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).
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.