Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Eggs in a Row (Portuguese Baked Eggs)

Among my friends and I, weekend brunch is one of our most sacred traditions. So it was quite a downer when, after a few visits, it became apparent that the fanciest place for brunch in town didn't approve of our entourage. Maybe it's because we currently max out at two gray hairs per head, maybe it's because we wore t-shirts on our first visit, but the aura of antipathy fast became a palpable presence. Mimosas shouldn't come with a side of sneering. With the only remaining venue for elaborate breakfasts being my own home, it was time to devise something that could combine delicious flavor, elegant presentation, and the ability to be assembled before I open my eyes in the morning. That's how I settled on the idea of baked eggs, and, as a proud Luso-American, when I found a recipe for Portuguese Baked Eggs, I knew we were in business.

The breakfast business
 Baked eggs are one of the ideal lazy breakfast foods, because you can just crack them open and let them coast in the oven while you brew coffee, prep other dishes, or slip back into bed for twenty more minutes of shut-eye. Portugal boasted some of the finest sailors and navigators of the Age of Exploration (paired with an unfortunate penchant for colonization), so this recipe is rich in peppers and tomatoes transplanted from the Americas. Offset with generous amounts of melting cheese, the finished dish is colorful, healthful, and replete with rustic simplicity.

Simple, really
The recipe certainly required some adaptation. My eyes boggled at the quarter cup of olive oil. It's a mainstay of Portuguese cooking, but I prefer my vegetables be a sauté rather than confit (a lovely culinary word and tasty preparation that regrettably means saturated in oil or syrup). The other oddity of my original template was the choice of cheeses: Italian ricotta and Parmesan and English cheddar. Portugal has a strong cheese-making tradition, with at least 15 distinct cheeses that enjoy protected designation of origin. It quickly became apparent at the market, however, that cheese selection was influenced by availability rather than authenticity. There was nary a Portuguese cheese to be found. I made do by keeping to the Iberian Peninsula, using Spanish manchego and queso blanco. Quiejo fresco (a soft, mild, young cheese quite similar to queso blanco) and Azorean Pico (smooth, semi-soft, and slightly smoky) would be the best choices, if you're able to find them.

Cheese to please
The dish is, in essence, a giant, carnival-colored vat of stewed vegetables and fresh herbs, shaped into little nests to receive a plentiful dousing of cheese and gently cup the eggs in perfect portions. Baked to crusty golden bronze around the edges and served on hot buttered toast, it makes a tasty and satisfying breakfast or light dinner and pairs beautifully with a fresh salad of either fruit or greens. To make preparation even easier, you can cook the vegetable mixture ahead of time, either the night before or several days ahead and keep it in the refrigerator.

Toasty and delicious
Portuguese baked eggs
Adapted from Bon Appetit

Let the eggs sit out on the counter while you prepare the vegetables or steep in a bowl of warm water for several minutes to take off the chill of the fridge. Serves 6.

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil1 red onion, thinly sliced
6 garlic cloves, minced
3 bell peppers, any color, diced
2 jalapeño peppers, seeded and diced
8 ounces cherry tomatoes, halved
1 tablespoon fresh basil leaves
1 tablespoon fresh oregano leaves
1/4 cup vegetable stock
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup queso blanco, crumbled
6 large eggs1/2 cup manchego, grated
3 English or Portuguese muffins, split, toasted, and buttered

Warm the oil in a large, heavy, oven-proof skillet (12" cast iron is ideal) over medium heat.
Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and just beginning to lose color, about 5 minutes.

Just starting to soften
Add the garlic and sauté one minute more. Then add the tomatoes, peppers, basil, oregano, and paprika. Stir well, then pour in the stock and stir until incorporated.

Like a vegetable kaleidoscope
Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue to cook, stirring often, until the vegetables are softened and tomatoes are bursting, about 15 minutes.

Preheat an oven to 400 F and use the back of a large spoon to gently create 6 evenly spaced nests in the vegetables.

Sprinkle with crumbled queso blanco, then crack 1 egg into each hollow. Toss manchego across the top and season with salt and pepper.

Nestled in
Slip the skillet into the center of the oven and bake until the cheese is just beginning to brown and the egg whites are solid, 15–17 minutes.

Ready to serve
Serve the baked eggs immediately over toasted bread.

This post also appeared as an article in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette.

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