Italian Twist 

Precision Cabinetry & Design in Rancho Cordova. Photo by Debbie Cunningham
Chef Nina Curtis prepares veggies to add to a frittata. Kitchen space courtesy of Precision Cabinetry & Design in Rancho Cordova. Photo by Debbie Cunningham

With or without eggs, the versatile frittata makes the most of what’s handy.

Whether entertaining guests or preparing a simple breakfast for one, the frittata is a satisfying, savory pie limited only by what ingredients lie in the refrigerator. Incorporating bits of cooked meat and vegetables, this traditionally eggy dish may be the ideal way to use up leftovers. But as it turns out, eggs aren’t even a required ingredient.

Roxanne O’Brien, a longtime Sacramento chef and culinary educator, says the frittata is her preferred way to eat eggs. Meanwhile, chef Nina Curtis, director and executive chef of Plant’ish & Co. Culinary Arts, doesn’t use any eggs in her rendition. 

Frittata is derived from an old Italian word for “fried,” and originally encompassed any type of eggs cooked in a skillet. The frittatas on today’s plates resemble a baked or open-faced omelet and are often finished in the oven, creating a puffy and golden top. The dish can be eaten warm or at room temperature, making it an excellent option for parties or picnics. Slice it into small wedges for an appetizer or serve the hardy protein-packed frittata for a main course.

The flexibility of the dish is what O’Brien loves most. Before her recent retirement, this passion for a fluffy egg pie was shared with her students in the American River College’s culinary program, where she taught countless individuals how to cook eggs, among other skills.

“First, I love eggs and eat them probably every day. I usually have two dozen in the refrigerator,” she says. “The beauty of making frittatas is that they are quick and easy to prepare. They’re inexpensive; you can use what’s on hand or use up some of the items lingering in the fridge. They are versatile — I can satisfy whatever craving I am having at the time.”

Healthy frittata in cast iron pans.
Healthy frittata in cast iron pans.

At its most basic, the frittata is an Italian twist on fancy scrambled eggs. Milk or cream plus cheese gives it a richness, while optional vegetables, meat, and herbs add flavor. “A frittata is really an open-faced omelet, but omelets have a size limitation and are usually made for single serving,” says O’Brien. “A frittata is not really a crustless quiche; a quiche has a different egg to milk ratio and is an egg custard.”

Compared to quiche, frittatas contain more egg; eight eggs to a half cup of milk or cream. “You can use milk, half and half, heavy cream, or sour cream, whatever you have on hand,” says O’Brien. “My favorite dairy addition is cottage cheese or ricotta, beaten in with eggs; it keeps the frittata light and creamy.” 

Most frittatas contain grated or crumbled cheese, about the same amount of cheese as milk or cream. “I usually go overboard, of course,” says O’Brien with a laugh. “I like a little Parmesan or pecorino for flavor. Just use cheeses on hand; it could be a mix of what was left on the cheeseboard.”

Add in fresh or dried herbs, again, whatever is on hand. Some favorites include chives, parsley, basil, oregano, and dill. O’Brien’s favorite combinations are ham and Gruyère, and poblanos and Cheddar. The dish is an ideal way to use up extra pizza toppings such as mushrooms, salami, onions, green peppers, and cooked sausage. Spinach, chard, and other greens make great frittata filler, as do tomatoes, broccoli, asparagus, summer squash, and other seasonal vegetables. The number of extras depends on the size of the pan — perhaps just a half cup for a smaller frittata or three cups of additions for a frittata that serves four.

“If I have vegetables that take a little longer to cook, I sauté or roast them ahead,” O’Brien notes. Frittatas can be cooked on top of the stove, baked in the oven, or a combination of both. When cooking stovetop, flip the frittata to brown both sides or put a lid over the frittata so it cooks through. In the oven, the frittata puffs up and turns golden brown with no turning. The more ingredients included, the longer it takes to cook, which could be about 8 to 10 minutes or until the eggs appear set. 

The "V" Frittata, recipe by Nina Curtis, Photo by Debbie Cunningham
The “V” Frittata, recipe by Nina Curtis, Photo by Debbie Cunningham

For a plant-based take, the frittata made by Curtis adheres to a vegan diet, which she has maintained for more than 20 years. Her dish is made without any eggs or dairy. “I [went vegan] for my body,” says Curtis, a certified nutritionist, natural bodybuilder, and vegan culinary pioneer. Anyone who’s enjoyed her cooking could attest that vegan does not mean a lack of flavor. Creativity and complexity of flavors are key to tasty plant-based cooking, and that’s exactly how she approaches her frittata.

“Most people say, ‘That’s impossible! A frittata is eggs. It’s an Italian omelet,’” Curtis explains. “But you can substitute chickpea flour as an alternative. I learned to do an omelet with chickpea flour, and that leads naturally to frittatas.”

Her vegan frittata uses a chickpea flour batter. “One-quarter cup chickpea flour mixed with one-quarter cup water and one tablespoon oil equals one egg,” Curtis explains. “You can cook (the batter) in a muffin pan for little individual frittatas.”

To increase the chickpea flour’s egginess, Curtis adds a dash of turmeric (for its yellow tint) and Kala Namak, Indian black salt. “The salt has a lot of sulfur and has that egg smell,” she says.

Vegetable prep for frittata. Photo by Debbie Cunningham
Vegetable prep for frittata. Photo by Debbie Cunningham

She adds vegan cheese and a lot of fresh vegetables. “I always cook in season. My favorites for frittatas are spinach, onions, scallions. I love tomatoes; I like to put slices of tomato on top. Asparagus, bell pepper and zucchini. With zucchini, grate it and squeeze out all the water first.”

The vegan frittata has different chemistry than an egg-based frittata, Curtis notes. That means it cooks a little differently; it bakes in the oven instead of on top of the stove. “But it tastes in the mouth very eggy,” she says. “People are quite surprised.”

No matter if it’s a mid-week refrigerator clear-out or an intentional list of ingredients, the frittata is a low-fuss, high-enjoyment dish that’s sure to please.

Healthy frittata in cast iron pans.

Recipe: Basic Frittata

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