At this time of year, when the winter sky is gray for days on end and the first bright-white snow has melted into slush, I often fantasize about renting a villa on the Mediterranean. I dream of sun-dappled beaches, warm breezes and picturesque villages. I can see myself buying fresh produce at local, open-air markets, and returning home to make a fabulous but simple dinner for all my dear ones.
One of these years I’ll rent that mystery villa. Until then, I will live the fantasy at home. These drab days of late winter are a great time to try to approximate the Mediterranean’s robust flavors in your own kitchen.
Notice that I say “Mediterranean flavors,” and don’t refer to individual Mediterranean countries. Mine is an Impressionistic menu—the many options allow you to use the best that your local supermarket has to offer. Note, too, that in my fantasy, I cook dinner, but in real life, I choose Sunday brunch. In my fantasy I’m an idler, while in real life, I work a five-day week and then some. Sunday brunch gives me Friday night, Saturday, and Saturday night to shop and prep, and Sunday morning to finish up. Sometimes, work or parenting interferes with the game plan I’ve devised. In such cases, the extra prep time a brunch allows makes all the difference.
Another good thing about brunch is that it can be anything you want it to be—casual or fussy, breakfasty or Sunday-dinnerish or both. I draw the line, however, at the advice that my 1949 edition of Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts gives. It suggests merging British and American traditions by serving clam cakes with kidneys and bacon, rounded out by ice-cold clam juice, toast and coffee. Clearly, tastes have changed in 50-odd years.
Contemporary authorities often suggest egg dishes like quiches, because they bridge the chasm between breakfast and lunch, and they can be made ahead. I like a different egg option—one that shares those attributes, but doesn’t require a crust. The frittata, as it’s known in Italian, or tortilla, as it’s called in Spain, is a rustic take on the omelet. There’s no folding or flipping; just egg and whatever other ingredients you like cooked in a big pan. In Spain, the potato tortilla is a staple of the tapas bar, and in Italy, the zucchini frittata is a favorite. I like a kitchen-sink sort of frittata, with onions, garlic, potatoes, mushrooms (porcini are good, but shiitake, while not strictly Mediterranean, work too), red peppers, grated Parmesan and spicy chorizo sausage. In another departure from authenticity, I use turkey chorizo, because it is less greasy but still quite flavorful.
If you’re having only a few guests, the frittata itself will suffice. Add a variety of olives, some fabulous crusty bread, a crunchy green salad, dessert, coffee and wine, and you’ve got brunch. But if you’ve got a bigger crowd coming—say six to eight—you might want to add another main course or side dish. In summer, when I can get eggplants and tomatoes from the local farmers, I would serve a ratatouille. But I’m not so keen on that for my “chase away the grays” brunch.
Instead, because I’m dreaming of a sun-kissed sea view, I choose a seafood dish with plenty of Mediterranean flair: Mussels Provençal. The term Provençal simply means that the dish is served in a tomato-garlic sauce in the style of Provence, in southern France. The Mediterranean is known for its olive oil, but this sauce calls for plenty of butter as well, and it’s the butter that makes it rich and wonderful. If you try it, don’t skimp on the butter.
After a rich, robust meal, I want something refreshing for dessert. For this menu, I’ve chosen another French classic that is deceptively easy and very delicious: Pears poached in red wine, served with homemade pear sorbet. The sorbet is the invention of cookbook author Melanie Barnard, who, some 10 years ago, came up with the idea of freezing canned fruit in heavy syrup and then puréeing it in the food processor. The syrup eliminates the need for any other ingredients, unless you want to add a splash of liqueur, and the taste and texture are as good as any you’ll ever sample.
Champagne and other sparkling wines, served alone or in mimosas, are the typical brunch libations. But for this meal, I’m craving something a bit more robust. I still love the idea of bubbles at brunch, and so, as a match for the frittata, I would serve a bubbly red wine. Try a sparkling Shiraz or a red California sparkler from Schug or Korbel. There are also some wonderful Portuguese red sparklers, but they can be hard to find. Grab a bottle, if you see one. If you don’t like bubbles, try a light, fruit-forward red, such as a Beaujolais or a joven from Ribera del Duero. You can also make a red wine sangria from one of these wines. I make sangria the easy way: just add slices of orange, lime and lemon, and a splash of 7-Up to taste. (If you use a bubbly red, just add the fruit.)
