March 4, 2022 - Pancake with strawberry for brunch meal with Ellie Short. Don Denton photograph

The noble brunch

How to plan, prep and execute an elegant yet effortless brunch spread

  • May. 23, 2022 7:30 a.m.

– Words and recipes by Ellie Short Photography by Don Denton

If breakfast is for champions, brunch is for royalty—there is no more luxurious way to savour a morning than with a sumptuous feast that spans two mealtimes and seems to have no limit to what you can serve, and how you can serve it. Sweet interwoven with savoury and easing your way into a Sunday with flowing drinks and mounds of food feels indulgently regal.

It’s no surprise, then, that this lavish mingling of meals gained popularity among aristocratic crowds in 19th century London. While the word “brunch” likely surfaced in some capacity prior to this, it really took hold in 1895 when a London publication called Hunter’s Weekly circulated an article called “Brunch: A Plea,” and argued that a late social breakfast on Sunday “would make life brighter for Saturday night carousers.”

The author, Guy Beringer, also suggested that alcoholic drinks be served, paving the way for those beloved brunch fixtures of mimosas and Caesars. One year later, the word “brunch” was published in North America for the first time, when an article titled “The Newest Thing in Lunches” in the New Oxford News and Notes for Women introduced readers to the “fad” of eating between breakfast and lunch—a craze that was clearly so splendid that it still reigns supreme 125 years later.

While many renowned restaurants, luxury hotels and popular cafes have found huge followings (and lineups) with their Sunday brunch menus, it’s personally my most ideal repast for an at-home gathering.

It’s early enough that guests can still enjoy their afternoon and evening, but not so early that alarms must be set before the sun rises and conversations are dappled with gaping yawns. It’s often family-friendly, whereby folks don’t have to fight bedtimes or schedule sitters, and lends itself well to a casual, come-and-go atmosphere conducive to little ones, who don’t always like to sit still for long.

The only downside is that unlike dinner, the host doesn’t have the whole day to get ready. However, as a long-time brunch enthusiast and well-practised brunch provider, I do, of course, have a few tricks and tips for preparing and executing an elegant yet effortless brunch, which you as the host will still be able to revel in with royal relaxation.

Set your table the day before

Putting those finishing touches on dishes, cleaning up the kitchen and getting yourself dressed and ready to roll, the morning will have enough going on without the added worry of how many forks you’ll need and which glassware to set out. Getting all that sorted in advance will not only take one thing off your day-of to-do list, but it’s likely you’ll be able to enjoy this artful aspect of party prep in the quiet moments of the evening prior. If table decor isn’t your thing, treat yourself to a table setting service like The Proper Table, which provided the stunning setup for this story.

Make what you can ahead

When menu planning your brunch, take a look at recipes that offer easy, make-ahead elements. Can you pre-cook your bacon and sausage and reheat them stovetop when you’re ready to dig in? Can you make the mix for your omelettes or hashes ahead of time and just focus on the eggs when your guests arrive?

I personally love things like shakshuka, whereby I make the stewy base beforehand and add the eggs in the morning. What I adore even more about this dish is that it serves everyone all at once, whereas other egg-based offerings like omelettes require you either keep each one warm until all are cooked, or serve guests one by one as the omelettes are ready.

Consider cold (or room temperature) dishes

Serving food at its ideal temperature is one of the most stressful aspects of hosting any meal. Breakfast potatoes are especially hard to keep warm without getting overly dry and mealy. That’s why I adore the idea of a breakfast potato salad that is pre-prepped and then assembled in the morning. Similarly, egg salad, tuna salad, bean salad and even a breakfast-inspired salad with medium boiled eggs (see the April/May 2021 issue of Boulevard for that recipe) are great variations on this theme.

Have guests help themselves

Individually plating and serving dishes at brunch means you likely won’t be able to sit and socialize. I’ve been there far too many times as whole meals flew by while I spent the entirety of it in the kitchen, sweating, swearing and resenting the fact that I didn’t have a single conversation with my beloved visitors. DIY boards solve this problem and provide impressive presentation points, as well as an interactive edge that makes for a fun and dynamic dining experience. Build-your-own pancake, waffle, French toast, or bagel boards offer you a bit of a break, while guests are able to pile on the toppings just as they please.

Create a welcome cocktail

No matter how organized you are, it’s likely you’ll still need something to stall arriving guests as you finesse those lingering elements. I’m a big fan of a welcome cocktail when hosting any meal or event—it’s a lovely way to ease someone into your space. Bloody Marys, Caesars or mimosas are all classic brunch libations, and all lend well to virgin versions, whether simply leaving out the booze, or subbing it with a non-alcoholic option. A personal favourite is equal parts freshly squeezed orange juice and gingery kombucha for a sober mimosa with a bit of a kick.

