Breaking the Breakfast Fast:
A Review of Mollie Katzen's "Sunlight Café"
Reviewed by Dan Balogh
Like your typical over-rushed corporate American worker bee, when I first heard that Mollie Katzen had written a breakfast cookbook, I was skeptical. Yeah, right! Recipes for breakfast! Isn't that the meal folks eat only when they're on vacation-as in "bed & breakfast"?
And as I flipped through the pages of "Sunlight Café," a very beautiful book, I couldn't quite shake a tune that kept playing in the back of my head-the Beatles' "A Day in the Life." The narrator gets up, falls out of bed, drags a comb across his head, finds his way downstairs and drinks "a cup" before looking up at the clock-at which point he realizes he's already late and bolts out the door to catch a bus.
Sound familiar? The narrator does not make his way downstairs in order to prepare a sumptuous feast using the freshest vegetables picked from his organic garden just outside his sun-drenched window. He certainly does not -especially if the "day" in the title of the song is Monday through Friday.
But as I kept flipping through the pages, reading what Katzen earnestly said about the importance of breakfast, and as I scanned the recipes and noticed that very few had more than a dozen ingredients or preparation times in excess of 30 minutes-the Beatles tune began to fade away. By the time I put together a list of 20 recipes that I wanted to try from the book, the tune was gone for good.
I realize many of you are probably saying that 30 minutes (even 15!) is still too much time to spend preparing breakfast on a weekday. Perhaps many of you find your way downstairs to have "a cup" (of coffee or tea) and also a bowl of cold cereal doused with soy milk and a sprinkle of walnuts, blueberries and flax meal-this does it for me Monday through Friday with prep time of five minutes.
Mollie Katzen, however, is ahead of us. Having children, she knows what it's like to try to prepare a nutritious breakfast on a weekday, when searching for her daughter's missing shoe is enough to derail an incredibly efficient, razor-sharp schedule by an enormous 15 minutes. Before the end of the second page of the introduction she addresses lots of our concerns by explaining that many of these meals can be made in advance and simply reheated the next morning (it works, as I'll explain). She also gives other hints on how to minimize the amount of time you spend in the kitchen on a weekday morning.
Gazing at my list of 20 candidate meals, salivating uncontrollably, I realized that all of the recipes in "Sunlight Café" could be prepared for dinner as well. And over the next two weeks, my wife and I did exactly that, methodically working our way through the list of candidate recipes. I can honestly say that it was the most cooking fun we've had since we became vegans, a decision that led to an ongoing exploration of foods we never knew existed. (By the way, although this is not a vegan cookbook, many of the recipes are easily veganized.)
The book is intelligently arranged in 12 functional chapters such as "Grains: Cereals, Cooked & Cold," "Potatoes, Beans, Tempeh & Hashes," "Vegetables for Breakfast" and "Griddle Foods: Pancakes, Waffles, Blintzes, Crêpes & French Toast." Even beverages, like smoothies, and breakfast bars get their own chapters.
And it's not just recipes you'll find here. This 300-plus-page book contains many essays on coffee, tea, fruit, grains, toast, muffins, breads, waffles, home fries and others. Katzen's treatment is enthusiastic and scholarly throughout-and yes, you can be scholarly when addressing waffles!
Specific "how to" topics are also sprinkled through the book. For example, vegan s will appreciate Katzen's recipe for the perfect scrambled tofu-first boil silken tofu and then fry it until light golden brown. Sure enough, it's the best result I ever got. And with this recipe, as with many others, Katzen provides variations-first follow the standard recipe and then apply slight variations for different results. The basic scrambled tofu can be dressed up with minced scallions, veggie bacon, guacamole (recipe also in the book) or salsa (ditto). Is your mouth beginning to water?
One of the things we learned while making these delicious recipes (for better or worse) is that breakfast really does start to blossom into a real meal-like dinner! So, having only scrambled tofu didn't satisfy us. But that wasn't a problem: Got a couple of spare tomatoes hanging around? Slice them in half, remove the seeds andcut them into thick slices. Coat them with a mixture of flour, cinnamon, cumin and salt, and fry them in a lightly oiled pan. In just three or four minutes you have a fantastic side dish called Cinnamon-Spiced Fried Tomatoes. This recipe is so easy we made it three times in two weeks.
