Julie In the food world, dinner is the celebrity hottie—the meal that chefs, at home or behind the line, trot out to impress. Ideally, supper means time to stretch out, time to appreciate subtleties, time for courses: appetizer, main, dessert. Maybe even an amuse bouche.
Lunch is the worker’s meal. If dinner wears a little black dress, lunch wears canvas overalls. It’s a one-course deal: sandwiches, soups, hamburgers, salads. Some creativity, some forethought, but really the point here is to get in and get out in an hour.
And breakfast? In the kingdom of food, breakfast is the peasant, the serf, the indentured servant. Its clothes might be clean, but they’re serial hand-me-downs. There’s no time to fuss, no time for art, and no pretense of originality: just the calories, ma’am, and we’ll take them the way we’ve been taking them since we were kids. Boxed cereals, eggs in all their forms (sunnysided, scrambled, omeletted and poached), toast, oatmeal. Even fruit salad and the irrepressible bacon have become effete.
In one sense our willingness to accept the limited choices of breakfast is a commendable example of cultural restraint—a break from the kind of foodie entitlement that has spawned the demand for olive-oil tasting bars, sous-vide machines and molecular cooking. Generally, I’m in favour of doing more with less, keeping things simple, honouring tradition. But entitlement has gotten the better of me, and I, for one, am not satisfied with my breakfast. For a while, rather than face another bowl of granola or toast with almond butter, I leaned on protein-powder shakes. That only goes so far though (literally, as I’m hungry 90 minutes later), so a couple of months ago I started looking for new additions to the menu.
I’m not the only one. Google “rethinking breakfast” and you’ll get 1,650 different pages, many of which are replete with recipes for everything from the depressingly healthy (“avocado kale scramble”) to the intriguing (“savory oatmeal” with olive oil, lemon and sausage) to the exotic (Korean bibimbap). Call it the BOB movement: Bored of Breakfast.
A lot of the unrest, and resulting creativity, is coming from the vegan and gluten-free sectors. My interest in changing my morning diet is partly due to wanting less wheat and dairy, but it’s also more instinctive and less honourable than that. It’s a visceral reaction to a sameness that doesn’t feel healthy or conscious. It is, admittedly, a dumb problem—complaining about a lack of variety is the epitome of a first-world problem if there ever was one—but it’s still a problem. Yes, we are overcommitted on every front, and yes, who needs one more damn thing to think about when planning a weekly menu—but change doesn’t have to be onerous. It can be inspiring.
Building a better breakfast also doesn’t have to mean going high-end or snobby. It just means playing around, doing a bit of research, maybe even bringing some cross-cultural fusion (despite whatever culinary disrepute that f-word may have fallen into lately).
What follows are some suggestions for alternatives, along with a few dollops of culinary history.
Recent scholarship suggests that bread of some sort—whether unleavened grain paste baked on a rock, or something lighter leavened with airborne yeast—goes back 30,000 years. Toast, in the form we think of it, is less easy to date. Safe to say it predates the electric toaster by centuries.
Writer Mary Mann, author of an upcoming book on boredom (really) called Yawn, tackled the stirring subject of toast in a 2013 essay. There she discussed erotic French associations with baguettes, provided pictures of pre-electricity toasting forks (“the iPhone App of the Victorian Age: everyone wanted to invent the next best one”), and noted that the electric toaster was the first appliance to appear in electricity-powered homes, preceded only by the lamp: “Victorians’ priorities: (1) light, (2) toast.”
Here are two less-common ways to serve sliced bread at breakfast. One for the kids, and one for the adults.
This seems to be a 1950s-era, somewhat lost classic that kids love. It’s a classic dad’s-making-breakfast type of breakfast, known by other man-approved names like Bullseye, Hole in One, and the not-so-appetizing Spit In the Eye. (Note that it is not the same thing as Toad in the Hole, a different animal involving sausage cooked in Yorkshire pudding batter.) Adjust the name to taste.
I use either a shot glass or a soft-boiled egg cup to cut out the hole, but you can also use smallish cookie cutters in whatever shape you have them (circles, stars, hearts, etc.) for added kid-value. Just make sure the hole is big enough to accommodate a yolk and some white.
