Diary of a Breakfast Outlaw

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There are many otherwise entirely decent people who believe there is something odd, even low-class, about eating a plate of sausages in the morning. Show up at the office with a sack of jelly doughnuts or sticky buns and everyone is your friend. Arrive with a takeout container heaped with fried country ham with red-eye gravy and no one wants to know you.

"That stuff isn't good for you," they whine, as if the box of assorted doughnut holes set by the coffee machine were some sort of health statement. (If you breakfast on wheat germ whipped up with soy milk and papaya chunks, go ahead and throw your stone.) Of course, it's not just the cholesterol that bothers people. The fact is, Americans overwhelmingly prefer their breakfasts sweet rather than savory.

But I am a savory breakfast eater. And the truth is, if you want to eat the sort of breakfast I do and avoid social ostracism, you had better crawl off to some greasy spoon and eat it out of sight.

Fortunately for me I work at home, and my wife, Matt, although not a savory breakfast eater herself, is understanding in this as in all things. If I have a hankering for brains on toast in the morning, it's fine with her as long as they stay on my own plate. And I do sometimes crave brains for breakfast. Or, lamb kidneys, bone marrow, a slice of duck liver pa^te.

I have no idea why this is so, just that it is.

I first realized I was different when I was 19, a college dropout and shopping for myself in a supermarket. I can still remember feeling a buzz of nervous excitement--I was on my own now and I could buy anything I liked. At that moment, however, I was searching for the basic necessities: butter, milk, bread, coffee, breakfast cereal. But when I wheeled my cart into the aisle lined with boxes of Cheerios, Trix, Post Toasties, Kellogg's Frosted Flakes--breakfast food I had eaten all my childhood without thought or complaint--an unbidden, unexpected and utterly liberating insight burst into my brain: I never have to eat this stuff again.

And I haven't eaten a bowl of cold cereal--the shredded wastepaper sort--since. (I do sometimes have oatmeal dressed with coarse salt and a pat of butter.)

It would take me some time until I realized it wasn't just cereal I was rejecting but the whole idea of something sweet for breakfast. It was hard to admit that, really, I wanted slices of Cheddar on my buttered toast, gobs of liverwurst spread on my English muffins. To me, chicken pot pie seemed ideal morning fare, while waffles or coffee cake left me cold.

If a sweet dish were buttery or greasy enough--raspberry turnovers, blueberry blintzes, old-fashioned fat-fried baking powder doughnuts--I still enjoyed it. In fact, these were just the dishes I would choose when I ate breakfast out with others. They caused no murmurs, and soon enough I discovered that my truly favorite breakfast choices were best kept to myself.

There are sweet breakfast eaters who point to their own occasional craving for, say, an Egg McMuffin, to prove that the world of breakfast is not skewed against the savory. In truth, saying that the occasional plate of fried eggs makes you a savory breakfast eater is like saying that a fondness for pasta tossed with olive oil, garlic and grated cheese makes you a vegetarian.

Eggs are OK, I'll grant you, and, even better, they're easy and quick to cook. I eat a lot of them--scrambled, fried or poached and set on a crunchy-edged mass of corned beef hash. But you don't understand what a savory breakfast is all about if you don't equally crave just the sides that are usually portioned out along with them, a plate with nothing on it, say, but a dozen strips of bacon and a mound of hash browns.

What makes the perfect savory breakfast? I know the shape of this breakfast more by what I don't want than by what I do. It has to go with hot black coffee, which rules out certain savory Asian breakfasts that I would otherwise enjoy: congee with all the toppings, a big bowl of noodles afloat in a spicy broth. I don't want a sirloin steak or sliced leg of lamb or pork chops or anything I have to seriously chew. I want my breakfast to be salty, soft and rich. I want that richness spread out on something crisp. A grilled cheese sandwich has the perfect balance--as does, for that matter, a plate of hot buttered toast.

