Dr. Lustig’s “Teaching Breakfast” clinical teaching program for families with obese or diabetic children posed a question for me that I didn’t get a chance to test out until this morning. If something with balanced protein and vegetables–say, an omelet–is a better choice than most breakfast cereal, or poptarts, or doughnuts, or whatever most kids are eating before they go to school, how do you get that to be affordable and quick to prepare on a schoolday?
The easiest way to do eggs for several people at a time without overdoing the cholesterol is probably to do a big omelet or scramble and take out some of the yolks. But you might not have time to do it at the optimal time for the gourmet–that is, right before you’re going to eat it. Not if you’re heading your kid(s) out the door with the daily litany to grab socks, shoes, homework and lunches and not to worry about what color lipstick (or hairstyle, or comic book, depending on age and taste) because you’re going to be late and come on, already.
We didn’t have this problem in my childhood; you either got out to the bus stop on time by yourself or you walked to school in disgrace, because my mother was not going to make our breakfast or lunch (for which we were immensely grateful), or do any big rescues for “emergencies” based on footdragging. And staying home was not an option we wanted to explore. My sister and I could count on the other one telling on us, not to mention the prospect of running into Mom if she came home early or picked up a phone call from the school attendance clerk. Motivation is everything…
But grownups have these dilemmas too. Who wants to be messing about with a frying pan and washing up when you’re trying to get to work? So many of my daughter’s teachers last year could be spotted out in the parking lot of the school right before the first bell, standing by their cars and bolting down an egg mcmuffin-type thing from a fast food drive-through (drive-thru? hate that commercial spelling) with a cup of coffee in the other hand. Quick, seemingly nutritious, but actually horribly high-salt-and-fat-and-calorie-for-what-it-is, and quite expensive too. Not a good daily habit. If you can do eggs and coffee from scratch at home, you’re bound to do them better and a lot cheaper. You could probably save up for a new tablet or pair of theater tickets within weeks, and you might even lose a bit of weight.
So eggs. A frittata has a lot more vegetation in it than a classic French-style omelet, and it’s more sturdy–look at the very solid, nearly stiff Spanish potato-filled version; always served at room temperature in cubes or wedge slices, almost as some kind of potato kugel.
Well, okay, you don’t want a potato frittata if you’re trying to get the nutrition up to snuff without tons of calories or grams of carb. You want some lighter but substantial vegetables so you don’t end up feeling like you swallowed a lead balloon for the rest of the day.
But the good news is that you don’t have to cook and serve it right on the spot. You can do it ahead and stick it in the fridge. If you do it the night before, you can cut it into wedges and microwave one on a plate for 15-30 seconds and you’re ready to go. Or, of course, you can serve it cold–kind of like the classic cold pizza for breakfast, only better balanced. And most frittatas go well with salsa.
I am not a fan of the kind of isn’t-it-rustic-Italian-or-Provençal glossy magazine frittata instructions that call for frying first and then running under a broiler or what have you. That takes time and heats up the house ( bad in Los Angeles) and probably calls for expensive stovetop-to-oven-friendly cookware, which is usually not [sorry, forgot the “not” when I first posted this] nonstick. A lot of excess fuss for an effect you can perfectly well achieve in an ordinary nonstick frying pan in a couple of minutes on the stovetop, which is how most people who make frittatas at home “authentically” in tiny Italian or Provençal kitchens actually make them. Unless you’re doing a fancy brunch service for 20 diners at a time, in which case it might actually be quicker to do a baked eggs thing in a big casserole and skip the frying. But then I’d hope you were getting paid through the nose for that. Little chance of collecting caterer’s fees at home.
As for the vegetables, cauliflower and zucchini are both very good low-carb, low-calorie stand-ins for potato, and they’re pretty inexpensive and easy to prepare, especially if you have a microwave so you can parcook them on a plate for a minute or so before adding them to the frying pan. That gives you a chance to soften them through quickly and at the same time drain off some of the liquid–they’ll fry faster and won’t make the frittata soggy.
Cauliflower has more fiber, vitamin C and calcium than zucchini, and it’s a bit firmer as well. Zucchini is milder and easier for kids (or adults) who aren’t yet used to eating a variety of vegetables. A frittata like this is also the ideal way to use up that scary-big overgrown zucchini your enthusiastic gardening neighbor gifted you with. Or that someone anonymous parked on your doorstep in the middle of the night.
…It is getting to be the season for that sort of reverse larceny, now that I think about it. Someday I feel it would be right to invent a spring-loaded, siren-enhanced trap for stealth zucchini donors. Something involving on-the-spot forced acceptance of a large cafeteria-style green or orange jello mold with canned fruit cocktail floating in it, faded-pink “cherries” and all, as the price of escape… Or maybe I’ve just been watching too much “Big Bang Theory” with my daughter this weekend and have started to channel my inner Sheldon. And really, I don’t mind stealth zucchini nearly as much as gifted Meyer lemons.
Okay. Back to the frittata–after all, if you already know how to make a basic omelet, this post is mostly just for entertainment, a mere vehicle for shocking photos of various vegetables that have been foisted off on us by well-meaning friends. It’s enough to make you feel like Wallace & Grommit in “The Curse of the Were-Rabbit”:
I’m not a tame eater, so I think all omelet vegetables taste better browned a bit (or a lot) in the pan with some onion and garlic or at least herbs like thyme or even some chile flakes in the mix before you add the eggs. Mostly I don’t believe in pale, wilted, bland or “translucent.”
My frittatas are usually browned and crispy on at least one side, not pale and sliding about in the usual half-cooked runny-egged French ideal (plus that kind isn’t really good for overnight storage in the fridge). I also cook with a small spoonful of olive oil in a nonstick pan rather than a metal pan swimming with tablespoons of butter.