Not particularly healthy, but it is fun—and who doesn’t like bread fried in butter?
Level: Weekday Easy
Time: 5 minutes
1 piece toast with hole cut out
Small piece of cheese, about 2.5 cm square (cheddar works well, but pick your favourite)
Salt and pepper to taste
Butter bread on both sides and place in frying pan as the pan is heating. Cut out your circle/heart/star shape and set in the pan to fry alongside the bread.
Once the pan has heated a bit, crack an egg into the hole. If you or your kids don’t like yolk, whether cooked or runny, you can scramble the egg before pouring it in. (This is how my son likes it.)
Fry both the circle and the bread on one side until the bread is browned and the egg is fairly cooked; then flip. Place the cheese on the cooked eggs—the “eye.” Place the now-browned cut-out circle of bread on top of that.
Fry to desired level of doneness. If you like runny yolks like I do, leave it flipped just long enough to sear the top and cook off the white—and then you can use the bread cut-out to dip in the yolk as you would a soft-boiled egg.
This one, made with stout or porter, is for the adults—unless your kid loves mustard and beer. I only learned about rarebit because I’m a fan of an early 20th-century cartoonist named Winsor McCay, who once produced a surreal comic strip called The Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, detailing the cartoon nightmares of people who eat too much of it before bed. Apparently, Welsh rarebit was more widely known in 1904 North America than it is now.
This recipe is adapted from an online version by food writer Felicity Cloake. If you prefer your measurements in grams, Google Cloake’s article on The Guardian website, which is worth reading just for the 16th-century jab at Welshmen and roasted cheese.
This version avoids making a roux, which is good for some people (like me) who don’t feel like tackling that little creature on a Sunday morning. No roux also means gluten-free if you have GF bread to go with it.
I’d go with whole-wheat bread and stout here, as Cloake does, but you can play around with white bread and other liquids (milk, ale, port, etc.). For the cheese, we use fairly sharp goat cheddar. You can do medium or sharp cow cheddar or other cheese according to your preference. The fine folks at Peasant Cheese in Kensington sometimes stock the regionally appropriate Lancashire cheese recommended by Cloake, but if that’s not in, they carry both Lincolnshire poacher (amazing, by the way) and Avonlea cheddar on a regular basis.
(Caerphilly cheese is even more regionally appropriate, being Welsh, but as Cloake notes, it may be a bit weak to stand up against the beer and mustard.)
Level: Weekend Moderately Difficult
Time: 15-20 minutes
2 tsp English mustard powder
1/3 cup stout beer, warmed
4 tbsp butter
2 tsp+ Worcestershire sauce, to taste
3 cups grated strong cheese
4 egg yolks
4 large-ish slices of your favourite toasting bread
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix the mustard powder and just enough of the stout in a saucepan to make a paste, then add in the rest of the beer, the butter, and the Worcestershire sauce. Heat and stir until the butter melts and it combines. Meanwhile, pre-toast your bread.
Gradually add cheese, stirring as it melts, until smooth. Remove from the heat and cool it a bit (but don’t let it solidify; it should be warm enough to still be a sauce but not so hot that it cooks the yolks). Whisk the yolks into the warm cheesy sauce. It should be fairly thick: not stiff, but not gravy either.
Spoon the cheese onto the toast and throw under a hot broiler until it bubbles and starts to brown a bit. Then serve it up— one or two slices per person, depending on who you’re dealing with—sided with cups of stiff black tea and slices of apple.
With the exception of the snap-crackle-and-pop variety, rice is not traditionally a Western breakfast staple. My childhood was an exception to this, as my parents lived in Japan in the late 1960s, and some of what they ate there remained in our family repertoire—including a dish I was careful never to eat in front of friends who stayed the night: tamago kake gohan, the recipe for which is below.
As a breakfast staple, rice, whether you go for white or brown, is easy to prepare—flip on a rice cooker when you get up and it’s ready 30-40 minutes later. Or just steam it in a pot the old-fashioned way, which is usually faster (at least for white rice, which takes about 20 minutes).
For those who prefer to eat local grains, there is hope for Canadian rice: over the past five years an artisanal sake-maker in B.C. has successfully begun growing a particularly hardy, Hokkaido-based strain of rice that seems to do well in Canadian soil. For now, though, we’re stuck with imports.
