Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Oatmeal (Horse Feed)

     Deanne and I both love to cook, yet I—a bachelor-style single pot or pan slap-it-together cook—give her, the chef, the honors except for weekend mornings when she sleeps in. Her meals, albeit delectable, aren't always the healthiest (often involving lots of meat, oil, and/or calories) so I try to compensate by making something extra nutritious and lean with no added sugar. 
     Oatmeal's bad rep (What other food is called porridge, mush, grits, wallpaper paste, sawdust, and horse feed?) is perhaps attributable to its outdoorsy/earthy aroma, neutral/mild/bland flavor, and somewhat crunchy/sticky/spongy texture. Nonetheless, I love the stuff for both its great taste and well known health benefits, making it my once a week go-to breakfast of choice. Since it takes a bit of effort to cook in a pot which makes it taste so much better, I make a big batch to ensure leftovers to supplement my weekday breakfasts. For increased palatability and nutritional value, I always mix into my bowl sliced banana, apple, and one citrus fruit such as orange or cantaloupe, one dried prune, and enough skim milk to loosen and smooth the texture (which aids digestion for my aging system).
     I discovered the perfect way to cook it by accident. After bringing the water to a brisk boil then adding the oats—which was always a challenge to avoid a messy boil over—I once got called away by the necessities of nature and/or a phone call, I can't recall which, so I pulled the pot off the heating element, turned off the stove, and allowed the mixture to sit uncovered. When I returned over twenty minutes later, the oats had softened, thickened, and expanded nicely, almost fully cooked with no boil-over mess to clean. Back on the burner, heat raised to a simmer, stirred every so often as the liquid reduced, it came out perfect without me having to stand and stir the whole time.
     Stirring, though done only on an as-needed basis, is unavoidable and somewhat burdensome—unavoidable because unstirred scorched oatmeal at the bottom will ruin a batch and be hard to scrub clean, and burdensome because cooking can take awhile (up to a half hour with old fashioned oats, a bit less for quick oats) and slips of the spoon while stirring may slosh oaty water out over the side onto the heating element, causing a stink, sticky, smoky mess that can be cleaned only after the coil has cooled down. 
     Years ago, at Queen's hospital's cafeteria (Deanne was in to deliver Penelope) I discovered a better way: A kitchen attendant spent many minutes at two steaming near-capacity gallon size warmers stirring oatmeal as I watched while gathering my breakfast selections from the self-service area nearby. She used a long wooden spoon and scraped its tip against the pots' bottoms from the outside in, in essence tracing straight lines from each pot's interior circumference to its center, one line at a time, all the way around like spokes on a wheel, before doing random back and forth and circular motions to ensure she scraped all the crusty film off the bottom. 
     It made sense because what caused my messy spill-overs was my spoon slapping against the pot's side wall, spattering the mixture up, over, and about. By going outward-in first, using the pot's rim as a pivot and spoon handle as a lever, I discovered the spoon never slipped or approached the pot's far side wall. 
     Ever since, I've always made oatmeal utilizing the two techniques: I boil water (approximately nine cups), remove the pot from the burner, switch off the stove, add the oatmeal (about five cups), stir, and then allow the oats to steep in the liquid uncovered for five or more minutes until they becomes thick and soft (sometimes bulging up above the water's surface, saturated and puffy). I then place the pot back on the burner, raise the temperature to achieve a brisk simmer, and scrape the pot's bottom from outside in before scrapping using back and forth and circular motions. Over the next fifteen minutes I gradually lower the heat to a slow simmer, scraping and stirring as needed until everything's the desired consistency (thick, somewhat sticky, and mushy for me). It's worked perfectly every time: zero scorched bottoms and zero splash-overs, plus I stir far less and even save some electricity. Served with fruits and skim milk, it makes a healthy, hearty breakfast that ties everyone in our family over until lunch without irritability caused by too much sugar or animal fats and proteins.  
     Whether breakfast is or is not the most important meal of the day oatmeal—warm traditional, and nutritious—has helped set the tone for many a happy day for us. Though not as sexy or fun as eggs, spam, rice, Portuguese sausage, pancakes, crumpets, or croissants perhaps, my motto (not said in years) has always been, “Eat to live. Don't live to eat.” Not that I chose oatmeal primarily for its nutritional value, I chose it 'cause it works, putting us in good moods by helping us feel better afterwards—energetic, relaxed, and prepared to do whatever it is our day entails, planned or unplanned, for leisure or pleasure, or to accomplish something even if so humble as purchase grocery shop, book borrow from the library, attend church, or swim at the community pool.

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