- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 23, 2004

BEDFORD HILLS, N.Y. — Once upon a time, families sat down together for breakfast. They enjoyed such favorites as homemade waffles and pancakes dripping with real maple syrup and butter, or eggs and bacon.

People didn’t chirp away into cell phones; they talked with one another. Mom, in her inimitable wisdom, pronounced breakfast to be the most important meal of the day.

Now, fast-forward to the 21st century; it turns out mom is still right.

Breakfast is indispensable. Not only does it provide essential early-morning nourishment to people of all ages throughout the week, it’s also becoming more and more trendy for both business meetings and social gatherings. Any time families and friends want to get together in a relaxed setting, they consider breakfast.

Why? Because the meal has a universal appeal to all ages and all pocketbooks.

Low-carb diets also have brought once-forbidden breakfast foods back into favor. Egg consumption has risen steadily in recent years. “In 1993, it was 234.6 per capita; in 2003, the figure was 254.1,” says Linda Braun, director of consumer education for the American Egg Board.

Miss Braun attributes some of this to dietary trends but says a more compelling reason is that eggs offer some newly identified benefits. “The yolks are rich in choline, a nutrient that shows promise in early studies for preventing memory loss in later life, and lutein, known to combat age-related macular degeneration and cataracts,” she says.

Whatever the rationale, steak and eggs and a barnyard full of other egg dishes from frittatas to huevos rancheros are being devoured with gusto.

At home, omelets and toast have always been popular, in the wee hours after a night on the town or when you’re alone and want to curl up with some comfort food, a blanket, and a good book.

In restaurants, the meal once was pretty much over by 10 a.m. Today, that’s no longer true. With changing lifestyles, people are enjoying breakfast fare at all hours of the day and evening, too. Numerous restaurants across America, including the most fashionable eateries, serve traditional morning foods well past noon.

At the Stamford, Conn., City Limits Diner, one of three diners by this name in the area, manager Margaret Callanan says that within the past few years, breakfast business probably has doubled.

“The first segment to arrive in morning are the ‘suits,’ competitive lawyers and businessmen who use the hour to treat clients like guests rather than serving them bagels in their office,” she says.

Typical of many diners, City Limits offers an enormous menu. Along with waffles and pancakes, it serves refined dishes that are surprising at a place in this category. A great favorite is Maryland-lump-crab-and-lobster cake Benedict. (If you leave out the English muffin, the rich combination is even low-carb-friendly.)

The most popular item is the country breakfast. It includes eggs, house-made hash brown potatoes, sausage, bacon and ham, plus multigrain toast from bread baked on the premises. At $7, it is a bargain.

“On weekends, families and friends come and indulge on their way to sports activities, after church, or for no reason. That’s when people are willing to try some of the other, larger dishes,” Miss Callanan says.

Part of breakfast’s deeper appeal is its implied sense of comfort, the buzzword on everyone’s lips. Unthreatening fare such as oatmeal and muffins easily fit that bill, but beyond nostalgia’s pull, today’s breakfasters want more.

When it comes to oatmeal, for example, they might seek out steel-cut oats imported from Ireland for toothsome texture and earthy flavor. Traders Joe’s, a crunchy-granola-meets-superchic-foodie chain that originated in Los Angeles, introduced its own brand of the breakfast cereal not long ago.

Diane O’Connor, Trader Joe’s manager of media relations, says that along with interest in nutritionally rich whole-grain breads and cereals such as oatmeal, “the stores’ bacon and eggs sales are up significantly, as are purchases of frozen multigrain waffles and French toast, and breakfast bars.”

Today’s breakfasters are fortunate. Crusty loaves of whole-grain bread, thick slices of applewood-smoked bacon, and fine coffee beans are sold even in tiny hamlets across America. Markets sell premium-grade butters and artisanal preserves, as well.

If Mom’s breakfast was the benchmark of comfort foods in the good old days, today we want to capture that feeling and more. For anyone looking to move beyond mundane morning food, high-quality, well-prepared ingredients are the key.

And who cares what time you eat breakfast?

This flavorful frittata that uses ingredients other than the more traditional Italian ones would make a fine breakfast or light lunch, or it could be cut into small squares to pass as hors d’oeuvres.

Gruyere, apple, onion and almond frittata

5 eggs

½ teaspoon water

2½ tablespoons unsalted butter

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

1 medium onion, peeled and chopped

2 medium Granny Smith or other tart green apples, peeled, cored, and chopped fairly fine

½ teaspoon nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon white pepper

½ teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/3 cup slivered almonds, lightly toasted

1 cup shredded Gruyere cheese

Beat eggs and water in a large bowl until blended.

In a nonstick 10-inch skillet, melt 1 tablespoon of butter and the oil over medium-high heat. Add onion and saute over medium heat until light brown, about 6 to 7 minutes. Add the apples and continue cooking until they are limp, about 4 to 5 minutes, then scrape them into the beaten eggs. Stir in the nutmeg, white pepper, salt and slivered almonds.