Here are a couple of ways to go with rice-based breakfast—one easy, one less so.
Tamago Kake Gohan
Tamago Kake Gohan
This one is not for the faint of heart. If undercooked egg makes you squeamish, forget it. But if you’ve ever eaten quail egg with your sushi and found it bearable, you should have no problem. Be sure to use fresh, quality eggs.
Level: Weekday Easy
Time: 30-40 minutes for the rice to cook unattended; two minutes for the rest
1¼ cups short-grain white or brown rice
1¾ cups water for white rice, 3 cups for brown
Soy sauce to taste
Any sides you want to add: seaweed strips, bonito flakes, kimchee, fried fish
Make rice your usual way, but here’s a tip: most people overwater their white rice. The trick to making good steamed rice is to rinse it a couple of times first to remove the excess starch powder, then add only 1 1/4 cups of water for every cup of rice. Brown rice is two cups water to one of rice.
For each bowl of rice, separately whisk up one egg in bowl. Pour it over the bowl of piping hot rice—don’t let the rice sit in a bowl on a counter and cool off, put it in the bowl just before you put the egg on it—and stir it around.
The egg will cook slightly but not turn opaque; the resulting eggy rice mix will be glossy. Dash liberally (I like a lot of it) with soy sauce and eat as is, or with the sides noted above. Bonito flakes add a smoky, salty, fishy note that I love.
My itinerant parents also lived in Florida for a time, which is where I first had this meal, or something like it. Fried bananas are a good substitute for plantains in this recipe, which can be hard to find at the supermarket if you don’t live in the Caribbean.
There are two ways to make this dish: quickly and not-so-quickly, depending on whether you choose to reconstitute from dry beans. I cheat and use canned. I adapted this simpler version from a more complicated recipe by Chicago Chef Randy Zweiban.
Level: Weekend Moderately Difficult
Time: About 40 minutes
Serves: A bunch
For the fried plantains or bananas:
2 ripe plantains or 4 large not-too-ripe but ready-to-eat bananas
4 tbsp (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
Cornstarch for coating
For the coconut rice:
3½ cups water
4 cups unsweetened coconut milk
4 cups long-grain white rice
Optional: dashes of spices as desired: clove, nutmeg or allspice for sweet version; white pepper or coriander seed for savoury.
For the beans:
3 12-oz cans black beans
1/3 cup chopped bacon
3 tbsp grapeseed or olive oil
1 tbsp finely chopped jalapeno (depending on spice preference)
2 tsp minced garlic
1/2 cup finely chopped red onion
1/2 tbsp coriander seed, freshly toasted and ground
1/2 tsp cumin (or more to taste)
1/2 cup chicken or vegetable broth
1) Heat the coconut milk and water to a boil; stir in rice and bring back to boil. Reduce heat (low to medium-low), cover tightly, and cook for about 20 minutes until the rice is done and all the liquid is absorbed. Turn off heat and let it sit covered for five minutes.
2) Once the rice is on its way, start the beans. Using canned beans is not the least bit traditional, but I’m lazy that way. If you’re comfortable working from dry beans, go for it.
3) Fry the bacon in the oil over medium to medium-high heat in a large saucepan. When most of the fat has liquefied, add the onions, jalapeno, garlic and coriander seed. Rinse the beans and add them to the pan with cumin, coriander, and broth. Cook for at least 10 minutes until the broth is reduced and the beans are not at all soupy.
4) If using plantains, peel and cut on the bias, so you get long, oval rounds no more than 1-cm thick. If using bananas, cut them the same way but make the rounds about 1 1/2-cm thick.
5) Dust them in cornstarch. Heat the butter in a medium-hot pan, and add bananas or plantains when the butter starts to bubble.
6) Fry until tender and turning slightly crispy at the edges. Plantains take longer. With bananas you may want to cook for a shorter time at medium-high; in that case replace half the butter with high-heat oil (grapeseed or canola).
7) Set aside—on a paper towel if you want to absorb some of the oil (if using bananas, be careful they don’t stick).
