This is a public service post for everyone who hasn’t yet discovered that what you need to start the day on these cold dreary mornings, especially when you have a persistent dreary cold, is a big pot of proper porridge. By this I mean porridge made from oatmeal, which is no harder to make and has a better texture than any porridge made with ordinary porridge oats.
We first started using oatmeal to make porridge regularly after staying with our friend Pat in Pennsylvania. Her beautiful old Quaker kitchen has tall carpenter-made cupboards which, of course, house a big tin of local steel-cut oatmeal. Oatmeal porridge was also the regular breakfast on walking holidays in Scotland, but I rarely had to wield the spurtle myself. When I got back from the States, with a smart new set of American cup measures, I investigated available brands of oatmeal; some are distinctly pricy and not all supermarkets stock it. Working out the right quantities of oatmeal and water to give our preferred quantity and consistency, took a certain amount of trial and error too.
So these instructions come with a caveat – this is how we like our porridge so you may need to adjust the quantities or the proportions, if you like yours thicker or thinner – and two discoveries that make cooking porridge much easier. The first, learnt from my friend Luc in Glasgow, is to start the porridge the night before. It takes 5 minutes to measure oats, water and salt into a pan and bring it to the boil, and saves time and hassle in the sleepy morning. The second is to leave the pan of porridge to sit with the lid on for 2-3 minutes before you serve it, before giving it a good stir with a silicone spatula or spoon to mix in the thicker layer at the bottom of the pan. Use the spatula to serve the porridge then quickly run the pan under the cold tap to rinse off any remaining scraps and you will never have to soak gluey porridge from the bottom of a pan ever again.
No doubt you can do all of this in the microwave, but it just doesn’t conjure the same comforting atmosphere of home as a pot of porridge steaming on the stove. Besides, putting the porridge on at night reminds me of staying with my grandmother, who used to set the breakfast table before she went to bed every night. So, for me, cooking porridge on the stove is definitely worth the extra few minutes it takes. You can still have breakfast on the table in little over 10 minutes.
We use Mornflake medium oatmeal, and our favourite porridge toppings are apple compote, a handful of blueberries and some nuts and seeds to add crunch. A drizzle of maple syrup on top, and a banana sliced into the bottom of the bowl add extra fuel when facing particularly miserable mornings. I add yoghurt, which I realise is a bit weird, but we don’t often have milk in the fridge and cream would definitely seem too indulgent. Quantities are for two – if multiplying up you’ll find you don’t need quite as much but, as any Scot will tell you, leftovers can easily be heated up for the morrow so you may want to cook up enough for a few days anyway. A reminder that these are American cup measures, though it doesn’t matter if you don’t have them, as the key thing is to use the same measure for oats and water, so that the proportions stay the same, and to find a cup that produces the right amount of porridge for you.
½ cup medium oatmeal
2½ cups water
a pinch-½ tsp salt, to taste
drizzle of maple syrup
Measure the oats and water into a medium saucepan and add salt to taste. I am trying to cure myself of a tendency to under-salt everything (see previous post about the influence of Samin Nosrat) but how salty you like your porridge is a matter of personal taste. At this stage it will look far too thin and as if it will never turn into porridge. Stir with a spurtle or wooden spoon and bring to the boil. Then turn off the heat, clamp on the lid and go to bed.
In the morning, you will find it has thickened and looks much more promising. Gently bring the pan back to a simmer, stirring diligently. Don’t forget to stir the porridge when you put it back on the heat, or it will, I promise you, stick and burn (I made this mistake – once!). Then put the timer on for 6 minutes, and busy yourself with making coffee or apple compote (see below), turning back to stir the porridge every couple of minutes. You may need to turn the heat down so that it stays at a steady simmer and doesn’t erupt into an angry impersonation of the mud baths in Rotorua.
When the pinger goes, give the porridge a good stir and decide whether you think it is the right consistency or needs an extra minute or two. Once you are happy, put on the lid, turn off the heat and leave it for 2-3 minutes, while you prepare your toppings.
You can make a quick apple compote while the porridge is cooking. Just chop an eating or Bramley apple into dice, rinse and simmer it in the water clinging to the apple for 5 minutes. As you can see, if I’m using eating apples I leave the skin on, but generally peel Bramleys, to get that distinctive, fluffy consistency. You can add a teaspoon of sugar to the Bramleys if you like, but I like their tartness – especially if you’re going to add some maple syrup. The compote can, of course, be made in a batch at the weekend, or the night before, if you find the mere thought of chopping apples in the morning tiring.
Wash some blueberries, chop a handful of nuts and you’re ready to scoop the porridge into bowls, add the fruit and nuts, scatter over a teaspoonful of seeds and add dairy (or a vegan equivalent), if you wish. Finish with a drizzle of maple syrup and enjoy your proper porridge. You can almost feel it setting you up for whatever the day holds.