Porridge, or Oatmeal

Originally published March 17, 2014.

Comparing steel-cut oats and rolled oatsThe single most important decision in making porridge is the style of oats you choose to cook.  For my breakfast, the only acceptable style is steel-cut, sometimes called Scottish or Irish oats.

Why Quick Oats and Minutes Oats are The Worst.  Quick oats and minute oats produce porridge with a nauseating texture.  The grains are rolled and cut fine so that they cook quickly, but the oatmeal has a gluey mouthfeel.  My theory is that the extensive processing produces a very fine oat-dust, and as soon as this oat-dust is hydrated, it becomes a thick paste.  Whatever the cause, porridge made from quick oats subtly sticks to the back of the mouth, triggering a mild gag with every swallow.  Perhaps I have a unique physiology…

Steel-cut oats are not rolled, just cut so that they still have the round cross section of the whole grain.  The photo above shows steel-cut oats in the foreground, rolled oats in the back.  Yes, they take longer to cook, but there is little oat-dust, so the final porridge has a creamy mouthfeel, punctuated by larger pieces of grain.  It really is like risotto if cooked properly.

In conclusion: the only thing quick oats and minute oats are good for is making meatloaf.

A simple, simple recipe for porridge is typed below.  Be sure to read the note on fried porridge at the bottom of this post.  It may change your breakfast routine forever.

 

Basic Porridge

Master Ratio – 1:3 steel-cut oats to milk, by volume

Ingredients

  • 1 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup steel-cut oats
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk, or I guess water in a pinch
  • speaking of pinches: 1 pinch kosher salt
  • 2 tbsp dark brown sugar
  • optional: buttermilk to drizzle over cooked porridge (try it…)
  • toasted nuts, seeds, and dried fruit as required

Procedure

  1. Melt the butter in a heavy pot.  Add the oats and turn the heat to medium.  Toast the oats until you can smell that the butter is starting to brown.
  2. Add the whole milk and salt.  Bring liquid to a boil, then reduce to a gentle simmer.  Cook until the oats are tender and the liquid has thickened, about 30 minutes.  Stir periodically.
  3. Stir in the brown sugar.  Taste and adjust seasoning as required.

A bowl of porridge with walnuts, dried currants, and buttermilk

 

Fried Porridge
or, why it behooves you to make more porridge than you can eat in one sitting

My great aunt Dorie used to pour leftover porridge into a tray to congeal.  The next morning it was cut into blocks and fried in bacon fat.  Think: rural Canada’s answer to fried polenta.

Fried porridge with berries and maple syrup

Oat Cake in Maple Syrup

Oatcake in Maple Syrup

This is one of my favourite ways to showcase my maple syrup.  A simple oatcake is baked, then cut into squares and cooled.  The baking dish is then filled with hot maple syrup, which the cake soaks up like a sponge.  Essentially a lazy man’s pouding chômeur (a lazy man’s poor man’s pudding?)

Oatcake in Maple Syrup

Ingredients

  • 1 cup rolled oats
  • 1 1/4 cup boiling water
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter
  • 1 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp baking soda

For the soaking syrup:

  • 2 cups maple syrup
  • 2 cups water

Procedure

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.  Grease and flour a 9″x14″ casserole.
  2. Combine the oats and water.  Set aside.
  3. In a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugars until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.  Add the eggs one at a time until incorporated.
  4. Sift dry ingredients into a separate bowl.  Slowly add to butter mixture with mixer on lowest speed.  Scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl periodically.
  5. Fold in the oats.
  6. Pour the batter into the casserole.  Bake until a wooden skewer comes out clean, about 25-30 minutes.  Cool.
  7. Once the cake has cooled, cut into serving squares without removing from the casserole.  Heat the maple syrup mixture on the stove, then pour over the cake.  Let stand for several hours.  Gently warm in a low oven before serving.  Spoon any syrup left in the bottom of the casserole over the plated cake.  Serve with ice cream. 

The War

When I was little, to me there were two essential facts about my grandparents: they lived on a farm, and they fought in “the war,” that is, WWII. Even though they never spoke to me about the war, it was central to my understanding of who they were. Possibly it was more important to my understanding of them then it was to their own. I’m sure that Grandpa thought of himself as a husband, father, grandfather, deacon, and train-enthusiast before a soldier. Yet, there was a collection of old service photographs on top of the piano, unmoved, for decades. The shrine-like placement of the pictures told me that those years affected my grandparents profoundly, and that there was some sadness sleeping deep within them.

An old pamphlet called Wartime Home Canning of Fruits and VegetablesGrowing up, I found that these two parts of my grandparents’ lives, the farm and the war, intertwined in the government programs aimed at reducing stress on resources through rationing, Victory gardens, and teaching people how to preserve food. I doubt that my grandparents bought into the imagery and language of the home front propaganda (“Your apron is your uniform!”) They had grown up on small farms during the depression, and were already well-seasoned in canning food and growing vegetables by the time the war came about. However, with brothers and friends fighting overseas, I suspect these activities took on a new significance.

WWII periodicals on rationing, canning, gardening, and other forms of self-sufficiency resonate with contemporary talk of sustainable food supplies. Take the following excerpt from a 1942 BBC radio broadcast by George Orwell. They say there’s nothing new under the sun, and Orwell is clearly talking about “food miles,” though he doesn’t use that exact buzz-phrase.

If you have two hours to spare, and if you spend it in walking, swimming, skating, or playing football, according to the time of year, you have not used up any material or made any call on the nation’s labour power. On the other hand, if you use those two hours in sitting in front of the fire and eating chocolates, you are using up coal which has to be dug out of the ground and carried to you by road, and sugar and cocoa beans which have to be transported half across the world.