Melt the remaining butter in the skillet over medium-high heat. Pour in the egg mixture, shaking to distribute evenly. After 1 minute, sprinkle on the cheese and adjust heat to medium-low. After 11 to 12 minutes, loosen the frittata, shaking to be sure it is detached. Cover the pan with a large plate and flip the frittata onto it, slide it back into the pan, and cook for 5 to 6 minutes more. Loosen, if necessary, before removing and cutting into wedges.

Makes 4 to 5 servings as part of a breakfast buffet.

Huevos rancheros casserole souffle

Beaten egg whites add a puff of air to keep them soufflelike, while corn, cheddar cheese and peppers add zest. Once they are baked, they can sit for at least ½ hour. Even at room temperature, they are very tasty.

1½ tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

5 to 6 Italian frying (Anaheim) peppers, about 6 inches long

12 eggs, separated

4 cups loosely packed shredded medium or sharp cheddar cheese

2 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels

1 cup milk

2 jalapeno peppers, seeds and membranes removed, and minced, or 2 rinsed pickled jalapenos, chopped

1 teaspoon salt or to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

6 cups purchased tomato salsa, warmed

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Butter a 9-by-13-inch earthenware or glass casserole.

Make an incision along each Italian frying pepper and remove the stem, seeds and membranes, keeping the pepper in one piece. Partially fill a saucepan or skillet with water and bring to a boil. Add the peppers, return water to a boil, and cook until peppers are softened, about 3 minutes. Remove and blot with paper towels. Cool completely, then line the bottom of the casserole.

In a large bowl, beat egg yolks until smooth, stir in cheese, corn, milk, jalapenos, and salt and pepper. In another bowl, whisk the whites into soft peaks, then gently fold into yolk mixture until almost blended. Scrape into the prepared casserole pan and bake in the middle of the oven until eggs are puffy and the top is lightly browned, about 7 minutes.

Turn temperature to 325 degrees and cook until the eggs are baked through but not dry, 22 to 25 minutes. A knife inserted into the center should come out almost clean. Remove and let eggs sit for a few minutes before cutting into 12 rectangles. Spoon on salsa and serve. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Cookbook author Marion Cunningham first served me these pancakes, melt-in-your-mouth little morsels, at Bridge Creek, her former breakfast restaurant in Berkeley, Calif. They are delicious with warm maple syrup poured over them.

To gild the lily, I borrowed author Rose Levy Beranbaum’s idea of adding solidly frozen fresh blue]berries directly to the pancakes while on the griddle. They stay plump and juicy that way.

Heavenly blues

4 eggs

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon baking soda

4 tablespoons cake flour or 3½ tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

2 cups sour cream

3 tablespoons sugar

Solid vegetable shortening for greasing the griddle or skillet

2 cups blueberries, frozen very hard

Beat the eggs, salt, baking soda, flour, sour cream and sugar together in a large bowl with a wooden spoon until smooth. This can be done in a food processor or blender, as well.

Heat a griddle or large skillet until very hot. Add just enough shortening to cover with a thin film.

Drop onto the hot griddle small spoonfuls of the batter measuring about 2½ inches in diameter when spread out. When a few bubbles appear on top of the pancakes, drop a few berries onto each pancake, and quickly turn and cook the second side briefly. Serve with maple syrup or confectioners’ sugar.

The batter keeps for up to one week when covered and refrigerated. Makes 50 to 60 dollar-size pancakes.

Sally’s granola

Sally Kofke of Montclair, N.J., makes this delicious granola in a large batch and stores it in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator. It lasts up to 3 months.

6 cups (1½ pounds) rolled oats

3 cups (1 pound) sunflower seeds

3 cups (1 pound) coarsely chopped nuts, such as walnuts, pecans and Brazil nuts

2 cups (2/3 pound) hulled pumpkin seeds

1 cup sesame seeds

1 cup unprocessed bran

1 cup wheat germ, preferably untoasted

2 teaspoon salt or to taste (optional)

2/3 cup honey

2/3 cup boiling water

2/3 cup vegetable oil

15-ounce box dark raisins

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a very large bowl, combine oats, sunflower seeds, nuts, pumpkin and sesame seeds, bran, wheat germ and salt. Pour honey into a quart measuring cup, pour in boiling water, and whisk to dissolve the honey, then add the oil. Pour over dry ingredients and stir until all ingredients are evenly moistened.

Spread mixture in several jelly-roll pans so the depth is no more than 3/4 to 1 inch deep. Press mixture flat and bake in the preheated oven until granola begins to brown around the edges, about 15 minutes. Rotate pan position to ensure even cooking.

Remove pans from oven, turn granola with a spoon or wooden spatula, mixing browned edges into the center and scraping the bottom thoroughly.

Flatten again and return pans to the oven, baking and turning until evenly colored, about 40 minutes. Remove from the oven.

Put raisins in a very large bowl, add granola, and mix thoroughly. Cool completely, then refrigerate in tightly covered containers.

Makes about 5 quarts.

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