Perfect Brunch

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Brunch can be the best of both worlds, offering the sweetness of breakfast foods and the savoriness of lunch fare. Enjoying time in the sunshine with a group of friends or family for a relaxing brunch can be the highlight of anyone’s week.

But brunch can also be a headache for the host, who can be overwhelmed with the preparation of so many dishes.

Experts agree that the best way to host a successful brunch is to prepare as much as you can well before the meal, so you can spend more time enjoying the day. Preparing what you can in advance, creating the right menu and having fun with the decorations are the secret ingredients for a successful event.

Keep it relaxed and comfortable for yourself so that your guests are relaxed and comfortable.

Chef Ron Silver, author, "Bubby’s Brunch Cookbook"

Preparation Is Key

Because brunches often include many small dishes, it’s best to do as much preparation as you can before the big day. Ideally, you should leave only one dish for cooking during the event, said Ron Silver, owner of Bubby’s Pie Co. in New York and author of “Bubby’s Brunch Cookbook.”

For example, if you’re going to serve pancakes, then you don’t want to make over-easy eggs, too, since both dishes have to be made the morning of the event. Instead, you can do frittatas or a quiche for your egg dish because those can be prepared the night before.

Most brunches should have at least one egg dish, said Silver, because egg dishes are such a signature of brunch meals.

“Plan it out so that most of the dishes can be made in advance and are just ready to be heated up, or served at room temperature,” Silver said. Frittatas, for example, taste great at room temperature. Another egg dish that can be made ahead of time is a strata, a casserole dish usually involving bread, eggs and cheese. You can also prepare your bloody mary mix or fresh-squeezed orange juice a day ahead.

“Keep it relaxed and comfortable for yourself so that your guests are relaxed and comfortable,” Silver said. “There’s nothing worse than a stressed-out cook at breakfast.”

Planning the Menu

When making up your menu, keep in mind what’s in season. Your guests will appreciate a seasonal menu because it celebrates the “now.”

If rhubarb is in season, for example, Silver makes rhubarb pancakes or rhubarb-orange mimosas. Check with a local farmer’s market to see what fruits are in season, and plan your menu around those items.

Brunch often has many components, a number of which can be heavier items such as pancakes or coffee cake, so it can be a heavy meal. Chef Jennifer Iserloh, author of the "Secrets of a Skinny Chef" cookbook, has many suggestions for healthier versions of brunch favorites.

For example, Iserloh makes French toast using orange marmalade and whole wheat bread. “The trick to making a good French toast with whole wheat bread is to poke it with the tines of a fork and soak it really well in the mixture,” Iserloh said. “I also use orange zest. Orange zest and lemon zest are amazing. They add incredible flavor.”

Iserloh said she loves to serve a smoked salmon dish at her brunches. Salmon is highly nutritious, but it is also high in fat, so she keeps the portions small, about 2 ounces per person. She lightens up the dish by serving a big bowl of cucumber salad with it. Or, you can spread the cucumber salad on a piece of bread or a cracker and put the salmon on top for a bite that you can eat with your hands.

“You want to try to look for the wild salmon if it’s in your budget because the farm-raised does not have omega-3 because of the way it’s raised,” Iserloh said. Omega-3 is considered a good fat because it is believed to decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Another important aspect of a beautiful brunch are the beverages. While mimosas are the most popular choice, Devin Alexander, a chef and author of “The Biggest Loser Cookbook,” creates a healthful, visually appealing alternative by filling champagne flutes with frozen grapes and then pouring in the champagne. “It’s really pretty, and you’re not consuming as much alcohol,” Alexander said. “And then you can eat the grapes at the end with a pick.”

It’s best to have alcoholic and nonalcoholic options at any brunch. If it’s winter, a hot drink can warm up your guests. Some drinks, as Silver points out, are tasty whether they include alcohol or not. “Personally I don’t drink,” Silver said. “Bloody marys are something that’s tasty without alcohol or with it.”

Pleasing to the Eye

One of the most enjoyable aspects of brunch is the opportunity to decorate. Feel free to get creative with your dishes and your table.

Alexander puts yogurt parfaits with berries and granola in champagne flutes to make the dish more pleasing to the eye and easier to eat. “Obviously that’s much prettier than a bowl of yogurt with fruit on top of it,” he said. “It’s healthy, elegant and really easy.”

As for whether to set up a buffet or serve at the table, Phoebe Lapine and Cara Eisenpress, co-founders of the Big Girls, Small Kitchen blog, say it depends on the number of people. If you’re having more than six guests, plan a buffet, which is easier for a bigger group.

When decorating the table, Lapine and Eisenpress suggest choosing a theme and celebrating the season.

“Rainbow napkins and a bouquet of flowers in the middle of the table gives a nice, colorful touch and allows you to mix and match, since we don't all have complete sets of table linens,” Lapine said.

Individual Huevos Rancheros with Chipotle Black Beans and Creamy Avocado

By Big Girls Small Kitchen, Makes 24 servings Ingredients: Three 15-ounce cans of black beans, rinsed and drained 1 chipotle chile pepper, minced, from a can of chipotle in adobo sauce 1 tbsp. adobo sauce ½ tsp. cumin Cayenne pepper to taste

6 avocados 2 garlic cloves, minced 1½ limes Salt 2 dozen eggs 1 cup shredded sharp white cheddar cheese 24 small flour tortillas cilantro (for garnish, optional) To make the beans: Combine the beans, chipotle, adobo sauce and cumin in a medium saucepan over low heat. Cook slowly, covered, stirring occasionally, until the beans are warm and soft and the flavors have melded, about 15 minutes. Season to taste with salt and cayenne pepper. This can be done a day before; simply reheat in the microwave. To make the creamy avocado In a small food processor, puree the avocados, garlic, the juice of one lime and ¼ tsp. of salt. If you don’t have a food processor, mash with a fork. Taste for seasoning. Squeeze the remaining lime over the top. Can be made 2 hours in advance if kept in an air-tight container. To make the eggs: Preheat the oven to 250. In a large bowl, crack and beat the eggs with ½ tsp. of salt. Wrap the tortillas in foil and heat them in the oven while you scramble the eggs. Coat a large non-stick skillet with olive oil and place it over medium-high heat -- you will need a bit more oil if you are using cast iron or another metal pan. Carefully pour in the eggs. When the eggs begin to form curds, turn the heat down to medium-low. Using a rubber spatula, continuously scrape the bottom of the pan, displacing cooked pieces of egg as they form. Since you are dealing with a lot of eggs, the scrambling process may take up to 20 minutes. Once all the eggs are almost cooked but still too runny to serve, add the cheese. Cook for 2 or 3 more minutes until the eggs are no longer runny and the cheese is melted. To assemble, place a generous spoonful of eggs in each warm tortilla, followed by a tablespoon of black beans and a dollop of creamy avocado. Serve on a platter, squeezing in as many tortillas as possible so they stay folded. Garnish with cilantro, if using, and serve sour cream and salsa alongside if you want to go all out.