In other words, sensible, modest living and eating were important. Unfortunately, they require a kind of simple rationality that is almost extinct. Why, for instance, do we buy cranberries made of fruit harvested from Carolinian bogs, processed, canned, and shipped to our supermarkets, when cranberries grow along the North Saskatchewan?

The only kind of kitchen thriftiness that gets attention these days is eating obscure cuts of meat. My own ancestors weren’t particularly adventurous in that regard. They had their own reservations, and I’m sure that my grandma would find it strange that I now eat lamb’s quarters and buffalo. Their thriftiness was based more around things like saving pan oils, especially from bacon.

Canadian meat rations from WWII.The pinnacle of my grandparents’ generations’ genius for kitchen economy was their use of left-overs. Of particular note is Aunt Dorie’s fried porridge. When there was porridge left over after breakfast, she poured it onto a tray and let it congeal. The next morning she cut the sheet of porridge into rectangles and fried them in reserved bacon fat. This is the kind of craftiness that I thought could only come from Italians peasants (think: polenta).

That wartime mentality would be a boon to Albertan kitchens. Despite what we see on restaurant menus and grocery store shelves, we live in a harsh province. Our food should be more humble and austere than that from, say, California.

We don’t need to be survivalists. In fact, complete self-sufficiency is a myth that has run wild in North America, especially on the prairies, with our “frontiersmen” heritage. That being said, we rely far too much on others to grow and cook our food.

Our backyards are Victory Gardens. Our kitchens are War Rooms.

Before the war there was every incentive for the general public to be wasteful, at least so far as their means allowed. We have learned now, however, that money is valueless in itself, and only goods count. In learning it we have had to simplify our lives and fall back more and more on the resources of our own minds instead of on synthetic pleasures manufactured for us in Hollywood or by the makers of silk stockings, alcohol and chocolates. And under the pressure of that necessity we are rediscovering the simple pleasures – reading, walking, gardening, swimming, dancing, singing – which we had half forgotten in the wasteful years before the war.

– George Orwell, from a BBC broadcast entitled Money and Guns, aired in January 1942

Homemade Granola

A jar of granolaIn the last few days I have learned a lot about oats. For example: whole oats are called groats. Not impressed? Fine. Here are the main “styles” of processed oats:

  • Rolled oats: steam-rolled flat. I think the most popular style.
  • Steel-cut oats: each groat is cut (by steel, I guess) into a few pieces. Sometimes called Irish oats.
  • Quick Oats: the oats are steel cut and then steam-rolled, even flatter than rolled oats, reducing cooking time (hence the name).

Why have I become a scholar of oats? This week Judy brought us a 20 kg bag of rolled oats and a 20 kg bag of quick oats, both from the Can-Oat mill in Manola, and each costing about $25. While Lisa and I are pushing shopping carts through organic grocery stores and reading labels to try and find local food, Judy is hitting the highway and visiting industrial milling operations and talking to farmers.

As dry goods, our oats will keep for months, as long as we store them in a cool, dry place. Regardless of how well they keep, the simple fact that there is almost a hundred pounds of oats in my house has made me anxious to start figuring out how I can use them. Hence the oat research.

The first information I came across was historical. Several sources that I consulted had a quote from Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, which defines oats as a grain “which in England is generally given to horses, but which in Scotland supports the people.” Apparently the common Scottish reply went something like, “That’s why England produces such fine horses, and Scotland such fine men.”

Eventually I found some practical information on consuming large amounts of oats. Here are the down and dirty, super-simple recipes with which I plan to eat my bounty.

Basic Granola

Ingredients

  • 2 cups rolled oats
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/8 cup cold-pressed canola oil
  • 1/8 tsp kosher salt
  • 3/4 cup cup nuts and seeds
  • 1/2 cup dried fruit

Procedure

  1. Combine all the ingredients except the dried fruit in a large bowl and mix with a rubber spatula until everything is well coated in the oil and sweeteners.  Spread evenly on a parchment-lined sheet pan.
  2. Bake at 375°F. Watch the oats around the very edges of the pan. When they are just starting to brown (about 8 minutes into baking), flip and redistribute the oats as best you can, then return the tray to the oven until, once again, the oats on the perimeter start to brown (roughly another 4 minutes). Watch carefully: they’ll burn quickly. At this point the oats will feel soft and moist, but as they cool they will become crisp.
  3. Once the granola has cooled, add the dried fruit.  Store in an airtight container at room temperature.

That’s just the base. Add dried fruit, nuts, spices, and dairy products as you see fit. I like mine with hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds, and dried currants.

Yogurt and granola with hazelnuts, pumpkinseeds, and dried currants

 

 

Granola Bars

Ingredients

  • 10 oz pitted dates
  • 2 oz dried sour cherries
  • 2 oz honey
  • 8 oz granola (recipe above)
  • small pinch kosher salt

Procedure

  1. Finely chop the dates and cherries in a food processor.  Transfer to a large bowl.  Add the remaining ingredients and mix until a stiff paste forms.
  2. Line a small casserole with wax paper.  Lightly wet your fingers and press the granola mixture into the casserole and smooth out the surface.
  3. Transfer to a wire rack and let stand at room temperature for 1 hour.
  4. Cut into desired shapes and let stand on the wire rack over night.  Transfer to an airtight container and store at room temperature.

Yield: 8 x 2.5 oz granola bars

Homemade granola bars