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El Breakfast Grande

Mexico has big ideas about the morning meal.


Breakfast is big in Mexico--really big. Accustomed to a modest morning meal of tea and toast at home, I am amazed whenever I travel south 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 Veracruz, 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 chile 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 state, offered as a complimentary breakfast all the fresh 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 this country, but who says you can't indulge on a special occasion? Cinco de Mayo weekend offers the perfect opportunity to breakfast Mexican style or to invite friends for a Mexican brunch. Choose from three typical menus. Two are from the state of Veracruz. The third represents Southern California.

The first menu copies a breakfast called Universitario that I often have in Jalapa. 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 orange juice, which is always freshly squeezed; either black coffee or cafe con leche (hot milk and coffee combined in a glass); and molletes. These are bolillo rolls split in half, spread with refried black beans and topped with melted cheese. Manchego is the preferred cheese, and good California-made Manchegos are available in Mexican markets and some supermarkets here, but 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. Similar breads are easy to find in Los Angeles because the city is full of panaderias. Their counters are piled with pan dulce in various shapes and colors, each with its own name. Bolillos are on hand too.

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 chile.

But Californians seldom see eggs combined with nopalitos (diced cactus). 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 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 that is coming into season now. Look for it 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 chiles to taste. Use pinto beans or try the small pale peruano bean carried by many Latino markets.

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