April 17, 2012

I’ve been trying to rethink breakfast.

A few months ago, Jill and I had a conversation with our friend Ruthie, who was at the time working on changing her eating habits after being diagnosed with gestational diabetes.  In checking her blood sugar several times a day, Ruthie had noticed something really suprising—a bowl of cereal, even the “good” kind (full of whole grain, flax, wheat germ, nuts, no corn syrup, etc.) made her blood sugar spike like crazy.  And just a couple of hours later, her blood sugar would crash.

This confirmed what I had noticed about my own breakfast routine.  I, of course, crave sweet and carbohydrate-laden things: biscuits, pancakes, waffles, toast, muffins, cereal, oatmeal, etc.  And while I was managing not to eat things that were blatantly unhealthy at breakfast, I would still get hungry just a couple of hours after I had eaten.  That’s no good when you’ve still got two classes to teach before lunch!

So I started working on doing breakfast differently—more protein, less sugar.  Eggs are obviously a great fit, adding a dose of protein to that piece of toast I so crave, often with avocado and/or hot sauce on top.  Even a quick egg scramble isn’t always feasible on some rushed mornings, so I took to making big frittatas on Saturday or Sunday, packed with greens (chard or kale), some crumbled sausage, and any herbs or other vegetables we had on hand.  Cooled and cut into wedges, these reheat quite easily in the morning, and are portable enough to eat safely on your way out the door; you can also portion out and bake the same ingredients into muffin tins, if you like.

If I’m just plain craving one of the starchy things I love so much, I try to improve on the basic idea by adding protein where I can: plain yogurt to go alongside fruit or in a smoothie, a Morningstar Farms veggie patty alongside a muffin or piece of toast, chopped nuts in my steel-cut oats, peanut or almond butter on a homemade whole-wheat waffle or bran muffin.

To expand my “alternate breakfast” repertoire beyond eggs, I turned to other cultures for inspiration.  Most food cultures besides our own have a broader range of what’s considered “breakfast food,” beyond sweet carbohydrates.  In Turkey, for example, where Jill learned to love breakfast, a typical breakfast consists of cheese, spicy sausage, hard-boiled eggs, olives, jam/honey, clotted cream, and some kind of bread.  I also love Vietnamese noodle pho for breakfast (though I haven’t tried making my own yet), and the Mexican/Tex-Mex classic chilaquiles (breakfast tacos with black beans & vegetables are also delicious.)

I turned to my own culture for ideas as well.  Poha, the flattened rice dish I blogged about previously, is in regular rotation at my house.  By accident, I discovered that I like it better when I substitute shredded Brussels sprouts for the peas—nutrition bonus!  And today I’m blogging about another Indian breakfast dish, upma, essentially a savory cream of wheat.  I love it because it serves a great base for yogurt and/or any roasted vegetables or nuts you may have on hand.

This may seem like a weird thing to eat for breakfast, and maybe it will be, for you, at first.  But I’ve found that the best, most filling and lasting breakfasts are the “weird” ones.  A bowl of lentils.  Reheated pizza or stir fry. Polenta with a fried egg on top.  Southwestern-style quinoa patties with salsa.  Once you start thinking beyond the usual, it’s freeing, and good for you, too.  Thanks to our friend Ruthie, whose adorable three-and-a-half-week-old son Benjy is pictured below, Jill & I haven’t bought a box of cereal in weeks!


This recipe is very basic and yields quite a plain finished product, as it’s meant to be topped with various things (see below) to add texture and additional flavor.  If you like, you can easily incorporate other vegetables (potatoes, green beans, peas, etc.) along with the onion, ginger, etc.

If you have the chance, please let me know if the comments about your favorite alterna-breakfasts.  I would love to try your suggestions.


1 cup cream of wheat (will be labeled “sooji” at the Indian grocery store)
half an onion, medium dice
¼ cup ginger, minced
2 T curry leaves, roughly chopped
1 tsp. mustard seeds
pinch or two of asafetida
vegetable oil

optional: heat in the form of a fresh Serrano or jalapeno pepper, minced (seed the pepper if you’re wary of heat or just use half a pepper) OR one dried red chili pepper of your choice

traditional toppings: fried cashews (though you can dry-toast them to keep this a little healthier), cilantro, dollop of plain yogurt

other possible toppings: fried or poached egg, roasted or sautéed vegetables (radishes, cauliflower, eggplant, mushrooms), wilted greens

In a deep, heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat 2-3 tablespoons of vegetable oil on medium high.  Allow to heat up for a few minutes before tossing in a few mustard seeds as a “test.”  The seeds should immediately hiss, crack, and turn ashen; if they do not, wait a few more minutes before adding all of the seeds.  This is also the time to add the asafetida, if you plan to use it.

Turn the heat down to medium and then carefully add the onion, ginger, curry leaves, and fresh or dried pepper.  Cook the mixture until the vegetables just begin to soften—you do not want them to brown.

Add the sooji to the pan and spread it around the surface of the pan to roast, stirring regularly, for 5-7 minutes or until the sooji starts to smell nutty and turn light brown.  When it’s ready, add the water and a teaspoon of salt, stirring until the sooji has absorbed the liquid and your desired texture has been achieved; some people like their sooji more porridge consistency, others (like me) prefer it to be more firm.

Remove from heat, taste for salt, and serve.



  1. Love this post and *very* happy to have your upma recipe! A few questions, though. Where can I find asafetida? And I’ve only seen/used curry in paste and powder forms — where can I find leaves? P.S. A piece of toast jam-packed with egg salad has become my go-to breakfast… yum.

    Comment by Ruthie — April 18, 2012 @ 12:29 pm

  2. Ruthie–good questions, both! You can find both asafetida & curry leaves at an Indian grocery store. The brand of asafetida I use comes in a very small, white plastic cylinder. It’s super-pungent, so a little goes a long way, and will last forever in your spice cabinet–just be sure to put it inside a Ziploc bag or it will transfer its odor. The curry leaves, pictured in the photo above alongside the ginger & dried red chili, will be in the refrigerated/produce case. They keep for a few weeks in the fridge, wrapped loosely in paper towels and bagged. I really ought to look into growing it myself now that you mention it…

    Comment by Blue Jean Gourmet — April 18, 2012 @ 9:42 pm

  3. I’ve been trying to work more protein into my breakfasts as well (though less consistently). Even lo-sugar yogurts with a decent amount of protein can leave you hungry and have a crash. Charcuterie, cheese, and a little pastry is common in Europe. I love that for breakfast. Or lunch or dinner, for that matter 🙂

    Comment by Peggy — April 22, 2012 @ 8:54 pm

Leave a comment