Porridge is not the sexiest of breakfasts, it’s true. It doesn’t have a stylish name like strata or shakshuka, and it doesn’t have perfectly domed tops like your favorite fruity muffin. It doesn’t crumble into delightful bits like a good scone nor does it fall into buttery shards like a well-made croissant. But when you wake up and it’s 17 degrees outside (as it has been, give or take a few, for the last week), there’s nothing that satisfies like a bowl of porridge or oatmeal. It’s warm and hearty and can be made sweet or savory with any number of toppings. The problem? Over the years, it’s gotten a bad rap as gluey or gummy or just downright boring or dutiful — and it’s because not everyone knows the secrets to making a great pot of warm morning cereal. So let’s talk porridge (also: my cookbook comes out this month! So let’s take a peek inside, shall we?)
First thing’s first: what’s the difference between porridge and oatmeal? The way I see it, oatmeal is a kind of porridge. I think the true definition of a porridge is any warm cereal that’s prepared with grains, so porridge could be a hot cereal made from, say, spelt and barley or millet and rye (I have a great recipe for a 5-Grain Porridge in the cookbook, which I think you’ll really love). For our purposes today, for all you purists out there, this is technically an oatmeal but could be called a porridge as well. Now I didn’t grow up eating oatmeal or porridge; we had a lot of frozen waffles, toast and cold cereal — quick breakfasts that two working parents could easily get on the table or into our hands before my sisters and I jetted off to our respective schools. But as an adult I came to love oatmeal. I started with the quick Quaker packets in college because they were easy and I could take them on the go, but in my late twenties when I realized how much sugar those little packets contain, I started making my own mixes and realized how nourishing and satisfying steel cut oatmeal and porridge can be when made slowly on the stovetop.
It should be said that in addition to having experiences with rather ho-hum porridge, I think many people avoid making it altogether because it has a reputation of taking a looooong time. And it does certainly take longer than the Quaker instant packets or even oatmeal made from regular rolled oats. The recipe I’m sharing with you today uses steel cut oats which are the nubby bits of the oat groat (vs rolled oats which are steamed and rolled to create a flat, quicker-cooking flake) that take a little longer to cook but create a really toothsome, sophisticated oatmeal. It takes about thirty minutes to make a steel cut oatmeal, but it’s largely inactive time — I find I can get the water, milk and oats into the pot and catch up on some emails or read the paper and the porridge is done. That being said, I realize for most of us this will be more of a weekend recipe rather than a race-out-the-door-Wednesday affair; one of the reasons I organized my book into sections (Busy Weekdays, Slow Sunday, and Brunch) is because I think most of us eat a very different kind of breakfast on a hectic work day than on a leisurely weekend, and I wanted Whole-Grain Mornings to be a useful reference throughout the year — for all the different ways we eat, crazy and calm alike. So without further ado, let’s talk oatmeal and porridge and how to make the best on your block. In the book, I go into further detail, but I want to share a few tips with you here today:
How to Rock Your Morning Oats
1. Toast Your Oats!
A common complaint with oatmeal is that it’s mushy and gluey, and I’ve certainly had my fair share of this type of warm cereal. But when I moved in with Sam, he introduced me to the fine (and simple) art of toasting your oats in a little bit of butter before making your porridge. This draws out their nutty flavor but also helps them keep their integrity in the hot cooking liquid so they don’t just collapse into one another. It’s the only way we do it around here.
2. Use a Bigger Pot Than You Think You Need
Oats need a little bit of real estate. Don’t we all? No, but really, if you can use a large pot to allow your oats to sit in a nice, single layer you’ll end up with a more toothsome porridge than if you used a small pot where they’re all jammed on top of one another and you have to stir more frequently (see #4 below for an explanation). It seems odd and a waste of a large pot, but trust me on this one.
3. Add the Oats Only When the Water Boils
The less time the oats have to hang out with cold water, the better. When I make oatmeal and add the oats and cold water together and bring them to a boil — my porridge is always on the gummier side than if I add the toasted oats right into the hot water. I know there’s science involved here in some regard, but I suppose it just makes sense that you don’t want to soak your oats in cold water as they’re heating up — they’ll have that much more time to soften before really cooking — not really what we’re going for here.
4. Stir Infrequently
Somewhere at some point in time (maybe with the resurgence of polenta popularity?), people began to think that you should really vigorously stir your oatmeal and porridge. If you do this, you will 100% of the time have gummy, unglamorous porridge. Stirring oats (and most grains) will slowly break them down; they’ll lose their shape and delicious, slightly chewy porridge will elude you forever.
