Oatmeal Makeover

Think back to those crisp winter mornings of your childhood when a hot bowl of thick oatmeal showered with brown sugar and a bit of cream greeted you at the kitchen table. It seems like yesterday when this was breakfast du jour and, for a few years at college, I seemingly survived on it during the cold and dark Missouri winters. But sometimes too much of a good thing is, well, too much.

Even though my grandmother prepared perfect bowls of oatmeal and Cream of Wheat, thereby spoiling me for anything less stellar; the mass-produced hot cereal of my college days were either too thick or way too thin, which I believe permanently impaired my relationship with hot cereals.

After straying from my favorite childhood breakfast over a few decades, I recently rekindled my relationship with this classic morning staple and, honestly, I couldn't be happier. I had forgotten how a hearty bowl of oatmeal soothes and fuels like little else. But this time, it is not just ordinary oatmeal that I am enjoying, and once you realize how different this approach is, you will know why it deserves another chance in your morning repertoire.

We can thank (or blame) Chef Geoffrey Zakarian's recent cookbook, "My Perfect Pantry," for this porridge reunion. Over the holidays, I made this version several times using gluten-free oats, which is what I had in my pantry--as opposed to the steel-cut oats the recipe calls for--and it was very good.

I also had the pleasure of enjoying the authentic version at The National, Zakarian's restaurant located at 52nd and Lexington at The Benjamin Hotel during a recent business trip to New York City and it was very, very good (and when I made his recipe at home using steel-cut oats as the recipe calls for, it was by far the best bowl of oatmeal I have ever had).

While you may be shaking your head and thinking, "Oatmeal is so boring." This oatmeal--or Ultimate Porridge as Zakarian has appropriately named it--is far from dull and can include whatever toasted nuts and dried fruits you choose. The restaurant's version was topped with toasted hazelnuts and dried cranberries and golden raisins and a drizzle of maple syrup and a splash of cream made it even richer and creamier. With each spoonful, my spirits lifted and filled my belly with warmth and fueled me well into the afternoon of a long business day.

The secret to this oatmeal? To start, the flavor of the cooking liquid is infused with orange peels, raw honey and a bit of ground ginger. And rather than simply dropping the steel-cut oats into the water and letting it cook, this version calls for milk, cream or a combination of water, milk and cream, and uses the risotto cooking approach.

Ladle by ladle, the steel cut oats bathe in the ambrosial liquid until it is fully absorbed. Little by little, more liquid is added until it becomes a rich porridge that is worthy of the name Ultimate Porridge.

Admittedly, this is not an everyday oatmeal recipe as it does take time and effort to ladle and stir, ladle and stir and ladle and stir some more until all of the liquid is willfully absorbed into each and every toothsome steel cut oat. On the bright side, the attention you will give this oatmeal will return the love to you ten-fold--bite after bite, sigh after sigh--and fill you with more energy than you can imagine.

Considering Zakarian's 30-year history learning in and leading some of the world's top kitchens (The Dorchestor in London, as well as Le Cirque, the legendary 21 Club, The Lamb's Club in Manhattan), I expected nothing less from him--but, honestly, I didn't expect the oatmeal to be this good.

The chef's deep appreciation for ingredients and process respectfully breathes new life into an old breakfast favorite which makes this adult grateful because, honestly, oatmeal desperately needed a makeover.

Buen provecho!
Ultimate Porridge
The Cowgirl Gourmet is forever indebted to Geoffrey Zakarian (of The National) and his new cookbook, "My Perfect Pantry" for this fabulous recipe that has been slightly adapted

Print recipe

Oatmeal is so 1985. Welcome to 2016, where this recipe will change everything you remember about boring old oatmeal. Using steel-cut oats instead of rolled oats is the first difference. Adding orange peels and ground ginger to the cooking liquid is the second difference. (I have added a teaspoon of cinnamon, too, which offers another layer of sweetness without added sugars--and I cut back on the honey to 2 tablespoons instead of 3.) The third difference is using a combination of water and milk, half and half or cream for the cooking liquid. And the final difference is that this porridge is prepared like risotto, which gives it such a creamy consistency. 

While it might require a bit more effort than that microwaved stuff in a cup or that processed version of oatmeal you can find at Starbucks, the results are far greater than anything you've ever had. And once you have this Ultimate Porridge, there is no going back to the bland, boring stuff of your childhood. 

Makes 4 servings

3 cups liquid--a combination of filtered water, milk and/or cream (I used one cup half and half and two cups water and it was ideal)
Zest of half an orange, removed with a vegetable peeler
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons raw honey, preferably local honey
Pinch of kosher salt
I cup steel-cut oats
1/3 cup dried fruit of choice (cherries, raisins, cranberries), plus more for serving
1/3 cup toasted nuts (hazelnuts, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, almonds), chopped, if needed
Maple syrup, for serving
Cream or milk, for serving

In a small saucepan, combine the liquids, along with the orange zest, ginger, cinnamon, honey and salt. Stir well to combine and bring to a simmer.
In another saucepan, place the oats and ladle in half of the warm milk. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat and cook until absorbed, stirring frequently, about 8 minutes.
Add the rest of the milk, a ladle at a time, waiting for it to be absorbed before adding any more liquid. Just as if you were making risotto, you will use the same technique with this porridge.
The entire process will take 20-30 minutes, depending on the steel-cut oats. When adding the last few ladles of the liquid, drop in the dried fruit so it has time to plump up and meld into the thick and creamy porridge. If you want a slightly soupier porridge, stir in another 1/4 cup or so of milk at the end.

Remove the orange zest and serve the porridge in bowls. Sprinkle with more dried fruit and toasted nuts, along with a drizzle of maple syrup and a splash of cream for the ultimate porridge.

Store any leftover porridge in the refrigerator. Add a little liquid to reheat and enjoy all over again.

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