. Grapes should be washed and also kept on the counter, in a separate bowl (place a folded paper towel on the bottom to absorb water droplets or they will get moldy really fast). Need I mention that potatoes, onions, and garlic also don’t belong into the fridge but need to be stored in a dry and dark place?
One of my pet peeves is finding vegetables and greens hiding in corners, undetected in their ugly plastic bags and well past their prime. And I all too often see lonely, forlorn leftovers—home-made or from takeout, in uncovered bowls or unsightly plastic containers, with no way to tell how old they are. I recommend getting an array of stackable glass containers with lids for leftovers. (I like square and rectangular ones because they are much more space efficient.) Make sure you get more midsize containers than seems reasonable: trust me, relying on small ones will bring about mild attacks of claustrophobia as you try to cram in leftover spaghetti or chicken thighs. Think big! If you want to be a Martha Stewart kind of neat freak, you can label containers with leftovers with a date. Make sure you get labels that come off without that unsightly residue. Or use masking tape as is common in restaurant kitchens. All leftovers should be used up within a maximum of three days.
Finally, the best way to prevent waste of fresh herbs and greens (all too common because they have the shortest shelf life) is to always rinse them and tumble them dry in a salad spinner as soon as you unpack them from your grocery shopping trip and store them in special plastic containers with a draining tray insert, or in zip-lock bags (add a piece of paper towel to absorb moisture). They will keep longer and be visible enough for you to remember to use them.