5. Celebrate Loose Porridge
I think of oatmeal and porridge much like I do cookies: You know how when cookies cool, they almost always become firmer? When oatmeal and porridge sit off the heat source, they seize up slightly and firm up which isn’t what most of us look for in the perfect bowl of warm cereal. I tend to add a bit more cooking liquid than some recipes require, am never afraid to keep adding liquid to get the porridge where I’d like it to be, and always pull it off the heat once the oats are soft and chewy — but also, while the porridge still seems a little looser than you think it should be. That way, by the time you’re serving it up into bowls, it will be just right.
Can You Really Reheat Leftovers? Yes, yes and yes! I know that it seems like there’s no way day-old porridge could be any good but add a good glug (or two or three) of liquid like almond milk, milk or even water and heat it very slowly on the stovetop only stirring as need be to incorporate the liquid and loosen up the oats — and reheated oatmeal and porridge is almost as good as the first day. We just had some this morning, in fact.
Now before we get to this wintery breakfast recipe, I wanted to give you a peek inside my cookbook, Whole-Grain Mornings. I realize I’ve done kind of a sporadic job of talking about it here, and I probably could’ve been more deliberate and organized in sharing the process with you all. Remember when we talked about the photo shoot … and way back when when I announced the project? Well the day is almost here: the book comes out December 31st (although I’ve been telling people January 1st because I like the symbolism of a whole new approach to breakfast for the new year). My publisher, Ten Speed Press, put together a PDF that gives you a peek, demonstrating how the book is organized seasonally with both sweet and savory breakfast recipes using whole grains and natural sugars. Sam also designed a beautiful, beautiful website for the book where you can learn more about purchasing (you can pre-order now and it’ll ship soon!) and find out where I’ll be this winter/spring promoting it (I hope you’ll come out, all you Seattleites, Portlanders, San Franciscans and Vancouver-dwellers; I’d love to meet you all).
While there is so much more I could say about the book here, I’ll just close by saying that we’ve been cooking from it quite a bit lately — ever since getting the galley in the mail (and now we have a real copy that’s slowly getting marked up and bookmarked). When all the recipes lived on my computer, it seemed more like work to pull them up and cook from the screen but now that I have a real-life copy of the book, I’ve been moving back into the pages and back into the seasons and making myself at home. I think that’s a good sign — maybe the best sign– if I pull up a chair after spending so much time with these recipes and pages, I so hope that you’ll pull one up, too.
Take a Peek ….
I love this cranberry-ginger sauce and made a similar version for Thanksgiving dinner a few years ago. At the time, I started spooning leftovers into my morning yogurt and oatmeal — the double hit of ginger adds warmth and the citrus adds a brightness that elevates morning oats into something truly special. You will likely have a little more cranberry-ginger sauce than you’ll need for the amount of porridge here, which is a good thing as it’s wonderful spooned on top of just about anything or slathered onto rustic toast. You can make the sauce up to two days in advance.
For the Steel Cut Oatmeal:
For the Cranberry-Ginger Sauce:
For the Oats: In a large sauté pan, melt the butter and add the steel cut oats. Toast for 4-5 minutes on medium heat or until fragrant (will smell slightly nutty).
In a large heavy-bottomed pot, bring the almond milk, water, salt, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg to a slow boil over medium heat. Add the toasted oats and gently stir to incorporate them into the liquid. Return to a boil, then partially cover the pot and decrease the heat to low, cooking until the porridge has thickened and the oats have softened, about 25-30 minutes. You’re looking for a porridge that will be a little loose when you pull it off the stove – it will continue to thicken off the heat.
For the Cranberry-Ginger Sauce: Bring the cranberries, honey, brown sugar, cinnamon stick, ginger, cloves, and orange juice to a simmer in a medium saucepan. Cover the mixture and allow it to cook on medium-low heat for 5-7 minutes, or until the cranberries are just beginning to burst and you notice the mixture thickening.
Add the chopped candied ginger and orange zest and stir to combine. Simmer uncovered for an additional 1 to 2 minutes, or until cranberries have burst and are softening into more of a sauce (it will continue to thicken off the heat, too). Remove the cinnamon stick. If you like a looser sauce, add water, 2 tablespoons at a time.
To serve: Ladle large spoonfuls of porridge into bowls and top with toasted almonds, cranberry sauce and a little cream if you like (we do).
Winter Soups and Stews
If your house is anything like ours, last week wasn't our most inspired in terms of cooking. We're all suffering from the post-election blues -- the sole upside being Oliver's decision to sleep-in until 7 am for the first time in many, many months; I think he's trying to tell us that pulling the covers over our heads and hibernating for awhile is ok. It's half-convincing. For much of the week, instead of cooking, there'd been takeout pizza and canned soup before, at week's end, I decided it was time to pour a glass of wine and get back into the kitchen. I was craving something hearty and comforting that we could eat for a few days. Something that wouldn't remind me too much of Thanksgiving because, frankly, I can't quite gather the steam to start planning for that yet. It was time for a big bowl of chili.
