Global ingredients inspire innovative breakfast recipes that build on consumers' loyalty to morning classics.
This article first appeared in the 1 February 2008 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
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By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
Persuading guests to order outside the box at morning meals can be a tall task, but chefs have finally figured out the secret. They're turning breakfast into a foreign affair, doling out the eggs, pancakes and French toast that diners can't seem to do without, but with global touches that shake off morning-menu doldrums.
That's how Chef Rebecca Newell finally found a dish that could rival eggs Benedict in brunch sales at The Beehive, an eclectic bistro/bar in Boston. For her brisk-selling take on eggs shakshuka, a North African recipe, diners use crisp pita chips to scoop up cooked-to-order eggs in a spicy tomato sauce.
"I tell my waitstaff to describe the sauce as being like a really spicy cacciatore so people understand it," Newell says. "People in general stick by their comfort foods, but our clientele is willing to try different things."
To make the shakshuka, bell peppers and onions are sautéed and then simmered in sriracha-spiked tomato sauce sweetened with orange marmalade and brown sugar. Five-spice seasoning and za'atar, a Middle Eastern spice blend, round out the recipe. The sauce is ladled over polenta and baked, and then topped with eggs and pita chips.
Adding ethnic accents at breakfast and brunch yields benefits beyond calling attention to menus in an increasingly competitive daypart. Operators can squeeze greater profits from global ingredients already in-house via cross-utilization, and recipes enhanced with more-exotic products can command higher prices than basic pancakes with maple syrup.
For best results, recipes should be easy to execute and subtle enough not to scare off habit-driven diners. Opportunities for variety abound, as evidenced in pancakes drizzled with Asian-pear syrup at New York City-based SushiSamba, French toast sprinkled with kaffir-lime-flavored sugar at Thai Urban Kitchen in Chicago, and scrambled eggs studded with Spanish chorizo and piquillo peppers at BLD in Los Angeles.
For chefs, the goal isn't necessarily to recreate authentic ethnic breakfast experiences, but rather to draw on global recipes and ingredients as inspiration.
"When you take baby steps like that, people are willing to try it, as opposed to serving something like foie gras with eggs," says BLD Chef-owner Neal Fraser.
Finding the Right Fit
Charcuterie choices including lomo embuchado (cured pork loin), salchichon de vic (dry-cured pork sausage) and a broad array of cheeses make a natural fit in a daypart in which consumers are partial to bacon and cheese, Fraser says. Fraser's ethnically diverse breakfast fare also includes ricotta pancakes, white-bean huevos rancheros, and eggs Florentine with rapini, goat cheese, roasted red peppers and hollandaise sauce.
"We just wanted to have a little bit more flair than what everyone else was doing," he says.
Creating less-mainstream items also was a goal for San Diego-based Souplantation/Sweet Tomatoes when the buffet chain developed its Sunday Morning Menu last year. Staying consistent with the concept's standard food-preparation methods also was essential.
Mediterranean Pasta, prepared at the concept's exhibition-style pasta station, fit on both counts. Linguine is tossed with scrambled eggs, spinach, basil, onions, diced tomatoes and crumbled feta cheese.
"Pasta at breakfast is nontraditional, but once people try it, tasting is believing," says Joan Scharff, Souplantation/Sweet Tomatoes' executive director of brand and menu strategy. "The neat thing about our format is that it's risk-free dining. You can try something, and if you like it, you can have more, and if you don't, you haven't blown your order."
Craig Richards, executive chef at La Tavola Trattoria in Atlanta, says competing with a well-established brunch spot across the street meant developing a menu that rides the fine line between dishes people expect and those that reflect the restaurant's Italian heritage.
The familiar frittata of the day is an obvious choice, and sides of creamy polenta make perfect sense for a Southern clientele raised on grits. More whimsical is Richards' Stuffed Egg "Cannelloni." In place of pasta sheets, egg crÁªpes are wrapped around roasted portobello mushrooms and braised spinach. The neat rolls are blanketed with mushroom ragÁ¹ (the same sauce is served atop tagliatelle at dinner) and béchamel sauce and then sprinkled with Parmesan cheese and baked. Truffle oil is drizzled over the plate to serve.
Another La Tavola reinvention, second in sales only to French toast, presents a play on eggs Benedict. In poached egg "bruschetta," pancetta stands in for Canadian bacon, while hollandaise is replaced by creamy fonduta sauce made with cream, milk and Grana Padano cheese.
East Meets Eggs (And More)
The brunch menu at SushiSamba, a Japanese-Peruvian-Brazilian sushi concept with six locations, illustrates how easily ethnic accents can transform everyday dishes into exciting choices.