And most of all, I want to eat slowly, meditatively, eyes turned toward the morning brightness outside the window but focused on nothing. Solitude doesn't necessarily require being by yourself; it is all the more enjoyable when mutual tact lets each eater float gently in his or her own half-thoughts . . . one eating her marmalade and toast, the other stuffing himself with salami and eggs.

*

Just before the start of this year, I began to post a breakfast diary on my Web site to serve as encouragement to fellow savory breakfast lovers. And this it seems to have done. Visitors have sent me e-mail messages alive with a sense of release. "I have long been looked at with either wonder or disgust (sometimes both) for my choice of savory breakfasts, which started during my high school years with bologna and cheese sandwiches," and this--just in case you think that the savory breakfast is one of those weird men things--was written by a woman.

Here are some of my own entries.

New Year's Eve. Poached beef bone marrow on toast. Beautiful marrow bones at the supermarket. Brought home a large one and cut it into two 8-inch lengths with a hacksaw (an arduous process--next time have the butcher do it). Wrapped each half well in tinfoil, put them in a baking pan and baked them in a preheated 400-degree oven for 45 minutes. When cool enough to handle, opened foil and poured off rendered fat into a ramekin, then rewrapped bones in same foil and put them and ramekin in refrigerator. Next morning, reheated first bone (still in foil) in oven at 400 degrees for 15 minutes while making coffee and toast from sourdough loaf. Unwrapped bone at the table and spread the marrow onto hot buttered toast, seasoning it generously with salt and black pepper. Utterly delicious.

Jan. 2. Cremini mushroom omelet. Sliced mushrooms and fried them in half the reserved bone marrow fat, then turned them into a small bowl. Discovered a small amount of marrow jelly under the fat and mixed this in with the mushrooms. Used remaining marrow fat to cook omelet in, filling it with the fried mushrooms. Ate with coffee and hot buttered toast.

Jan. 3. Finnan haddie. Several days ago I came across real wood-smoked finnan haddie (lightly salted and wood-smoked haddock) at our warehouse discount club. (The fake version is soaked in a smoke-flavored brine and appears to be stained an iridescent yellow.) I poached this gently in milk until it was soft enough to flake. Discarded skin and poaching liquid and put flaked fish in the refrigerator. This morning I heated half a cup of the flakes in a 9-inch nonstick skillet in half a tablespoon of bacon fat and then poured in two eggs whisked in a small bowl. Seasoned with salt, black pepper and hot sauce. Turned the heat down to lowest setting and cooked until the eggs were just set. My favorite way to eat finnan haddie is creamed in egg sauce, but this was very good and much easier.

Jan. 4. Corn bread and softened slices of smoked mozzarella. The corn bread is our personal melding of the Northern and Southern traditions, made with buttermilk, stone-ground cornmeal, flour, salt and an egg (but no sugar), leavened with a mixture of baking soda and cream of tartar. It has a soft but characterful texture and lots of crust. While the corn bread bakes, I slice part of a ball of smoked mozzarella--8 slices about 1/8 inch thick--and lay them out on a small plate. I then put this into the toaster oven, preheated to the lowest setting, and remove it when the corn bread is done, about 15 minutes later. The corn bread is baked in a loaf pan and is only about an inch high. I cut it into four slabs, two for Matt and two for me. I slice mine in half to make four pieces, butter the open sides and carefully top each with two of the molten but still intact slices of cheese. The smoky milky taste of the mozzarella is delicious on the buttery corn bread, and each bite melts in the mouth. It's warm, comforting bliss. I take the last bit of corn bread and use it to mop up the small puddle of whey that has leaked out of the cheese.

Jan. 6. Griddle cakes with sausage links and real maple syrup. After much experimenting we have come up with a griddle cake recipe that we love. The addition of a few breakfast sausages changes the weight of this meal from sweet to savory (as would some slices of bacon or ham), and this is one of the few things (layer cake is another) that makes milk taste the way I remember it as a child. So I have a mug of that with this breakfast, before hitting the java.