Do you still have room on your plate? No problem-in 15 minutes you can make another terrific side dish, Classic Creamed Spinach. You'll need some frozen chopped spinach (defrosted), a bit of butter replacer, mustard, milk replacer, nutmeg, flour, salt and pepper. (This, like many of the other recipes, is easily veganized by using soymilk and Earth Balance butter substitute.) I stored the leftovers in the refrigerator. Three days later, after a few minutes of heating on the stove, it was even better than the day I made it. This was true of every recipe we tried. Katzen is not exaggerating when she says that these meals can be prepared in advance and enjoyed the next morning.
I'm learning to like big breakfasts, so at this point I still see emptiness on my plate. I reach for one of those terrific muffins I made two days ago and plop it on the plate. Now that's what I call a proper breakfast! The Crunchy Millet Muffins are a blast. The millet is added uncooked to the batter. The result is a wonderfully crunchy muffin with just a hint of sweetness. I shared these with friends and got thumbs-up across the board. Though the muffin recipes call for eggs, the Ener-G egg substitute I used worked fine-since the recipe calls for one large egg I used the Ener-G equivalent of 1 1/2 eggs with good results. The same can be said for the Basic Corn Muffins- veganized them with soymilk, Earth Balance and Ener-G. The resulting muffins held together perfectly and tasted great.
Katzen also includes selections of international cuisine. For those a bit more daring, and with a bit more time, I can't recommend more highly the incredible Calabacitas-according to Katzen it's a vegetable melange influenced by Pueblo cuisine. This dish takes about 30 minutes to prepare but it's well worth it, and it includes a wonderful array of ingredients: minced onions, minced Anaheim chilies, diced zucchini, corn kernels (straight off the cob, if possible), garlic and pinto beans, punctuated by a wedge of lime. The recipe calls for half a 15-ounce can of pinto beans but we used the entire can. Two days later the leftovers tasted just as good. Another wonderful one-dish meal is the Ful Medames, a traditional Egyptian breakfast made here with fava beans, minced onions, garlic, tomatoes, lemon juice and chopped parsley. Outstanding.
For those who are content with good old American cuisine, there are the standard hash browns, and here Katzen explains that the key to perfection is to maximize contact with the hot oil. Weary of the dangers of raising oil to high temperatures, Katzen recommends using high-oleic safflower oil. Her simple recipe produced the best hash browns I ever made.
There's also an excellent recipe for tempeh hash-yes, I said tempeh. One pound of tempeh is diced and browned in a small amount of olive oil. You can add several different vegetables. I added broccoli, zucchini and cooked brown rice, and the results were delicious. But Katzen also suggests any combination of spinach, peppers, cherry tomatoes, walnuts and cooked beets. It's a good way to get more vegetables into your day.
There are approximately 350 recipes. Judging from my small sampling, my wife and I will be enjoying lots of recipes for months to come.
The book is a delight, though not without some shortcomings. Because Katzen is very nutritionally aware, it's puzzling that nutritional information for the recipes wasn't included. I like to know the approximate amount of fat, fiber, etc., that I'm eating in a given meal. Certainly I can figure this out given the list of ingredients, but having it supplied (as it is in countless other health-oriented cookbooks) would have been a plus.
A lesser gripe is the total absence of photos. This isn't a big weakness, however, since most of us should probably already know what these breakfast foods are supposed to look like. Instead, the reader is entertained by the lovely pastel artwork of Katzen herself, peppered throughout the book and on the cover.
The bottom line is that this book is a must for health-conscious folks who want to restore some importance to the first meal of the day. For those who still can't seem to find the time to do so, there's no excuse for not trying these recipes for dinner. You won't be sorry.
Dan Balogh is a member of EarthSave® New York City and works full-time as a systems engineer in the telecommunications industry. Two years ago, he and his wife Laura pledged to become vegans if they could find a dozen recipes that they could live with. Unable to prepare toast without burning it, Dan decided to learn as much about vegan cooking as was humanly possible. Since then he has amassed a huge collection of vegan and vegetarian cookbooks and has tried well over 300 different recipes - and most they can live with! But he's having so much fun he keeps on searching! Today he can make a mean toast.
Editor's note: Sunlight Cafe contains many wonderful recipes, a number of which call for dairy or eggs. However, it's easy for vegans to veganize many of these recipes using soymilks and egg replacers.