By Amy Scattergood
Los Angeles Times
Come this way, up the garden steps and into a back yard where the patio is shaded by an old avocado tree. Fill a plate from a buffet of dishes as springlike as they are fresh and take a seat in the mild morning sun.
Nibble a leek pancake wrapped around a crisp spear of asparagus, sip an herbal tisane, indulge in a chocolate-orange scone. Let the textures and aromas play over your senses like flowers in a bouquet. Relax, and celebrate spring with a leisurely brunch.
For the table’s centerpiece is a stack of leek pancakes designed for wrapping around a roasted asparagus spear or prosciutto. Gravlax, arranged like a fan on a platter, is a perfect match. Basil and mint and lemon grass steep in a pitcher to make a fragrant tisane for sipping.
Then meander around the garden, and come back to the table for a plate of chocolate-orange scones laced with oat flour, leavened with cream and still warm from the oven, or a parfait of Greek yogurt and strawberries. The sweet notes segue to the end of the morning and the brunch itself.
Such a leisurely brunch is built not only by the arrangement itself, laid out buffet-style and assembled to suit personal tastes, but also by the fact that much of it can be done ahead of time.
For a Sunday brunch, you’ll need to start curing your gravlax Friday morning. Take skin-on salmon fillets, spread with equal parts sugar and kosher salt. Add sliced fennel and a sprinkling of aquavit ó a Scandinavian spirit similar to vodka that is typically flavored with caraway. Stack the fillets, wrap them in cheesecloth, add weights on top and put the whole thing in the refrigerator. After 24 hours, turn the package over; after two days, unwrap the fish, scrape off the salt-fennel mixture and slice very thinly on a bias.
Subtler than smoked salmon, gravlax has a velvety texture and a delicate taste ó here scented with notes of anise and licorice ó that pairs beautifully with creme fraiche studded with toasted caraway seeds.
The day before the brunch, toast caraway seeds in a pan, crush them and mix with a cup of creme fraiche, salt and pepper. The flavors marry overnight.
Pick up thinly sliced “prosciutto de Parma” from your favorite specialty or grocery store the day before. Store it, tightly wrapped, in the refrigerator; just make sure that it’s served at room temperature.
The morning of your brunch, prepare fresh herbs to make a tisane, a refreshing tea. Fill a clear glass teapot or pitcher ó so you can see the leaves inside ó with a few stalks of lemon grass and lush sprigs of mint or basil, lemon verbena or thyme. For cool tea, boil water, pour it over the herbs and set aside. To serve hot, set the pitcher of herbs aside and at serving time, pour hot water over and steep for five minutes.
Next come leek pancakes, simple cakes enlivened with leeks and kamut flour, a high-protein wheat flour that has a nutty flavor. Instead of adding melted butter to the batter ó the customary way of adding the fat that tenderizes the pancakes ó saute the leeks instead. The butter cooks the leeks into aromatic threads and picks up their heady flavors. Cook the pancakes in a cast-iron pan or griddle, making them smaller than usual. Keep them warm on the stove, serve them at room temperature or put a platter of them in a sunny quadrant of your table.
Thin stalks of asparagus in market stalls and produce aisles signal the season. Break the stalks off at their fibrous ends ó they’ll snap at the right place ó and put them into a hot pan with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt. They’ll roast in a few minutes, tossed constantly over high heat. This method brings out the vegetable’s flavor, while keeping its lovely crunch.
To prepare eggs, whisk them into homemade hollandaise sauce, torqued with minced dill. It’s a classic match for the asparagus, and it tastes pretty great on the pancakes too.
Hollandaise is a simple emulsion of egg yolks and melted butter ó it’s easy to do, and it will hold just fine if kept warm on the stove until you’re ready for it.
You can make the sauce the traditional way, by whisking egg yolks in a metal bowl set over a pan of hot water, then incorporating melted butter until the mixture emulsifies and finishing with lemon juice and a pinch of salt and pepper. Or make your hollandaise in a blender. In keeping with the menu’s herbal notes, add minced dill for a fresh, bright flavor to the sauce.
With the savory side of the menu done, you’ll want to hit the sweet spot, and chocolate-orange scones are the perfect fit. These scones are from Alice Medrich, a San Francisco baker and author who has a light touch and a way with chocolate. They’re light and tender, a cinch to make because Medrich uses neither eggs nor butter ó all the fat and liquid come from heavy cream.
We’ve added orange zest and substituted oat flour for half the regular flour, both flavors that pair beautifully with the high-cacao chocolate for which the recipe calls. The resulting scones are subtle, simple wonders.
For those who linger over coffee, make individual fruit-and-yogurt parfaits. Sprinkle a few tablespoons of sugar and the peel from two lemons over a bowlful of fresh sliced strawberries, stir and let the fruit macerate.
After 15 minutes, when the strawberries have released their crimson juice, spoon a generous amount of Greek yogurt into pretty glasses. Add strawberries, layer fruit and yogurt about three-quarters of the way up each glass. Toss on a mint leaf or a lemon peel, and you’re done.