Jan. 11. Salami and eggs. Aficionados of the culinary autobiography will recognize this phrase from the title of Alan King's own effort in that form, "Is Salami and Eggs Better Than Sex?" Although I recently read that book cover to cover, it's a tribute to the compelling peculiarity of the narrative that while I do remember the answer to this question--no--I can't recollect a thing about the recipe. Perhaps that's just as well, because to make the dish with the kind of salami I like--hard as a brick, tough as pemmican and peppered all through with glistening nuggets of pork fat--requires extreme measures. The reason it won't do to just chunk it up and stir it into the eggs is that you'll end up chawing on a mouthful of salami long after the eggs that came in with it have gone down your gullet. My solution was to grate the salami, using the side of the grater with the largest holes (the same side you would use to shred mozzarella). This produces a pile of what looks like the residue found inside a pencil sharpener, but you'll find it still has ample texture to stand out in slow-cooked scrambled eggs . . . and, as Alan King will tell you, the flavor match of salami and eggs is next to divine.

Jan. 31. Bird's nest. This was my favorite breakfast when I was a little boy. I don't know why, but I haven't eaten it for years. However, I've felt in the mood for it recently and decided to make it today. To make a bird's nest, you take a slice or two of buttered toast, tear it apart with your fingers and put the pieces in a bowl. This is the nest. Onto this you scoop out one or two soft-boiled eggs. Bring over the salt and pepper, and there you are. The soft eggs and buttered toast get all mixed up together, and the fact that the toast is in little bite-size pieces makes it somehow even tastier. The sun was streaming in through the window onto the table, making everything warm and bright, and I remembered how purely happy I was eating this dish--what?--50 years ago. And here I was, pretty purely happy, eating it again.

Feb. 8. Asparagus on toast. The local supermarket was offering fresh asparagus for $1.49 a pound. Surprisingly, it was reasonably fresh (air connections to Tierra del Fuego being auspicious, I guess), so I bought a bunch to eat for breakfast, cooking it in a skillet with butter and a tiny amount of water, and serving it on toast. (With this breakfast, skip the orange juice.) What a pleasure to eat a plate of fresh, tender asparagus while looking out the window at an icy February morning.

Feb. 13. Toast and cheese. Steve Jenkins, in his estimable "Cheese Primer," describes Chaource, the one great cheese of the Champagne region of France, as tasting, when properly aged, like frosting without the sugar (or a salty Mascarpone) and says that you should "begin your day or end your meal with [it]. It makes an enjoyable breakfast cheese with pastry, croissants, toast or muffins." As usual, I left the cheese out overnight to reach room temperature--only to wake up in the morning to discover that it had poured out of its white bloomy crust, gluing together the plate on which it sat and the bowl that was covering it. I wrenched them apart and found the rind still standing but as empty as an amphitheater and the cheese spread out on the plate like a mud slide. It tasted like brie only more stalwart, and Jenkins was right--it made a fine match with orange juice. However, although the rind is edible, I suggest you leave it; its faint taste of ammonia is death to coffee.

March 1. Fried eggs with canned corned beef hash. In our regular cooking, corned beef hash is the luxurious end to a series of dishes that start with a New England boiled dinner. This is not an everyday project, and when we lived in Maine, if I had a craving for poached eggs and corned beef hash for breakfast, we would drive over to Cherryfield and eat in an old-fashioned Maine restaurant. The chef there, one of a dying breed, knew how to poach eggs perfectly and served these up on a chewily authentic corned beef hash that was not allowed off the griddle until it was wrapped in a dark crunchy crust.

Having failed to locate such a place in Massachusetts, I knew it was only a matter of time before I tested the waters myself. I was sure I would find a frozen corned beef hash entree in the Lonely Guy section of the frozen dinner case. No such luck. There was only one alternative left. My memories of canned beef stew being what they are, I'd mentally assigned canned corned beef hash to the same aisle as dog food, until Matt told me that her mother, who is a great cook, occasionally made canned corned beef hash and eggs and that it was very crusty and tasty.

