International house of breakfast.

From A., 17 January 2011, making a more interesting breakfast?

Q: I am stuck in the American breakfast rut and don’t know how to break out! I know most other cultures don’t eat pancakes or grab starbucks on the go. Any tips for healthier more worldly breakfast options (other than fruit)?

A: Thanks for your question. I laughed when I read it, because my breakfast every weekday for the last month has been an English muffin with almond butter, eaten in the car on the way to Washington, DC.

So you’re stuck in a breakfast rut, eh? I don’t think you’re alone. If I had to guess, a lot of Americans are in that boat with you. Yoghurt every day, or cereal. Doughnuts, or bagels. Giant muffin, or oatmeal. Cup of coffee, or juice. Even on the weekends, it’s maybe pancakes or eggs, and breakfast meats if you eat them. Do you see a pattern?

Part of it might be what my husband calls “the chewing problem” in the morning – maybe we just aren’t awake enough to eat anything requiring much hand-to-mouth coordination, or even a lot of upper-to-lower jaw coordination. And part of it is time. But some of it surely is our conception of breakfast foods – many a person, including my mother in law, has freaked out because I ate leftover pasta or pork belly for breakfast, or made a meatball sandwich. But in many countries, breakfast is a hearty, savory meal. Consider this:

* In Vietnam, for example, hearty noodle soups like pho and hu tieu are popular, as are the glutinous rice dishes called xôi, combining rice with sweet or savory components.
* In China, rice porridge (congee), served with salted condiments and pickles, fried crullers (youtiao) with warm soymilk, and steamed buns (baozi) with meat, savory vegetable, or sweet bean fillings start the day.
* In parts of India, the same rice porridge – called kanji – with local pickles and chutneys – as well as fermented rice products like idlis and dosas come with dals, for a high energy breakfast.

Even in Europe, some countries hew to a heartier conception of the meal than others. In Scandinavia, I ate pickled and smoked fish for breakfast, and in the Netherlands, lots and lots of cold cuts and cheese. But in warmer Mediterranean Europe, breakfast is much lighter – coffee, bread and jam, churros, maybe juice.

So maybe one way to break out of the breakfast rut is to stop thinking of it as such a different meal from lunch and dinner. Have a sandwich, make a bowl of ramen. If I had the time to eat breakfast at home, I’d have pasta or ramen with poached egg all the time. Here are three great, quick weekday breakfasts that fall outside the pastry-yoghurt continuum. Both require a little preparation at a non-breakfast time (like on a weekend or in the evening), but can be eaten on the go in the morning. The first is cold tortilla española, which by the way makes a great sandwich with a dollop of mayonnaise (especially pimentón mayonnaise). A tortilla cooked in an 8″ pan makes six good slices, which will last you all week, because you will eat the first slice right away. Eggs are high in protein, and the thick tortilla slice is hearty enough to last all morning. The second is inspired by the sorts of glutinous rice breakfasts you’ll find throughout China, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia – square packets of glutinous rice wrapped in banana leaves, which are widely available. I’m suggesting two fillings – one savory, and one sweet. Eat them at room temperature, or reheat them in a steamer set over boiling water. If they seem a little rich to you, remember – they’ll hold you until lunch, and you won’t be emptying your bag looking for quarters to buy Doritos at 11am. The last recipe is the modern, healthy alternative to oatmeal, using quinoa, the seed of a type of amaranth plant related to spinach and chard.

Tortilla de patata

2 large medium-starch potatoes (yukon gold, desiree)
1/2 cup Spanish olive oil
8 cloves garlic confit
6 extra large eggs
sea salt

A well-seasoned 8″ steel or cast iron saute pan works best. For a largerpan, increase the quantity of potato, garlic confit, and egg proportionally.

Oven 275F.

Peel and dice (1/2″) the potatoes. Place in small, cold saucepan (tall and narrow is best) with the oil and garlic confit, and bring to a simmer. Cook until the potatoes are tender. Do not brown or allow garlic to brown. Drain the oil and reserve. Season well with salt.

Beat the eggs with a fork until just combined. Do not overbeat. Season with salt. Stir into the potato mix.

