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Wake up and smell the pancetta

Three early-rising chefs make breakfast dishes that jolt the ordinary menu.

October 22, 2003|Susan LaTempa | Special to The Times

Cooking breakfast -- and we're not talking about frying an egg or zapping some instant oatmeal here but real cooking -- is something that doesn't happen nearly often enough. Especially this time of year, when a morning meal with assertive flavors and substance can really be appreciated. It's the changing season, the approaching holidays, that make us want to linger a little in the morning before braving the weekend chores.

The problem is the standard breakfast repertoire. It's a stubborn meal that wants to stay bland and conventional -- otherwise you've got brunch on your hands.

For breakfast to be breakfast, it's got to center on morning favorites such as omelets, pancakes and hash.

It's a problem restaurant chefs face all the time.

"Breakfast is tough," says Warren Schwartz, executive chef at Saddle Peak Lodge in Calabasas. "It's harder than dinner, I think. At dinner time, people are more relaxed, they're drinking wine. At breakfast they all want their eggs cooked a certain way. And everybody knows how to make breakfast. They're not as easily impressed."

We were impressed with how three chefs -- Schwartz; Helene Brennan, executive chef of the Restaurant at the Getty; and John Gladish, Regent Beverly Wilshire Dining Room chef -- elevated familiar breakfast dishes from the mundane to the memorable.

Schwartz's twist on the pancake involves adding beaten egg whites at the last minute to create pancakes that have the light, custardy texture of a souffle. He serves them with blackberry compote.

"I'm a big vanilla fan," says Schwartz, who uses the fresh bean in his batter. "And I don't want the pancakes too sweet. The sweetness on the plate comes from the compote and the creme fraiche. You can play around with any fruit for the compote, but it should have some acid and not be cloyingly sweet."

Make the compote up to a few days before and, if you like, mix the batter a few hours before the meal, but always wait until the last minute to fold in the egg whites. Don't overcook; Schwartz says the pancakes should be a little soft inside, like a souffle.

For breakfast lovers who've never ventured beyond corned beef hash, Helene Brennan's butternut squash and pancetta hash is completely surprising.

"The hash technique," Brennan says, "allows you to combine ingredients with similar textures and very different flavor profiles." Her hash balances the sweetness of the squash with the saltiness of the pancetta. Basil, she says, "is the pungent herb that stands up and says hello and makes the whole thing come together."

Brennan's butternut squash hash makes a good seasonal dish for a big family-style breakfast. If you dice and par-cook the squash and potatoes the night before, it won't take long to saute the vegetables and pancetta in the morning. Serve it with other platter-style dishes such as scrambled eggs and steamed spinach.

Gladish's lemon dill omelet combines smoked salmon, eggs, lemon and dill in a way that shifts the traditional flavor emphasis of the ingredients: Lemon is the intriguing top note here, evenly distributed throughout the eggs. It's offset nicely by the smoky salmon and bright dill.

"It's a transformation of a smoked salmon scramble or frittata," Gladish says.

The omelet should not be browned or cooked hard but should, like its flavor, stay soft.

*

Souffle pancakes with blackberry compote

Total time: 40 minutes, plus overnight vanilla-infusing time

Servings: 6 (makes 16 to 18 4-inch pancakes)

Note: From Warren Schwartz, executive chef at Saddle Peak Lodge. Creme fraiche is available in the dairy section of well-stocked markets.

Blackberry compote

8 cups fresh blackberries, divided

1/3cup sugar (or to taste)

3 tablespoons water

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1. Set aside 2 cups blackberries. Combine 6 cups blackberries, the sugar, water and lemon juice in a saucepan and cook over low heat until the blackberries are soft and the mixture is heated through, about 8 minutes.

2. Blend the mixture in a blender or food processor. Place the mixture back in the pan and stir in the reserved fresh blackberries; set aside.

Whipped creme fraiche

1/2cup heavy whipping cream

1/2cup creme fraiche

2 teaspoons powdered sugar

1. Combine the whipping cream, creme fraiche and powdered sugar in a bowl. Whip until the cream is stiff, about 3 minutes. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Pancake batter

2 egg yolks

1 1/2 cups milk

1 vanilla bean

1 1/2 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

2 tablespoons sugar

6 tablespoons ( 3/4 stick) butter

10 egg whites

1 tablespoon powdered sugar

1. The night before preparing the pancakes, combine the egg yolks and milk in a container. Split the vanilla bean and scrape the insides into the egg yolk and milk mixture. Place the vanilla bean rinds into the mixture as well and soak overnight. When ready to use, remove the rinds.

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