So I went to the supermarket, studied the labels of the surprisingly large number of competing brands and picked the one that had the shortest ingredient list--beef and cooked corned beef, rehydrated potatoes, water, salt, flavorings, sugar, sodium nitrate--which also happened to be the store's own brand. All varieties were made with rehydrated potatoes and none contained onions (an important part of the dish, to my mind). In at least one, water was the first ingredient.

This morning I opened the can, inverted it and discovered that the contents slid easily out of it in a solid tube. The sides of the empty can were coated with congealed suet, some of which I scraped out and used to grease the frying pan. I turned on the heat, and when the fat was melted and bubbling I took half of the meat-and-potato cylinder and, using a spatula, flattened it into a thick patty, working in about a tablespoon of freeze-dried shallots and several shots of hot sauce. I started this cooking over medium-low heat but soon turned the flame up to medium because there was clearly a lot of moisture to be cooked off.

After about 10 minutes I tried to turn the patty over, but instead of cohering, it crumbled into bits. There had been a crust forming, but it wasn't strong enough to hold the patty together. I used the spatula to pat it back together and left this to cook for another 10 minutes. By now, of course, the coffee was ready, the plates hot, the bread waiting impatiently in the toaster oven. Matt sighed and went off to do some morning chores. I turned over a tiny portion of the hash and found that, again, there was a crust forming and, again, it was not strong enough to hold the patty together. I mashed this corner back into place and broke two eggs into the free space in the frying pan. To not make a long story any longer, I served up breakfast when these were done, sunny side up.

The results, while not great, were encouraging. This hash was equal to that in most diners: not totally mushy, as I had expected, but offering some real texture, and the flavor, though mild, had none of the taste of the can that you get with imported canned corned beef. I suspect that the trick to the crust is to slip out of bed a half-hour early and get the hash cooking; this batch mostly needed more time . . . and a bigger spatula.

Thorne and his wife, Matt Lewis Thorne, live in Northampton, Mass., where they publish the bimonthly newsletter Simple Cooking (P.O. Box 778, Northampton, Mass. 01061; $24 per year) and maintain their food-obsessed Web site at http://www.outlawcook.com. Thorne is the author of "Outlaw Cook," "Serious Pig" and other books.

Asparagus in a Bowl

Active Work Time: 10 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 15 minutes * Vegetarian

1 bunch asparagus, about 1 pound

1 tablespoon butter

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup water

2 thick slices bread

Pepper

* Peel bottom third of asparagus stalks. Break or cut off tough ends and discard. Cut trimmed stalks into bite-size pieces, leaving tips whole.

* Bring butter, salt and 3/4 cup water to simmer in large skillet. Add sliced asparagus stalks, reserving tips to add 1 minute into cooking time. Return liquid to simmer and cook, stirring frequently, until asparagus is crisp tender, 2 to 4 minutes, depending on thickness of asparagus.

* Trim bread to fit bottom of shallow soup bowl and toast. Place toast in bottom of bowl. Spoon asparagus and enough cooking liquid to thoroughly moisten over toast. Season generously with pepper. Serve immediately.

2 servings. Each serving: 202 calories; 856 mg sodium; 17 mg cholesterol; 7 grams fat; 28 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams protein; 1.95 grams fiber.

Buttermilk Griddle Cakes

Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 20 minutes

This pancake batter is not as thin as many, but it pours well and spreads smoothly. The judicious use of three fats--peanut oil in the batter, a touch of bacon fat on the griddle and butter to melt on top--contributes a final note of special savory goodness. Thorne uses two griddles to get all the pancakes on the table at the same time, but they may be cooked in batches.