8) Plate portions of fried plantain/banana, coconut rice and beans. Serve with sweet, black-as-death coffee and some after-meal pastries.
Fruit is a breakfast staple, from orange juice to grapefruit halves to bananas on cereal. Not much to say about history here, except that, if you didn’t already know, fruit is very, very old.
OK, slightly more seriously, here’s one fun fact about oranges, a classic breakfast fruit. Like many of our fruits and vegetables, they are nonexistent in the wild and wouldn’t exist without cultivation. Citrus-fruit experts (yes, they exist) believe that humans have been growing oranges, or something close to what we currently think of as oranges, for 4,000 years. It was only within the last five years, however, that Chinese researchers were able to determine the genetic origins of the fruit. Apparently, ancient South Asian orchardists crossed wild mandarin oranges with the sour, green, thick-rinded fruit known as a pomelo (also wild, also the origin of grapefruit)—and voilà, the sweet orange. (Not to be confused with the sour orange, the citron, or that bizarre alien-like fruit known as the Buddha’s hand.)
Mandarins and pomelos are indigenous to Asia, so if you really want to eat breakfast like it was 2000 BC, take a trip to the jungles of northern Laos. This recipe gives your palate a break from citrus by offering the tropical zing of fresh pineapple instead.
This twist on eating fruit for breakfast is not terribly local, but it is delicious. My wife, Michele, started making our own rendition of it after we had it at a funky grocery store in a town called Twisp, in Washington State. It requires only about one minute in the blender—provided you prep the pineapple beforehand. If you don’t, add another five to 10 minutes.
Unless you bulk it up with some kind of unflavoured protein powder—easily found in vegan form—this smoothie will keep you full for no more than a couple of hours.
Level: Weekday Easy
Time: 5-10 minutes
2 cups apple juice
2 cups fresh pineapple chunks
1/2 avocado (save the other half for tomorrow)
Large handful of kale
Two handfuls of spinach
2 tbsp (packed) fresh mint
Stuff it all in the blender and hit blend. Or pulse. Or frappé. Pour in glass and drink.
Fish for breakfast? Yes! Remember the lyrics from the Supertramp song “Breakfast in America?” “Could we have kippers for breakfast/ Mummy dear, mummy dear/ They gotta have ’em in Texas /’Cos everyone’s a millionaire.”
Kippers are oak-smoked herring, and while they’ve moved upscale in the U.K., they started there as a popular working-class breakfast served with eggs. In Canada, substitute the less-bony, hard-smoked wild salmon—or cold-smoked lox, if you prefer. (Can’t emphasize the “wild” enough in wild salmon; steer clear of farmed salmon for a multitude of ecological and flavour-based reasons.)
Smoked fish is a great substitute for the bacon in your bacon and eggs.
Beyond that, allow me to suggest a seafood breakfast popular from the Bahamas to Peru, perfect for warm spring and summer mornings: ceviche. This one’s a mash-up of a few of my favourite recipes.
Level: Weekend Moderate
Time: 2 hrs, including marinating time
250 grams shrimp (medium-size), de-veined and shelled
500 grams white fish (sustainable, line-caught rockfish, halibut
or ling cod are best; see note in recipe), diced in 1-cm
1/2 white or red onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 fresh jalapeno pepper or other hot pepper (Scotch bonnet works), seeds removed
1 medium piece of celery, minced
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice (about 4-5 limes)
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 3-4 lemons)
1/2 bunch cilantro leaves, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste; dash of olive oil optional
Only fresh fish and shrimp will do—no frozen seafood for ceviche. Fish-wise, don’t get anything oily or exceptionally fishy-tasting like mackerel or tuna, or freshwater fish like catfish or trout. Get a saltwater fish, sustainably caught, as fresh as you can.
Ask that the fish be deboned or do that part yourself. You can also skip fish altogether by using only shrimp (expensive) or using octopus or squid. (Look up the nuances of prepping octopus on the web.)
When you get the fish home, keep it fresh by putting a bed of ice on a plate or tray, and then placing the fish (in a plastic bag) on top; then put that in the fridge. If it has residue of the bloodline, that dark red flesh on top, shave it away.