Corporate Executive Chef Michael Cressotti mixes grilled, diced Asian pears with maple syrup, simple syrup and a pear-juice-and-vanilla-bean reduction to make a syrup that sweetens buttermilk pancakes, and he calls on three types of milk-evaporated, sweetened condensed and regular-for Doce de Leite French Toast. In eggs Benedict, puréed aji panca chiles (a mild Peruvian variety) and tart yuzu juice perk up hollandaise sauce. The yuzu juice also is stirred into yogurt that is served with seasonal fruit and granola.
"Little things like that are what make us different," Cressotti says. "But next to those items we have something like a bagel with scallion cream cheese, because we need to appeal to the masses, too."
At Thai Urban Kitchen in Chicago, Executive Chef Paul Chantharavirooj calls on the Southeast Asian cuisine's best-known building blocks for brunch. Toasted coconut and coconut milk add depth and sweetness to the batter for waffles draped in banana-rum sauce and lemongrass syrup. In banana-muffin eggs Benedict, Thai basil brings its sweet flavor and subtle anise accents to tarragon hollandaise.
Instead of dusting French toast with confectioners sugar, Chantharavirooj tops granulated sugar with kaffir-lime leaves, cooks the mixture at a low temperature for one to two hours and then blends it in a coffee grinder. Lemon or lime zest may be added for extra citrus flavor and aroma.
Also in Chicago, Chinese and Japanese influences guide the recently introduced breakfast menu at Wow Bao, a fast-casual concept centered on steamed Asian buns. Given consumers' strong appetite for breakfast sandwiches, it's little surprise that the morning best sellers are hot, chewy bao stuffed with fillings such as eggs, bacon, scallions and sausage (spiced up with Szechuan chile paste). Rice bowls with similar ingredients as toppings also are available.
More-exotic recipes include chawanmushi, savory Japanese steamed egg custard with add-ins such as scallions, bacon, spinach and other vegetables, and creamy oatmeal with goji berries, Chinese red dates and Thai red rice.
"I always like the idea of introducing a product people have never seen before, and all of a sudden, it becomes a habit," says Wow Bao Chef and Founder Bruce Cost.
That Carpinteria, Calif.-based Carl's Jr. recently introduced the Huevos Rancheros Breakfast Burrito-scrambled eggs, refried beans, shredded Jack and Cheddar cheeses, tortilla strips and tomato-based ranchero sauce in a flour tortilla-speaks to Mexican cuisine's broad reach into American dining habits.
Many Mexican ingredients, from cheeses such as queso fresco, panela and Chihuahua to chiles including guajillos, anchos and chipotles, meld seamlessly with breakfast, says Fructoso Sandoval, executive chef at La Casa del Gordo in Highland Park, Ill.
Sandoval enlivens myriad egg dishes with traditional ingredients such as jalapeÁ±os, cilantro, Chihuahua cheese, roasted tomatillo sauce and mole poblano. Pancakes a la plancha, made with batter that incorporates pumpkin seeds and blue and yellow cornmeal, are decorated with cajeta (Mexican caramel sauce) and toasted pine nuts.
"Breakfast is breakfast, but when you try to do the same thing for 40 or 50 years, it doesn't make sense," Sandoval says. "Everything changes. You have to create your own ideas."
Consumers sharpen their sweet tooth early in life, making sweet breads and pastries a big part of American breakfast traditions. Global cuisines also offer enticing options for morning indulgence.
Chef Jody Williams' Italian breakfast menu at Morandi in New York City includes grape focaccia, focaccia with dried fruit and walnuts, pistachio, sweet bread and Italian croissants.
On Friday mornings, customers at 3 Square Cafe+ Bakery in Venice, Calif., can enjoy Berliners, German jelly doughnuts filled with raspberry jam.
Bougatsa, Greek custard-filled phyllo pastries topped with powdered sugar and cinnamon, are served at Iguana Cafe in Chicago.
Guava empanadas made with guava paste and cream cheese as well as pao de queijo (Brazilian cheese bread) are among brunch offerings at New York City-based SushiSamba.
Goldilocks, a Philippines-based chain with locations in California and Nevada, menus ensaymada, a popular Philippine breakfast trust. The twisted brioche is topped with melted butter, grated cheese and sugar.
Easy as 1,2,3
Adding even a few global ingredients to your breakfast pantry can pay dividends in extra excitement for diners. Check out a few simple ideas from these hot regions.
- China: goji berries, sticky rice, Szechuan chile paste, scallions;
- Mediterranean: basil, polenta, pancetta, feta, ricotta;
- Mexico: cilantro, tortillas, pumpkin seeds, chorizo, jalapeno and other chiles, queso fresco and other cheeses;
- South America: linguica, dulce de leche, yucca, boniato, aji panca and other chiles;
- Thailand: lemongrass, Thai basil, coconut milk, Thai chile, kaffir lime.
Buttermilk pancakes with grilled Asian pears