Archive for Wednesday, June 21, 2000

El Breakfast Grande

Mexican mornings begin light on spice, big on flavor

June 21, 2000


reakfast is big in Mexico really big. Accustomed to a modest morning meal of tea and toast at home, whenever I travel south I am amazed by the huge plates of enchiladas, eggs laden with salsa, meat, refried beans and tortillas on most tables. Even slim young girls, the type who would start their days in a gym here, order these mammoth breakfasts.

In the market in Mexico's Veracruz state, one stall serves only "pozole," a sturdy pork and hominy soup. It's usually crowded even very early in the morning. So, because the market doesn't offer tea and toast, I line up at another busy stall for scrambled eggs wrapped in tortillas or a fried chipotle chili stuffed with meat, topped off with guacamole and set on a double layer of tortillas.

Even "healthful" breakfasts tend to be big. On a recent visit, my hotel in Jalapa, the capital of Veracruz, offered as a complimentary breakfast all the freshly squeezed orange juice you could drink; a tall glass filled with yogurt and diced fresh fruit, such as papaya, apples and banana; a bowl of granola accompanied by honey and rich milk fresh from the cow; and coffee with more rich milk and sugar.

Breakfasts like that might not be everyday fare in the United States, but who says you can't indulge on a special occasion? Invite friends for a Mexican brunch. Choose from three typical menus. Two are from Veracruz. The third represents Southern California.

The first menu copies a breakfast called "Universitario."

There are two possible reasons for the name: The University of Veracruz is in Jalapa, and the breakfast is fairly simple and therefore within the budget of a university student.

It consists of freshly squeezed orange juice; either black coffee or "cafe con leche" (hot milk and coffee); and "molletes." These are "bolillo" rolls split in half, spread with refried black beans and topped with melted cheese. Manchego is the preferred cheese, but Monterey Jack can be substituted. The molletes are accompanied by a plain salsa of chopped tomatoes, onion and jalapenos and a basket of "pan dulce" (sweet rolls).

It's typical for restaurants in Mexico to offer pan dulce with breakfast. The bread is not free, but you are charged for only what you eat.

For people who prefer their Mexican food in the evening, St. John's Fiesta Mexicana will be happy to oblige.The annual festival, from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, 1234 Ky., will sell the authentic Mexican dishes the event is known for on Saturday evening. Tamales, tacos, enchiladas, burritos and rice and beans will all be available.Smoked meats and sandwiches will be available Friday evening.

Mexican egg dishes popular on both sides of the border include huevos rancheros a crisp fried tortilla topped with fried eggs, salsa and cheese, with a side of refried beans and huevos a la Mexicana eggs scrambled with tomato, onion and chilies.

But we seldom see eggs combined with nopalitos (diced cactus) served in the United States. Canned nopalitos make this dish easy, but fresh are better. Latino markets sell fresh cactus paddles peeled, diced or cut in strips and packed in plastic bags. Drop as much as you need for the egg dish into boiling water, boil 5 minutes, drain and refrigerate until needed.

This breakfast starts with strawberries topped with Mexican crema (heavy cream mixed with a small amount of buttermilk and allowed to culture) and sugar, a popular dish in strawberry-producing parts of Mexico. Mexican sugar tends to be coarse, which adds an appealing crunchiness. You can use ordinary granulated or brown sugar instead.

Accompany the eggs with refried beans and tortillas. For the beans, borrow the recipe that goes with the Universitario molletes. Sprinkle them with shredded cheese and stud them with tortilla chips. Beans are almost always black in Veracruz, the source of this breakfast menu. They are often cooked with epazote, a strong-tasting herb found at farmers markets and large Latino markets.

The California menu begins with wedges of honeydew melon and limes to squeeze over them. The main dish is a quesadilla stuffed with scrambled eggs, cheese and chorizo. Quesadillas are usually folded into a half circle before cooking, but this one is stacked sandwich style, with the filling between two flour tortillas. It is then browned on each side, cut into wedges and topped with sliced avocado, sour cream and salsa. Two people with hefty appetites could eat the whole thing, or it can be cut into smaller portions for four to six.

On the side, serve refried beans or "frijoles de la olla," which are whole boiled beans in bowls of bean broth. The beans will have nicer flavor if you cook them with onion, garlic, tomato, a sprig of oregano or dried chilies to taste. Use pinto beans or try the small pale peruano bean carried by many Latino markets.

In Mexico, plates are often garnished with an impromptu salad, perhaps an orange wedge, a tomato slice and shredded carrot arranged on a bed of lettuce, without dressing. Elaborate on this idea by using any fruit in season or lightly cooked vegetables such as green beans or asparagus. If you like, add a citrus-flavored vinaigrette.

Coffee is standard for any of these menus. Big icy margaritas would be welcome at a party, or a sweet sparkling wine, blush wine or sangria.

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