That breakfast is the most important meal of the day is an enduring and rarely challenged axiom; as a frequent breakfast skipper, but one who does not like to miss a meal, it raises in me a faint sense of guilt and regret. When I hear or read about the epic morning repasts of farmers of yore, those giants in the earth, who would have one breakfast in the dark before dawn as they prepared to head into the fields, and have another brought to them mid-morning, I feel absolutely puny, and under-nourished.
But I wonder, for how many modern Americans is breakfast actually a "meal," rather than some form of sustenance frequently grabbed on the go, or rapidly ingested in the rush to get out the door? I certainly wouldn't consider a bowl of cold cereal a meal--while I could probably devour an entire box of Cap'n Crunch in one sitting, given the opportunity, store-bought breakfast cereal hasn't been seen in our pantry since I can't remember when. I like a plate of bacon and eggs, but only once and a while, and Mary makes a mean corn-apple pancake, a lovely vehicle for consuming unseemly amounts of maple syrup.
In general my taste in breakfast runs to savory rather than sweet, and to interesting rather than rote. If someone were to show up at my door each morning to wheel a dim sum cart through our sun room, I would be a pretty happy camper. In fact the one period in my life when I ate breakfast regularly was during the trip to China that Mary and I made in 1992 (wow, coming on 20 years ago, more than that since I returned from teaching there). We were traveling by the seat of our pants through western China--Sichuan, Gansu, Xinjiang--staying in far from luxurious accomodations, so we were usually more than eager to get out of the hotel first thing in the morning. Our first stop would be a teahouse or noodle shop, and with our green morning tea we would order up a plate of pork-filled steamed buns--bao-zi--warm, soft, dripping juice when you bit into the center. They often came with a small bowl of broth for dipping, or we would make a more pungent condiment by mixing dark vinegar, soy sauce, and chili oil. I never tired of that morning treat; if we had a noodle shop in our Saint Paul neighborhood, I'd be there most mornings.
Another excellent Asian breakfast is the rice porridge that goes by various names, depending on where you are in China. In Sichuan it's called xi fan, but most people probably know it as congee. And now congee always reminds me of that trip in '92, for an odd reason: We flew into Hong Kong to start our odyssey, just ahead of a typhoon. Storm warnings went out the night we arrived, and while the city was fairly bustling as we found our way to our hotel that night, when we headed out to catch the train to Guangzhou (Canton City) in the morning, the place was deserted, a ghost town. The air was warm, humid, and breezy, the sky soft gray, and the streets of Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated cities on earth, were empty. It felt odd, and we were eager to get to the station, but we were hungry. A small diner-looking restaurant beckoned. We went in and ate congee. I think mine was preserved egg and green onion. I don't remember what Mary had. We each had a fried bread stick--you tiao--traditionally eaten with rice porridge. We felt happy and sustained on the rest of the walk to the station, and we made it to Guangzhou ahead of the storm.
When we go for dim sum we'll sometimes have a bowl of congee, but it's usually disappointing--I mean, that typhoon congee is a tough act to follow. And it's easy enough to make, though I rarely do. For some reason the fancy struck me, out at Bide-A-Wee this week, to cook up a congee chock-a-block with wild greens. And it was so satisfying, even without a tropical storm looming (indeed, snowflakes and a high barely scraping 40!), that it could be my ticket to reforming my morning eating habits.
I know I should take it easy on the resolutions, but along with making a real effort to include wild foods in my diet as often as possible, I'm going to work on being a better breakfast eater. I'm thinking of baking up some nut and fruit breads--which I haven't made since we ceased the market baking last summer. I see it, also, as an opportunity to eat more cheese.
Oh, this morning it was granola--Mary made a fresh batch on Sunday--with raw milk from the Bartz farm in Connorsville, Wisconsin. It seems to have made me rather chatty....
So, I'm curious, what's breakfast in your house like? Is it actually a meal, a grab-and-go, a skip-it-altogether? I'm looking for inspiration here, and a sort of get-back-to-breakfast support group.
Because, have you heard? Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
Wild Greens Congee
This rice porridge is usually cooked much longer than mine was, I think. I still had grains of rice apparent, where it's often more of a homogeneous mush. In recipes I've looked at the ratio of rice to water varies a lot, as do cookings times. This is sort of a quick, cheater's congee, made fresh in the morning; the rice-mush base can be made ahead, reheated, and garnished to taste. And as for what to garnish it with, well, what's on your left-overs shelf, in your pickle crock, vegetable crisper, etc. ? Let your pantry and your appetite guide you. The base is pretty bland, so it's all about the garnish--a hard-cooked egg, sliced; some crumbled cooked ground pork or sausage; Chinese sausage; julienne vegetables; shreds of ham or cooked chicken; kimchi or other fermented veg.
In the night markets of Chengdu xi fan stands were popular, and the customer chose garnishes either sweet or savory.
For a richer porridge, use chicken stock in place of the water, or go half-and-half.
Mine was made like this:
1 thick slice bacon, diced
4 or 5 small ramps, chopped
1/3 cup jasmine rice
Foraged greens: watercress, stinging nettles, dandelion greens, sheep sorrel (garden greens and herbs, of course, would be just as good)
Sambal oelek--chili paste
In a small saucepan cook the bacon over medium heat, and as it starts to brown, add the ramps. When they have taken on a nice bit of color, add the rice and 1 1/2 cups of water. Bring to a boil, turn down to very low, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, for at least 30 minutes.
For the green garnish: I blanched the nettles and dandelions in boiling water for a minute, drained and chopped them; just rinsed the sorrel and cress.
When the rice is quite soft and porridge-like, stir in the greens--I used a lot, probably two good cups of raw mixed greens, as they really wilt down. You may need to add a little more water at this point. When the greens have wilted into the rice, add water to your preferred consistency. Add a good pinch of salt, and simmer for another 10 minutes. Add a teaspoon or so of soy sauce, sambal to taste, and serve.
Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw