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Porridge is the winter staple that’s as much superfood as comfort food. It’s tasty, healthy and warming, which is why more people are turning to oatmeal to kick-start their day.
A bowl of porridge oats is nutritious, packed with energy and armed to the hilt with vitamins, minerals, protein and fibre. But while it’s traditionally thought of as a solid and dependable breakfast option, it’s also being rediscovered and reinvented in some of the world’s top kitchens.
Heston Blumenthal famously brought the humble porridge oat slithering bang up to date with his snail porridge. The Fat Duck chef combined high-quality porridge oats with snails, butter, fennel and parma ham to create a dish that confounded critics. It also helped to redefine an everyday grain that has largely been cooked the same way for hundreds of years.
So how did oats become haute? Porridge has been associated with Scotland since before medieval times. The crop was ideally suited to the wet, dull conditions there, and became an important means of sustenance for both people and animals. To this day, the Scots enjoy oats in the form of oatcakes and skirlie, a dish of oats fried in lard with onions which forms the basis of white pudding. Oats are also an important ingredient in haggis.
In their natural state the oats have husks, which are removed to create groats. Pinhead or steel-cut oatmeal, made when the groats are cut into two or three pieces, is ideal for tasty and textured porridge. For a smoother texture, there’s coarse or medium oats, which are gently ground.
Rolled oats are easier and quicker to cook. These have been steamed and rolled into flakes, but lose a little nutritional value in the process. Large, flat Jumbo oats are rolled from whole groats and can be eaten raw in muesli.
When there’s frost on the ground outside, however, there’s nothing like waking up to a hot breakfast of creamy porridge oats. The traditional Scottish method is to soak the oats in water overnight before gently boiling until soft, then adding salt. Constant stirring with a spurtle (porridge stirrer) is essential to make the porridge lighter and less prone to lumps (although we expect a spoon will do just as good a job). Stirring also helps to release more starch to produce creamier porridge. But you’ll need a strong arm, because some say good porridge needs to be cooked and stirred for up to two hours.
But porridge oats are no longer the exclusive preserve of dour, firm-jawed Scotsmen, standing at the stove-side in their kilts, a bucket of salt in one hand and a knobbly spurtle in the other. Porridge has gone gourmet.
A bowl’s roll from New York’s Washington Square is OatMeals, a restaurant dedicated to the art of reinventing porridge. Chef Samantha Stephens offers a range of inventive sweet and savoury oatmeal creations. Her Pomegranate Pistachio oatmeal features dried seeds, nuts, honey and almond milk, while her Truffle Risotto combines parmesan cheese, truffle oil, sea salt and cracked black pepper. Other bowls include unconventional ingredients such as sun-dried tomatoes, pesto and gorgonzola, proving that porridge can be every bit as versatile as rice.
London is getting in on the act too. At Brick Lane’s Sunday Upmarket you can find bowls of steaming hot porridge laced with rashers of crispy bacon. The man behind this unlikely combo is Jonny Stanley, who takes dry-cured back bacon and mixes it with porridge oats made with milk and water for a slow-release energy breakfast.
While traditionalists insist on porridge oats with a sprinkling of salt and nothing else, others stick with the sweet option. Drizzled with maple syrup or honey, or sprinkled with muscovado sugar and sliced strawberries, bananas or blueberries, porridge can come to life with a multitude of creative toppings. If you’re undecided, April Bloomfield of New York’s The Spotted Pig suggests a compromise. Her porridge involves a mixture of pinhead and rolled oats cooked with salt in half milk, half water. When creamy and cooked, it is then sprinkled liberally with brown sugar or maple syrup. Nothing but the best of both worlds for this superhero of superfoods.