To satisfy the white wine drinkers at your table, offer an appropriate pairing with the mussels. For a nice change, skip the classic Sancerres and Pouilly-Fumés; instead, try a Sauvignon Blanc from Chile, New Zealand or America. Sauvignon’s bright acidity will stand up nicely to the tomato sauce, while its leafy flavors will complement the seafood.
For dessert, serve a sweet red wine with moderate alcohol levels so that your guests won’t catnap away the afternoon. Try something from Italy, like a Recioto della Valpolicella, or an Aleatico—Antinori makes a good one. Or if you want to stick with fizz, a Brachetto d’Asti would end the meal on the right note. Anything red, sweet and beguiling will do the trick.
Now, this meal requires substantial prep time. But much of it can be done well in advance, and all of it is easy. Here’s my game plan:
Friday night: Shop for everything except the mussels. At home, peel and core the pears and let them marinate overnight. Freeze the canned pears.
Saturday: Chop the vegetables for the frittata and the Provençal dish and refrigerate them in separate covered containers. (Be prepared for this to take a while.) Cook the pears, cool them, slice them in half and refrigerate them. Prepare the sorbet and freeze in a covered container. Shop for the mussels and refrigerate them in an open bag (not in water and not on ice, or they will die). Prepare your table.
Sunday morning: If you want to serve the frittata cold or at room temperature, sauté the vegetables and chorizo, add the eggs and bake. If you want to serve it hot out of the oven, sauté everything and set it aside until about an hour before you want to serve, then bake. Meanwhile, make your salad. Sauté the tomatoes. About half an hour before you want to serve, steam the mussels and add to the sauce. (This should not be done too far ahead of serving to ensure the mussels’ freshness.) Heat and slice your bread, if desired. Set out the olives.
I might rent that villa yet. But until then, on any given Sunday in late winter, brunch will chase away the blues—and grays.
Hearty Frittata with Potatoes, Red Peppers, Porcini Mushrooms and Turkey Chorizo
This is a dish of possibilities. The recipe below is my favorite, with its bright red peppers, zesty chorizo and earthy mushrooms, but you can tailor it to suit your taste (and what’s available in your market or your cupboard). If you can’t find chorizo, use andouille or any other zesty sausage. If you like green peppers better than red, or green beans better than green peppers, follow your taste. You can even use egg whites or commercially prepared egg white batter; use two whole eggs and add about 16 whites, or follow the measurements on the package.
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, cut in ¼-inch pieces (2 to 2½ cups)
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 medium russet potatoes, peeled, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 red bell pepper, cut into bite-sized pieces
4 ounces porcini or shiitake mushrooms, trimmed and sliced Salt to taste
2 links turkey chorizo sausage (about ¾ of a pound), quartered lengthwise and cut into 1/8-inch slices
10 to 12 eggs
¼ cup milk
½ to ¾ cup grated Parmesan cheese, or a Parmesan and Romano blend
Pour the oil into a 12-inch, nonstick ovenproof skillet, coating the bottom and sides. Heat over medium-high heat until the oil ripples. Add the onion and garlic, stir to coat with oil, and cook, stirring, for 7 to 10 minutes, or until translucent and soft.
Add the potatoes, toss and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes, until the potatoes just begin to color. Add the red pepper and cook for about 3 minutes, or until softened. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring, until they have exuded their liquid and it has evaporated. Add salt.
Add the chorizo and cook, stirring, for about 4 minutes, or until browned. If necessary, move the vegetable to the side of the skillet and tilt the skillet so the vegetable side is off the heating element to prevent them from sticking and burning while the chorizo cooks.
Preheat the oven to 350Â°F. Beat 10 of the eggs in a large bowl until light yellow. Beat in the milk. Remove the skillet from the heat and pour the eggs over the vegetables and chorizo, covering them. If there is not enough egg batter to cover all the other ingredients, beat the remaining 2 eggs and pour into any gaps in the frittata. The vegetables and chorizo should not be completely submerged, but the surface should be fairly even. Sprinkle the cheese over the surface of the frittata.
Cover and bake on the center rack of the oven for 35 to 45 minutes, or until the egg is cooked through and the potatoes can be pierced easily with the tip of a sharp knife. Remove the cover for the last 10 or 15 minutes of cooking so that the cheese gets nice and brown. Cut in wedges and serve right from the skillet, or at room temperature. Serves 6 as a main course.
Wine recommendation: A sparkling Shiraz, a red California sparkling wine, or a light, fruit-forward red such as a Beaujolais (or a joven from Ribera del Duero) would all complement this zesty dish. Your favorite sangria would be a lively accompaniment as well.
