Sunday, July 17, 2011
Half-Fast Cooking: Brunch for the Lazy
It’s not fast food. It’s not slow food. It’s... half-fast food! The first in an occasional, sloth-driven series.
Back when I worked in the pastry kitchen of a swank beach resort, I dreaded Sunday brunch. The resort’s brunch was a $75-per-person affair (this was the price six years ago) featuring a dizzying spread of dishes and bottomless servings of domestic sparkling wine. There were carving stations, seafood stations, and separate omelet and pancake stations, along with a stir-fry station and a humongous salad bar. Big silver chafing dishes held constantly replenished supplies of eggs Benedict, sausages, bacon, and assorted potato dishes. Across the dining room were tables holding a towering assortment of breads along with half a dozen imported cheeses, butter rolled into pretty little balls, and cream cheese and smoked fish to go with the bagels. Piles of croissants and filled danishes covered a nearby table. Then there was the kids’ table, a rug rat paradise of macaroni and cheese, tiny peanut-butter sandwiches, chicken fingers, miniature chocolate chip cookies, and plastic Sponge Bob plates instead of the resort’s standard white stoneware.
Finally, dominating one end of the dining room’s back wall was the dessert station, fully loaded with dozens of different types of petit fours, cookies, cakes, and tarts, along with a sundae bar and a make-to-order crepe station. This where I stood guard on most of my Sundays, wearing a ridiculous paper toque, a starched white jacket, and the fakest grin this side of a Meet the Press interview.
The truth was I didn’t dread everything about Sunday brunch. It was the only time of the week when I got to meet the people who ate the things my colleagues and I had spent the rest of the week making. Watching them coo over a cake I had decorated an hour before – then come back for seconds – was exhilarating. Nobody ever got that excited about my lectures back when I taught linguistics.
Sundays also provided unparalleled people-watching opportunities. I came to think of crepe station duty as an exercise in anthropological field work, and the natives – hedge-fund managers, B-list celebrities (David Hasselhoff and Ron Jeremy were regulars), along with their kids, mistresses, and various hangers-on– were fascinating. They showed up in everything from Chanel to flip-flops and board shorts, but the dominant look was one of ruined decadence. The preponderance of multiple gold chains nestled in thickets of graying chest hair and sequined halter tops revealing obvious boob jobs (at 10 a.m., no less) was a sight to behold, as foreign to my sensibilities as loin cloths and animal worship. And every Sunday brought another opportunity to study this exotic tribe: There must be a deep, culturally rooted reason they choose to look like that – if I observe them for a while more, maybe I’ll figure out what it is!
So technically, I didn’t dread Sunday brunch. What I really dreaded was the Saturday before, when my colleagues and I had to make all those hundreds of cakes, petit fours, and crepe fillings– while simultaneously preparing restaurant and banquet desserts, snacks, room service orders, catered beach picnics, and breakfast pastries for the hundreds of guests and day visitors expected on any given weekend. Forget the Keebler elves. On Saturdays, we looked more like a Special Forces team about to rush a fortified Al-Qaida safe house as we worked elbow-to-elbow in the kitchen or sprinted madly from one of the resort’s food outlets to another, putting out one fire after another while frantically baking, assembling, cutting, and plating stuff for Sunday’s debauchery.
It made me resent the lucky slobs who got to eat brunch.
Now, thank goodness, I’m one of them again—at least in theory. I no longer have to clock in on Sundays, but still I don’t eat or cook brunch much anymore. Even though I’m an unapologetic morning person (blame my bird-watching hobby – birds get up with the sun, and so do we dorks who watch them), there’s no way I’m going to start a weekend morning making several dozen dishes This would mean missing one of my weekend bird-watching walks, which would be unthinkable.
Just as a thought experiment, I wondered if I could have both my birds and my brunch too. I’d get up super-early as usual, head out and look for early fall migrants (yup, they’re starting to come back already), then get home about 9 in time to shower, change, and throw something festive and brunch-worthy together by 10. Is this even possible?
I normally lean towards the savory offerings at brunch, but since I love to mess with expectations – especially my own – I played with the idea of taking something that’s normally savory and turning it into something sweet. Rich and spicy Mexican breakfasts and brunches –huevos Rancheros, breakfast burritos, eggs scrambled with chiles or braised meats and served with stacks of tortillas – have always been special favorites of mine. So I turned a staple of the Mexican savory repertoire – the flour tortilla – into a crispy wrapping for a gooey, sweet, yet wholesome morning treat, filled with creamy warm bananas, peanut butter, and just enough chocolate to make it company-worthy.
My little invention is tasty and elegant enough to qualify as treat food, but its starring virtue is that it takes all of five minutes to make. So in less than an hour, even an inexperienced cook can make a batch of these, stick some good sausages in the oven, put on a pot of coffee, and call up a friend to ask him or her to pick up a fruit tray at Publix on the way over. An experienced cook will be able to handle the fruit solo and maybe cook up some bacon for extra decadence. If you work things right, you may even have time to enter all your morning’s birding numbers into eBird before your guests arrive.
I was going to dub my invention a sweet breakfast quesadilla, but my husband pointed out – rightly –that “quesadilla” implies the presence of cheese. So I’m going to follow his suggestion and call it a “chocadilla.” Yes, this makes it sound more like a kind of reptile than a brunch dish—but for some, this may even add to its appeal.
For each serving:
1 large flour tortilla, at room temperature
2 tablespoons peanut butter
1/3 large banana, sliced thinly
2 tablespoons chocolate chips
Canola or other unflavored oil for frying
powdered sugar for garnish
melted chocolate for garnish (optional)
1. Spread the peanut butter over half of the tortilla, leaving a 1-inch margin around the edges.
2. Top the peanut butter with banana slices, then sprinkle the chocolate chips on top. Fold the uncovered half of the tortilla over the filling to cover completely. Press down on the folded tortilla to eliminate any air pockets.
3. Heat a thin layer of oil in a large skillet (at least as wide as the tortillas you’re using) over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the folded chocadilla. As it cooks, press down on the edges of the tortilla to keep them sealed. When the bottom is golden brown, turn it over and cook until the second side is also golden brown. (If your skillet is large enough, you can fry two at a time.
4. Drain cooked chocadillas on paper towels, then keep them warm in an oven set on low heat, on a metal rack placed on a sheet pan.
5. Garnish with powdered sugar ( and melted chocolate, if desired). Serve immediately.
Variations: Instead of peanut butter and chocolate, substitute a chocolate-hazelnut spread such as Nutella. You can also add a scant handful of miniature marshmallows or chopped-up regular ones.