Last weekend it was so windy – apocalyptically stormy, you could say – that our tent at the farmers market was uprooted by gusts of wind that were not messing around. I wasn't there, but apparently despite being heavily weighted down and with four customers holding onto each corner, it quite literally blew down the block. Sam, from across town, was reporting trees falling on every block and traffic lights out across the city. The next morning on a walk with Oliver around Green Lake, we were met with that same biting wind and ended up retreating for a hot chocolate instead. 'Tis the season in Seattle: we all get a little giddy and ahead of ourselves when we spot the cherry blossoms and daffodils, and I always trick myself into thinking that with the start of daylight savings time, summer must be right around the corner. In truth, before we had Oliver, we'd often travel somewhere sunny for a little mood boost around this time of year. When I moved from California, many friends – other (empathetic) 'expats' now living in the Pacific Northwest – recommended this: if you know what's good for you, they'd all say, go find the sun in February or March, and we would follow that advice faaaaaithfully. But with a baby, this just isn't where our priorities are this year, and I've found myself relying on other antics like buying out of season strawberries, drinking white wine with dinner, buying a new pair of sandals that likely will not see the light of day for the next two months, and making big, colorful pots of feel good, springy soup. Let's not kid ourselves: Cherry blossoms or not, Seattle's no Palm Springs when it gets down to bathing in the sunlight. But if you step outside onto your little porch, smell the honeysuckle blooming, take notice of the longer, lighter days and think about how you simply can't wait to see your baby crawling around on the sand when it's warm enough to stroll down to the beach, it starts looking better in its own light.
We returned home from San Francisco on New Years Eve just in time for dinner, and craving greens -- or anything other than baked goods and pizza (ohhhh San Francisco, how I love your bakeries. And citrus. And winter sunshine). Instead of driving straight home, we stopped at our co-op where I ran in for some arugula, an avocado, a bottle of Prosecco, and for the checkout guys to not-so-subtly mock the outlook of our New Years Eve: rousing party, eh? They looked to be in their mid-twenties and I figured I probably looked ancient to them, sad even. But really, there wasn't much sad (or rousing, to be fair) about our evening: putting Oliver to bed, opening up holiday cards and hanging them in the kitchen, and toasting the New Year with arugula, half a quesadilla and sparkling wine. It wasn't lavish. But it's what we both needed. (Or at least what we had to work with.) Since then, I've been more inspired to cook lots of "real" food versus all of the treats and appetizers and snacks the holidays always bring on. I made Julia Turshen's curried red lentils for the millionth time, a wintry whole grain salad with tuna and fennel, roasted potatoes, and this simple green minestrone that I've taken for lunch this week. Determined to fit as many seasonal vegetables into a bowl as humanly possible, I spooned a colorful pesto on top, as much for the reminder of warmer days to come as for the accent in the soup (and for the enjoyment later of slathering the leftover pesto on crusty bread).
One of the things I wanted to accomplish before really returning to work in earnest was to print some of our honeymoon photos and get them into an album. This project has taken far longer than expected as I find myself daydreaming about the craggy streets of Naples and meeting up with our friends Mataio and Jessica for a late night slice of pizza which we ate sitting on the sidewalk before embarking on an aimless but wonderful stroll of the city. There are photos of our balcony by the sea, most with tanned limbs, sandy sandals and a Campari and soda gracing the periphery of the frame. There was the little grocery store up the hill from our apartment on the Amalfi Coast that had the sweetest, tiniest strawberries and the best yogurt in little glass jars. Tomatoes drying in the sun, Aperol spritzes and salty peanuts before dinner at the bar across from the church square where all the neighborhood kids played kickball. As I sit here typing this now, photos remain scattered on my desk and it's likely they may not make it into the proper slots in the album anytime soon. Of course, they have me dreaming of sunshine and long days with little agenda, but they also have me thinking about the simplicity of our meals in Italy and how truly easy it was to eat well. Coincidentally, a few days ago Rachel Roddy's lusty new cookbook (can we call it lusty?!), My Kitchen in Rome, arrived at our doorstep. Clearly it was time to set the photos aside and get into the kitchen.
And suddenly, it's fall. I find that realization always comes not so much with the dates on the calendar as it does the leaves on the ground, the first crank of the heat in the morning, the dusky light on the way home from an evening run. Because we were gone on the train for nearly a week, I feel like fall happened here in Seattle during that very time. I left town eating tomatoes and corn and returned to find squashes and pumpkins in the market. It was that quick. And so, it only seemed fitting that I make this soup, one that has graced the fall table of each and every apartment (and now house) I've ever lived. In fact, I'm surprised that I hadn't yet made it for you here, and delighted to share it with you today.