The beauty of cooking with mussels these days is that farm-raised mussels are widely available. Not only do they contain lower levels of pollutants, but they are also beautifully washed and trimmed, making repeated washings and struggling to remove tiny bits of “beard” a thing of the past. Remember that mussels last in the refrigerator for one day, so buy them the day before or the day of your brunch—no longer. Ask your fishmonger to pack them in ice for the trip home, but remove the ice before placing them in the refrigerator. Nor should you store them in water. The cool air of the refrigerator is best. For the tomato sauce, use any combination of the herbs you like.
For the sauce:
2 teaspoons olive oil
4 tablespoons butter
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
12 plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 pint grape tomatoes
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon fresh oregano (or ¼ teaspoon dried oregano), chopped
½ tablespoon fresh basil, chopped
For the mussels:
4 pounds mussels
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
2 cups dry, unoaked white wine
To start the tomato sauce, heat the oil and butter in a large skillet set over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds to 1 minute, or until soft and translucent. Add all the tomatoes and cook for 5 to 10 minutes, or until they have “melted.” Break them up with a spoon if necessary. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking. Keep warm.
To steam the mussels, sort through them, discarding any that are open or that do not close when you tap them. Wash and remove the stringy beard from any that need it.
Heat the oil and butter in a large pot set over medium-high heat until the butter is melted. Add the shallot and garlic and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds to 1 minute, or until translucent and soft. Add the wine and bring to a simmer.
Add the mussels, cover, and cook for about 5 minutes, or until all the mussels are open. Discard any that do not open. Remove the mussels from the pot with a slotted spoon and set aside. Return the steaming liquid to the heat and cook until syrupy and reduced in volume.
Return the tomato sauce to the heat and stir in the mussels’ cooking liquid and the parsley, oregano and basil. Place the mussels into the sauce and stir gently. Serve hot with crusty bread. Serves 4 as a main course or 6 or more as a side.
Wine recommendation: The grassy notes and bright acidity of a Sauvignon Blanc from Chile, New Zealand or the U.S. will flatter this dish.
Pears Poached in Red Wine with Pear Sorbet
If you can only find jam with seeds in it, strain it before you add it to the marinating liquid. This will ensure a velvety sauce. Melanie Barnard, who originally conceived of this sorbet method, makes it with crème de menthe, but after several experiments, I found that I liked crème de cassis best. It makes the white sorbet a pretty pink color. But either looks beautiful with the deep red of the wine sauce.
For the sorbet:
1 16-ounce can pears in heavy syrup
2 tablespoons crème de cassis or other liqueur
For the pears:
1 bottle dry, fruity red wine, such as Beaujolais
½ cup seedless loganberry or blackcurrant jelly
1 cup granulated sugar
6 firm pears
To make the sorbet: Freeze the pears in their can for at least 12 hours or overnight. Remove the can from the freezer and let stand in a bowl of warm water. Open the top of the can and pour any melted syrup into a food processor, or if you are using a stick blender, into a large bowl. Then open the bottom of the can and push the frozen pears through into the processor or bowl. Chop the frozen pears into chunks small enough for the food processor or stick blender to handle and puree until smooth. Stir in the crème de cassis and transfer to a serving container. Cover and return to the freezer until ready to serve. Serve alone or with poached pears.
To make the pears: Pour the wine, jelly and sugar into a pot large enough to hold all the pears standing up and stir to blend.
Peel the pears, leaving their stems intact. Working from the bottom of the pear with a strong vegetable peeler, remove the core and seeds, so that the pears are whole, but have a hollow cylinder in the center. Place into the wine mixture so that the pears are submerged. Marinate overnight.
The next day, simmer the marinated pears in a pot over medium heat for about 20 minutes, or until the tip of a sharp knife pierces the pears easily. Carefully transfer the pears to a container and set aside. Continue to heat the marinating liquid until it is reduced in volume by one half, takes on the consistency of syrup, and has no alcohol taste. Remove from the heat and pour over the pears. Set aside. (This dish will keep, refrigerated, for several days.) Serve whole or slice each pear lengthwise and place on a dessert plate. Pour some of the wine sauce over it and spoon a dollop of sorbet over the pears. Serve immediately. Serves 6.
Wine recommendation: Try a light, sweet Italian such as Recioto della Valpolicella or Aleatico. Alternatively, a sparkler such as Brachetto d’Asti would also work well. All of these choices will complement rather than overwhelm this pear dessert.