When you’re ready to make the ceviche, make an ice-water bath in a bowl or pot big enough to accommodate a sieve or colander, and set aside. Boil a pot of salted water, and give the shrimp a 30-second boil. Take out with a sieve and shock them cold in the ice water, then set aside to drain.
In a ceramic, non-reactive bowl, toss the shrimp with the rest of the ingredients except the lime and lemon juice, and let sit in a covered bowl in the fridge for at least an hour. Then add the lemon and lime juices, making sure the fish is covered in them, as this is what “cooks” it. (If the juice doesn’t cover the fish, stir gently every five minutes.) Allow to marinate 15 to 30 minutes, but don’t over-steep it in the acidic citrus juice—it will turn to mush.
Serve with large white corn chips (unsalted) and/or cooked plantains, as in the Cuban breakfast recipe, and tall glasses of iced tea.
These ideas are only the tip of the proverbial toaster pastry. You can reinvent or repurpose old favourites: breakfast pizza with bacon jam and sun-dried tomatoes. Blue corn flapjacks with pecan butter. Or go exotic: Egytian ful medammes (hard-boiled eggs sided with fava beans cooked in lemon, garlic and olive oil) and Chinese chee cheung fun (a wide rice noodle colloquially known as “pig intestine noodle”). A new world of breakfast is before us! Let us discover, transform, refine, and eat— and put the corn-flake box squarely in the rear-view mirror.
Ten local dishes to blow your mind before you’ve had your first cup of coffee.
The Sunday brunch at Carino Japanese Bistro offers up pretty much everything you’re most certainly not serving at home. Yuzu (a deliciously sour Japanese citrus fruit, as well as the name of one of the country’s most popular pop-rock bands) shows up in several of the bistro’s dishes, including the Hollandaise sauce that accompanies the Croque Madame with House-Made Brioche ($14) and in the vinaigrette on the mixed baby greens that come with every brunch entrée. If it’s never occurred to you to eat pasta—or scallops—for breakfast, it will now: a bowl of Mentaiko Pasta with roe, baby scallops, prawns, shiso leaf and seaweed ($14.95) should carry you through until dinner. 709 Edmonton Tr. N.E.; carinobistro.ca.
Ricky’s may not be fancy but it’s fast and there’s one near you. Load up for the day on a platter of three hand-battered chicken tenders on waffles ($13.99) with maple bacon strips. Several locations around the city; gotorickys.com.
If you’re still suffering from a Dickensian childhood of being forced to eat gruel on a daily basis, this classic item on Diner Deluxe’s menu will fix you up for good: Maple Fried Oatmeal ($12) topped with lemon curd and vanilla bean cream is more dessert than entrée—so better order the Breakfast Poutine ($9), too. Reservations “politely declined” at 804 Edmonton Tr. N.E.; accepted at the 350 Aspen Glen Landing S.W. location. Dinerdeluxe.com
Congee, a.k.a. jook, is considered the ultimate Asian comfort food. It’s basically thick, mushy rice porridge served with meat, fish, eggs and/or veggies. In some countries congee is breakfast; in others, it’s dinner. At The Nash, it’s brunch. If you’ve still got room after a bowl of Crispy Pork Belly ‘Prairie’ Congee ($17) with shimeji mushroom, peanuts and scallions, follow it up with The Must Have Cinnamon Roll ($6). 925 11th St. S.E., thenashyyc.com.
What to do when faced with OEB’s menu options of Confit Duck and Egg ($14.99) served with russet potato pierogies and crisp apple- wood-cured bacon, and a plate of Seared Smoked Mackerel with crisp potatoes in brown butter Hollandaise ($14.50; $26 if you add a blob of certified organic Canadian sturgeon caviar)? Thankfully, they’re open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., which gives you plenty of time to work up an appetite for second breakfast. 824 Edmonton Tr. N.E., eatoeb.com.
The Valencian Style Paella ($36) at Ox and Angela makes for great breakfast-time date food (garlic breath notwithstanding). The dish is a beautiful mess of chicken, Spanish chorizo, manilla clams, summer peas, saffron and butter beans over bomba rice; served in an 11-inch pan meant for two (or more) people. 528 17th Ave. S.W., oxandangela.com.
— Jacquie Moore