You Say Frittata, I Say Quiche
If there is one ingredient that I can’t imagine brunch without, it’s got to be the incredible, edible egg. In any guise, whether simply poached, fried or whipped into a batter for pancakes, this most elemental ingredient contributes nutrition, flavor and structure beyond compare.
The egg’s humble origins can be transformed by the addition of sultry cheese, bacon and cream into a custardy Quiche Lorraine. Wrapping themselves around a pan full of potatoes and onions fried in olive oil, eggs become the sublime tortilla Española. Without a crust and the French penchant for all things heavy cream, the same ingredients can be quickly thrown together on the stove top and finished in the oven as an Italian frittata. There are subtle differences in the preparation of each of these savory egg pies, but they share the feature of being complete meals in one slice — delicious hot or cold, any time of day.
When I was growing up, my mom had a few go-to egg dishes in her wheelhouse. Nothing fancy, or so I thought as a kid, just the kind of light fare she could throw together quickly, pair with a tossed salad and call it supper for a family of six. My favorite was her potato and egg omelet. I didn’t know it then, and I meant no disrespect when I smothered it in ketchup, but that omelet was actually a classic tortilla des patatas. The Spanish tortilla has nothing in common with the Mexican flatbread other than a similar round shape (tortilla translates as “small cake” in English). The addition of onions as an ingredient is debated, but they show up in many recipes and they add sweetness and moisture as they fry in olive oil alongside the potatoes. The solid texture of tortilla is created by the long cooking time of the potatoes and the high ratio of “filling”to egg. Looking back, I marvel at how my mom managed those perfectly cooked potatoes and eggs, and how easily the whole thing flipped and released from a 12-inch skillet! It must have been the miracle of olive oil.
There was another savory pie that showed up at Easter brunches, or any holiday that required light grazing before the big meal. I shied away from this one as a kid because it was heavily laced with the green stuff — spinach. But once my palate grew up, and I began to appreciate the flavor of cooked greens, I realized mom’s spinach pie was actually a pretty sophisticated quiche. It relied on the sweet moisture of fresh ricotta cheese and onions, and was seasoned with Parmesan and nutmeg. This one usually arrived in pairs, which I also figured out later was to best utilize the two-pack of frozen pie crusts that made it the convenient, complete dish it was.
I’ve since dabbled in many egg-enriched brunch dishes, achieving quite a following for my quiches while baking at, of all places, an Italian trattoria outside Seattle. The chef often had scraps of roasted vegetables and salumi meats he needed to use up, and when he turned them into frittata, the low-dairy, crustless Italian version of quiche, it didn’t sell well. But when he asked me to prepare a short crust and filling (I heavily referenced Julia Child’s classic Quiche Lorraine recipe in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” to perfect the custard), the combination of roasted asparagus, prosciutto and Gruyere cheese was a hit. It seemed a lot of people craved a well-contained, silky filling that coats the tummy, with bits of salted meats, veggies and cheese showcased in a buttery crust.
The variations of filling ingredients are endless, but there should always be a good balance of custard, and that custard should be just barely set, still jiggling when it’s removed from the oven. Where quiche originated in the Alsace region (where Germany and France once overlapped), the climate can be similarly misty as Seattle, so maybe not such a coincidence there are a lot of closet quiche lovers in the Pacific Northwest.
So what of the frittata, then? Even its name, basically meaning “fried” in Italian, has less panache than the sophisticated quiche. But a frittata can shine in its ease of preparation — started on the stovetop with eggs, a little milk to lighten the texture and whatever pre-cooked meats or veggies you care to throw in, all you need is an ovenproof skillet to get you a complete meal with a lot less time and finesse than required for a typical French folded omelet. The lack of a crust means it can be thrown together on a whim, with the added bonus of being gluten- and carb-free. Frittata can be a kitchen sink of ingredients, but bound together with your favorite cheese, it’s a brunch star, too.