And I’m weird, I know, but I really like the challenge of flipping an omelet in the pan and catching it on the way down (or at least most of it). It’s like juggling or riding a unicycle–it takes a bit of practice and some clearance and an accomplice to keep the cat out of the kitchen while you work up the nerve and make sure the omelet is fully cooked on the bottom and will hang together in midair, but once you get how to do it, it’s kind of fun (unless you miss in front of an audience, like Julia Child, with the cameras running. Then you have to backtrack and tell them all you meant to do it like that so they’d get a rare insider glimpse of what happens if you miss…).
If you’re not hoping to improve your omelet-juggling skills, you can just use a big plate to turn the frittata onto and then slide it back in the pan. Less excitement, fewer chances to show off and impress yourself, but on the other hand, you won’t be mopping up lost cauliflower and onion bits from the floor, or chasing your overexcited cat away from the smear of half-cooked egg and feta that landed by the trashcan.
Or you could always be tame and fold the omelet in half in the pan with a spatula, slide it out on a plate, and then divide it up.
Cauliflower OR Zucchini Omelet/Frittata
serves 3-4 adults or 6 smaller kid-size wedges
- 2-3 cups of vegetables: 1/3 head of cauliflower, rinsed, sliced thinly (~1/4 inch thick) and then cut into bite-size pieces OR 2-3 normal-sized zucchini, washed, ends trimmed off, and sliced crosswise in thin rounds or half-rounds.
- 1/2 medium onion, peeled, sliced in thin wedges or chopped as desired
- optional other vegetables: 12ish pieces of lightly drained marinated artichoke hearts, some chopped red bell pepper if you like it, or a good couple of decent-sized mushrooms washed well and sliced
- 7-8 eggs, with at least half of the yolks taken out (I tend to leave in 2 yolks for 7 eggs for my family. I also like egg whites-only omelets for myself.)
- about 1/3 c. milk (skim is fine with me)
- olive oil
- optional herbs (select/delete as desired): a small minced clove of garlic, a small dab of z’khug or similar chile-garlic paste, a pinch of chile flakes, a few leaves or pinches of thyme, scallion, dill, sage, oregano–whatever tastes good to you and yours.
- 1 oz. optional cheese–I like a few crumbles of feta with this, especially with the artichoke hearts, but you can substitute an ounce of sharp cheddar or other cheese sliced thin and spread over the omelet to melt. Best not to do bleu or gorgonzola, though, so you don’t stink out the house! Learn from my one sad experience! Note: nonstick pan is essential with cheese.
1. Wash, trim and slice all the vegetables (other than marinated artichoke hearts) into thin bite-size pieces. Pile them together on a microwaveable dinner plate and microwave on HIGH for 2-3 minutes until softened through (wilted). Carefully tilt the plate over the sink (without losing the veg) to drain off the juices a bit–even cauliflower will produce some when you wilt it. You might do this by clapping another dinner plate over the vegetables to hold them back.
2. At some point that seems efficient to you (either while the vegetables are in the microwave or else while they’re browning a bit in the frying pan, see next step–) crack the eggs one by one into a cup, check that they don’t have any bloodspots, and add to a mixing bowl. Scoop out at least half the yolks gently with a spoon and discard, pierce the remaining yolks with a fork, add the milk, and beat until the mixture is fairly uniform and light yellow.
3. Heat a large nonstick frying pan medium-high with a spoonful of olive oil. When you’re ready to start frying the wilted vegetables, add a little garlic or chile-garlic paste as desired and any herbs, wait a few seconds for them to start smelling good, and tip the plateful of vegetables into the pan to start browning. If you’re using the artichoke hearts, add them to the pan now. Toss or stir gently with a spatula every once in a while for a few minutes. When they start to brown, turn the heat down to medium-high and add the egg mixture.
4. Let the eggs cook until the edges start to set, then lift the edges with a spatula in one spot, tilt the pan a little and let the uncooked egg run underneath to start cooking. Go around the pan lifting the edges and letting the raw egg mixture run underneath the cooked part until there’s no more liquid egg and the rest is just starting to set in the middle of the pan.
5. Crumble feta on top and press it into the egg base gently with the spatula, or lay on slices of cheddar and let it start to melt.
6. To flip and cook the other side: slide the spatula gently under the omelet all the way around to loosen it from the pan as best you can.
THE DARING VERSION: Shake the pan back and forth a bit. The omelet should slide easily and hold together. Take the pan off the stove, clear the floor for a couple of feet in every direction, shake the pan forward and back a few times to get a feel for it (both hands on the handle as needed), then forward just a little but mostly up to flip it up and over. Keep the pan right under it so you can catch it again! Turn off the heat and let the underside cook in the residual heat of the pan. Serve asap to great applause–from yourself if no one else.
THE TAME VERSION: Get a big dinner plate, slide the omelet out onto it, and flip it back into the pan so the less cooked side is down. Wait a few seconds, then take off the heat and serve.
TAMEST VERSION: Put the cheese on, lift up one side of the omelet with a spatula and fold it over the other side in the pan. Wait a few seconds, then take off the heat and serve.
If you make the omelet or frittata in advance, let it cool on a plate and then place in a lidded microwave container (you might need to cut it into wedges to fit). Once it’s cooled, put it in the fridge until you’re ready to serve. When you take out a wedge, you can either eat it cold or put it on a microwaveable plate and heat it in the microwave for 15-30 seconds, depending on your taste and microwave power.
Bon appétit, mangia bene, b’te’avon! And don’t take any wooden zucchini. That goes double for cauliflower.