Brunch at home is supposed to be a social time — a time to talk to friends, drink mimosas around the table and enjoy the weekend. Too often, though, the guests eat and chat while the host ends up trapped at the stove. Julie Nguyen is a personal chef who specializes in creating in-home experiences, including brunch for small and large groups. She talked to us about spring brunch menus and how to organize menu preparation so that everyone can enjoy the meal.
“What’s the point of having friends over if you’re mostly stuck in the kitchen?” Nguyen asks. “There’s no reason for you to be a short-order cook or make something over-complicated when inviting friends over for brunch.”
Nguyen prefers to create meals that can be served family-style, and that can be about 80 percent done ahead of time. That allows the host(s) to sit with the guests and enjoy the experience, even the experience of cooking. Eggs to order are generally the worst way to approach a group brunch; they are more difficult to get right than people expect, and unless the host is an expert short-order cook, the eggs will all come out at different times, meaning guests will be forced to eat first or wait as their eggs get cold.
Still, eggs are a delicious part of brunch — some would even argue that it’s not really brunch without them – so Nguyen selects dishes that incorporate eggs in a smart, convenient way. She’s also not afraid to branch out beyond traditional American brunch cuisine.
“I enjoy cooking foods from different cultures and introducing friends to new flavors and spices and cooking techniques,” she says.
While on a trip to Lebanon and Turkey a few years ago, Nguyen discovered some flavors and ideas she wanted to bring home and tweak for her clients; dishes that are surprisingly easy to prepare and explode with flavor. Simple doesn’t have to mean bland or heavy, either.
Shakshouka is a wonderful way to serve eggs without having to worry about cooking them to order. The dish, likely of North African origin and popular in the Middle East, is the perfect choice to allow home cooks and chefs to personalize it based on their flavor preferences.
Essentially, eggs are simmered — for 10-15 minutes depending on desired doneness — in a hearty tomato sauce that can be tailored according to spice and heat preferences. Nguyen’s base recipe contains jalapeno and cayenne, but those can be left out, and the dish is also ideal for any vegetarians who come to brunch.
Spring is a good time to try new things, according to Nguyen, and she believes that people are getting more adventurous overall in their desire to try new flavors and dishes. Ethnic food can be challenging for novices, though, so her menus can be easily executed, even for cooks who are attempting them for the first time.
“Brunch menus are pretty basic,” Nguyen says. “A good rule of thumb is one savory egg dish, a starch such as oven-roasted potatoes, a breakfast meat, something sweet, coffee and mimosas. Bacon is easiest for the meat, because you can simply put it in the oven and not worry about it.”
Rather than go with the standard mimosa, Nguyen likes to experiment with different juices. Spring makes her think of pomegranate and passion fruit. She simply fills a flute one-quarter full with fruit nectar and finishes it with sparkling wine. Cava is a fantastic choice, because it’s as dry as Champagne at a fraction of the price.
Bear in mind, also, that the sparkling wine should be neither too high nor low in quality; the former is a waste of good wine, while the latter spoils the drink and cannot be enjoyed on its own. Nguyen likes to use Prosecco because it tends to be more flavorful than Cava.
For the sweet component, she recommends casserole-style dishes. They can be baked the night before and reheated at the appropriate time. According to Nguyen, there is no loss in flavor or quality when reheating dessert casseroles. She chose a Baklava-inspired French toast casserole for her menu. (It should be noted that Baklava typically contains nuts, so be aware of food allergies before choosing/serving.)
“The menu will serve six to 10 people,” Nguyen says. “I really think six to eight is an ideal number, though. Once you reach 10 people and above, the amount of prep and cooking expands dramatically.”
So lay in some groceries, invite a few — but not too many — friends, head into the kitchen and enjoy!
►How It's Done
Julie Nguyen’s Brunch Recipe
3 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 large red bell pepper, diced
3-4 cloves of garlic, sliced
1 jalapeno pepper, minced, or 1 tsp cayenne pepper
1.5 tbsp sweet or smoked paprika
1.5 tsp ground cumin
1 can (28oz) whole peeled tomatoes, hand-crushed
1/2 cup water
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
6-8 large eggs
1 tbsp parsley, chopped
1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled
Saute onion and bell pepper in 12-inch skillet over medium heat until soft and golden brown, about 6-8 minutes.
Stir in garlic, jalapeno/cayenne, paprika and cumin, stir together for 2 minutes.
Pour in tomatoes (with liquid), water, salt and pepper and let simmer until sauce thickens slightly, around 10-15 minutes.
Gently crack eggs individually into tomato mixture, distributed around the skillet. Season with additional salt and pepper as desired.
Use spoon to baste tomato mixture over eggs without disturbing the yolks.
Cover skillet with lid, and cook eggs 5-7 minutes over low heat to set.
Before serving, sprinkle with chopped parsley and feta. Serve immediately with bread, such as pita or challah bread.
French Toast Casserole (inspired by Baklava)
► French Toast
1 loaf (16 oz) day-old French bread or challah bread, torn or cubed into 1-inch pieces
6 large eggs
2 1/2 cups half and half
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground clove or allspice
2 medium orange peels, zested or finely grated
3/4 cup pistachios, almonds or walnuts, chopped into small pieces
1/2 all-purpose flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick (4 oz) cold butter, cut into pieces
Generously butter a 9×13” baking dish, add bread cubes and set aside.
In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together eggs, half and half, sugar, cinnamon, clove and orange zest.
Pour evenly over bread, cover tightly and store in fridge for several hours (or overnight).
In a separate bowl, mix nuts, flour, brown sugar, cinnamon and salt. Add butter pieces and cut them into the dry mixture until the result resembles fine pebbles. Store in a Ziploc bag in the fridge.
Preheat oven to 350F. Remove casserole from fridge and sprinkle crumb mixture over the top.
Bake to desired consistency – 45 minutes for a softer texture resembling bread pudding, or 1 hour or more for a firmer, less liquid texture.
Serve with honey or syrup and fresh berries.
1 cup sweetened pomegranate juice
1 bottle sparkling wine, i.e., prosecco, champagne or cava
Fill champagne flutes with 1/4 cup juice and top off with champagne. (Serves 4)