Breakfast Potato Salad with Arugula Chimichurri

While nothing beats hot and crispy breakfast potatoes, this is a fresh alternative perfect for spring. When making this dish I roast the potatoes, make the chimichurri and slice the olives ahead of time, and assemble it all together right before guests arrive for maximum flavour and freshness, but minimal effort.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

1 ½ lbs fingerling potatoes

1-2 tbsp olive oil

1⁄3 cup Kalamata olives, pitted and sliced

1⁄3 cup green peas

¼ cup crumbled goat feta

1-2 loose cups baby arugula

About ½ cup arugula chimichurri (recipe below)

For the arugula chimichurri…

2-3 loose cups baby arugula

3 cloves fresh garlic, peeled

2 tbsp red wine vinegar

1⁄3 cup extra virgin olive oil

¼ tsp chili flakes

¼ tsp sea salt, or to taste

Directions

Preheat your oven to 400 F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Cut the potatoes in half longways, and toss them with 1 to 2 tbsp olive oil, so that they’re evenly coated. Transfer the potatoes to the prepared baking sheet and roast for 15 minutes until the bottoms are slightly golden brown. Flip the potatoes and roast for another 10 minutes, until they’re tender all the way through.

While the potatoes are roasting, prepare the chimichurri by combining the arugula, garlic, red wine vinegar and chili flakes in a food processor. Pulse until the arugula is evenly chopped, add the olive oil and continue to pulse until somewhat smooth, scraping down the sides as you go. Taste, and season with salt as needed.

Once the potatoes have cooled, transfer them to a large bowl and toss them with the chimichurri until evenly coated. Gently mix in all other remaining ingredients and serve.

Make-Ahead Shakshuka

While the origins of shakshuka are much debated, it seems most can agree that it has roots in the Maghreb region of North Africa and gained popularity throughout the South West and Middle East before finding its way as a staple on trendy North America brunch menus. If you’re not yet familiar with this aromatic breakfast stew, one steaming spoonful on a thick slice of freshly baked artisanal bread, and you’ll know why it’s so celebrated.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

2 tbsp olive oil

1 tsp harissa

2 tsp tomato paste

1 large onion, diced into ¼ inch pieces

2 large red peppers, diced into ¼ inch pieces

4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp sweet paprika

½ tsp sea salt (or to taste)

1 large can (796 ml or 28 fl oz) diced tomatoes

you can also use fresh tomatoes)

4 large eggs

½ cup labneh or thick yogurt

Optional garnishes of chopped parsley and chili flakes

Directions

In a large frying pan (ideally cast iron) over medium heat, warm the olive oil and sauté the onion until soft, followed by the red pepper, harissa, tomato paste, garlic, cumin, paprika and salt. Sauté for about 10 minutes, until the peppers also soften. Add the tomatoes, bring to a gentle simmer and cook for about 10 minutes more.

Remove the pan from the burner and allow to cool before transferring to a sealable container (you can keep the mix in the fridge for up to a week).

When you’re ready to add the eggs and enjoy, transfer the mix back to a large frying pan over medium heat. Once it starts to bubble and thicken a bit, create 4 little dips, gently break the eggs, and carefully pour each into its own divot. Simmer gently for 8 to 10 minutes until the egg whites are set but the yolks are still runny (you can also speed up this process by covering the pan with a lid.) If you like the eggs more evenly cooked through, transfer the pan into the oven at 350 F for 5-10 minutes or so, until you’re happy with the yolk consistency. Note that you’ll need an oven-safe pan for this!

Remove from the heat, leave for a couple of minutes to settle and serve with the labneh or yogurt and any other garnishes such as parsley or chili flakes.

Banana Oatmeal Pancakes

While I could have shared a classic fluffy pancake recipe, the internet already has thousands of great ones to choose from. Instead, I wanted to offer my toddler-approved go-to these days: pancakes that whir up effortlessly in the blender and provide a hearty and healthy option for your build-your-own pancake board. For peace of mind, fry up the pancakes ahead of time, and either reheat them on the stovetop or in the oven or toaster.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 5 minutes per pancake

Makes 6 medium sized pancakes

Ingredients

2 large eggs

1 large (very ripe) banana

1 ½ cups old fashioned rolled oats

2 tbsp melted butter (plus extra for frying)

3 tbsp maple syrup

1 tbsp apple cider vinegar

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp baking powder

½ tsp cinnamon

Pinch of sea salt

Directions

Combine all the ingredients in a high-powered blender and blend until smooth (1-2 minutes).

Heat a frying pan over medium heat, and coat with a small amount of melted butter. Once the surface is hot, add about a quarter cup of batter, and cook until the pancake puffs up and bubbles begin to form (about 2 minutes). Gently flip the pancake over and cook another 2 minutes until golden brown on the underside. Wipe the pan clean and repeat with the remaining batter, and add more butter as needed.

You can cook multiple pancakes at once—this will just depend on how big your pan is. If you find the pancakes are browning too quickly, lower the heat so that the pancakes don’t over-brown or burn. You may also notice that the batter is a bit on the thick side. If you’re finding it too gummy, either add in a small amount of water or milk, one tablespoon at a time, to thin it out slightly, or you can spread it out with a spoon once you drop the batter on the pan.

Story courtesy of Boulevard Magazine, a Black Press Media publication

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