Heat the 8″ pan and add a little of the reserved cooking oil. Heat to medium. Pour the potato/egg mixture into the pan. Using a silicone spatula, release edges as they cook so uncooked egg mixture flows to pan surface and bottom of pan. Place pan in center of oven.

When tortilla appears to be nearly cooked through, set oven to broil. Do not allow tortilla to brown – a light gold is sufficient. Remove from oven; loosen and release onto wooden cutting board. Allow to cool so the tortilla firms up. Serve at room temperature (or even cold, with mayonnaise).

For a great breakfast or lunch sandwich, serve on a soft roll with mayonnaise. If you like, add 1/2 tsp of pimentón and a few dashes of sherry vinegar to 1/4 c mayonnaise.

Glutinous rice in banana leaf

If you like, you could make half of these with the savory filling and the other half sweet. You can freeze the prepared banana leaves once stuffed; steam them for 70 minutes instead of the 40 minutes specified.

3 c glutinous rice
1 1/2 c coconut milk
1 1/2 c water
twelve fresh or frozen bamboo leaves (available in your supermarket’s frozen food section in the Latin section)

For savory pork filling:

1 lb boneless pork shoulder cut into 3″ chunks
1/4 c tbsp rice wine or sherry vinegar
1/4 c tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp water
2 tbsp sugar
1/2 onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, smashed

For sweet filling:

2 ripe bananas
a little salt
2 tbsp palm sugar or brown sugar (optional, if you like really sweet things)

Rinse the rice until the water runs clear, and then soak in filtered water for at least three hours or overnight.

If making the savory filling, prepare the pork. Combine all the ingredients except the pork and bring to a simmer for fifteen minutes. Strain. Return to the pot with the pork and bring back just to a simmer. Cover and braise until fork tender, about 2 hours. Cool and shred with two large forks, combining evenly to distribute the seasoning. Chill if not using immediately.

When ready to prepare the rice, drain thoroughly and combine with the water and coconut milk in a saucepot. Bring to a simmer and cook to the texture of oatmeal. Remove from heat and cool.

Rinse the banana leaves well and trim to about the size of a sheet of paper. Place on a cutting board. Spread about 2 tbsp rice in the middle of the leaf. If using the pork, place a tbsp of shredded pork on top. If using the banana, peel and slice both bananas into six slices each; place two slices of banana and a few grains of salt (and a little palm/brown sugar if using) on the rice. Spread another 2 tbsp rice on top.

Fold the leaf as though you were wrapping a package and the rice/filling is the box. Place smooth side up/seam side down and repeat. You may have leftover filling.

Stack the banana leaf parcels in a steamer (bamboo, metal, or other – it doesn’t matter) and place over a pot filled with a few inches of water. Take care that the water doesn’t touch the steamer and leave a few inches between the two. Cover the steamer. Bring the water to a boil and steam for about 40 minutes, until the parcels are cooked through. Chill if not eating immediately.

To reheat cold glutinous rice parcels, set in a steamer set over boiling water for seven minutes.

Fruit and nut breakfast quinoa

Feel free to vary the fruits in season and to change the spicing to complement the fruit. To toast the nuts, spread on a sheet pan and toast in a 325F oven until golden, about 6-9 minutes depending on the type and size of nut.

2c quinoa
2c water
1c milk (I prefer whole milk)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
whole nutmeg for grating (you won’t use it all)
2 tbsp honey
Depending on the season: 2 c fresh or frozen blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, apples, peaches, apricots, plums, figs
1/2 c toasted almonds, pecans, or walnuts
Optional: greek yoghurt

Rinse the quinoa well in a sieve for several minutes. This step is essential, because quinoa is coated with saponin, a soapy alkaline substance, and leaves a bitter taste and slippery texture if you don’t rinse it thoroughly. Don’t skip this step. Drain well.

Place the quinoa, water, and milk in a saucepot with a lid. Bring to a simmer and cook for about 15 minutes (more or less – watch the pot), covered, until the liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat and stand, covered, for about five minutes. Stir in the cinnamon and fluff with a fork. You can store it in a sealed container in the refrigerator at this point – reheat it in the microwave at breakfast time.

Serve with the berries, the nuts, and the honey drizzled on top. If serving with figs, apricots, or peaches, you may like to serve with a spoon of yoghurt.

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