2 teaspoons bacon fat

3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons whole wheat flour

2 tablespoons stone-ground cornmeal

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 to 2 tablespoons peanut oil

1 egg, separated

3/4 cup buttermilk

Butter

Syrup

* Dip end of finger in small amount of bacon fat and rub light film of fat in 4 (4-inch) circles on griddle.

* Combine all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, cornmeal, cream of tartar, baking soda and salt in mixing bowl and whisk couple of times to thoroughly mix and break up any lumps.

* Gently whisk oil and egg yolk in separate bowl. Add buttermilk and whisk to combine. Pour into dry ingredients and stir just to blend. Beat egg white until it forms soft peaks and fold into batter.

* Heat griddle over medium-high heat. When griddle is hot and bacon fat has melted, spoon about 1/4 cup batter onto each greased circle on griddle. As soon as pancakes puff up and bubbles on surface burst and stay open, 2 to 3 minutes, flip, reduce heat to low and cook until lightly browned, 1 to 2 minutes. Serve at once with butter and syrup on warmed plates.

8 (3- to 4-inch) pancakes. Each pancake without butter and syrup: 96 calories; 129 mg sodium; 30 mg cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 12 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 0.09 gram fiber.

Baking Pan Corn Bread With Melted Mozzarella

Active Work Time: 10 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 30 minutes * Vegetarian

1/2 cup stone-ground cornmeal

1/2 cup unbleached flour

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon coarse salt

2 tablespoons butter, softened, plus 2 tablespoons for bread

1 egg, separated

1/2 cup milk

1/4 pound smoked mozzarella

Combine cornmeal, flour, cream of tartar, baking soda and coarse salt in bowl and whisk couple of times to thoroughly mix and break up any lumps.

Stir together 2 tablespoons butter and egg yolk in separate bowl. Beat egg white until soft peaks form and set aside. Add milk to butter-yolk mixture and stir couple of times. Add dry ingredients all at once and stir just to moisten. (This minimal stirring ensures that batter won't be over-mixed). Fold in egg white.

* Pour batter into buttered 8x5-inch loaf pan. Bake at 425 degrees until sides of corn bread pull slightly away from edges of pan, about 20 minutes.

* Cut mozzarella into 8 (1/8-inch-thick) slices. Place mozzarella slices on plate in toaster oven on low setting to melt while corn bread bakes.

* Slice corn bread into 4 pieces and butter 1 side of each slice. Carefully top each slice with 2 slices mozzarella and serve.

2 servings. Each serving: 662 calories; 907 mg sodium; 217 mg cholesterol; 40 grams fat; 53 grams carbohydrates; 22 grams protein; 0.30 gram fiber.

Salami and Eggs

Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 10 minutes

Thorne uses very, very hard salami and grates it through the largest holes in the grater. If your salami isn't hard enough to grate, mince it.

1 tablespoon butter

2 to 3 tablespoons shredded hard salami

Dash hot pepper sauce

Pepper

2 to 3 eggs, beaten

Hot buttered toast

* Melt butter in nonstick 9-inch skillet over medium-low heat. Add salami, hot pepper sauce and good grating of black pepper. When butter is sizzling, stir butter and seasonings together.

* Add eggs and reduce heat as low as possible. Cook, gently stirring to allow set curds to come to top and liquid egg to run to bottom. Remove from heat as soon as no liquid egg is left but before any is cooked dry, 3 to 4 minutes. Serve over hot buttered toast.

1 serving. Each serving without toast: 325 calories; 581 mg sodium; 474 mg cholesterol; 27 grams fat; 2 grams carbohydrates; 17 grams protein; 0 fiber.

Cook's Tip OR INFO BOX

Thorne maintains that corn bread is only as good as the cornmeal you make it with. His favorites are the white flint "jonnycake" meal ground by Tim McTague at Gray's Grist Mill, P.O. Box 422, Adamsville R.I. 02801, (508) 636-6075, and by Richard Morgan at Morgan's Mills, Rural Route 2, Box 4602, Union, ME 04862, (800) 373-2756.

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