Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Oatmeal: Now it tastes as good as it looks

For years I’ve had a love / hate relationship with oatmeal. That’s right, we’re talking gruel – lumpy and bland, the oh-so retro breakfast of champions.

Mostly I start yearning for the glop when the Land of Cotton turns chilly. On dark mornings when a drizzly mist hangs heavily over the world and the temperature calls out for a sweater, the thought of having something warm in my belly seems oddly appealing.

The problem is that I’ve never been able to master the art of making Oatmeal. I know, preparing the stuff isn’t exactly rocket science. It only involves two ingredients and a bit of heat. Alas, my efforts invariably end up having the consistency of mortar and the taste of something you might find on the bottom of your shoe.

One of the problems, I think, is I’ve been doing all my culinary experimentation with instant oatmeal. Just rip open the packet, add water and bring it all to a simmer for a moment. Voila, concrete! Once or twice I purchased the real stuff, 24 ounces of oaty goodness in one of those ubiquitous round containers. No matter. The packaging was splendid but the finished product remained thickish and bland.

I mention all this now because I think I’ve figured out how to creatively pull together oats, water and heat into a creamy and tasty concoction that manages to both fill the tummy and warm the spirit. I stumbled onto the secret while cruising along the Inside Passage of Alaska earlier this summer.

While working my way through the breakfast buffet – eggs, potatoes and corned beef hash; bacon, sausage and cold cuts; sautéed mushrooms, baked beans, blueberry compote and whipped cream; lox, bagels, capers and cream cheese; fried rice and stir fried veggies, grilled tomatoes and zucchini; pancakes, waffles and crepes; assorted cheeses, yogurt, breads, muffins and pastries – I stumbled onto something special.

Buried amongst all the cholesterol, grease and carbs was a serving table filled will hot cereals – grits, cream of wheat and oatmeal. There was also a container nearby filled with simmering milk and a row of toppings – raisins, brown sugar and cinnamon, dried figs, prunes, dates and apricots.

The oatmeal was just this side of soupy; creamy, smooth and tasty. I found adding just an ounce or two of milk, some raisins, brown sugar and cinnamon created a luscious and sweet mixture that was warm and yummy. But could I duplicate this magic back home?

I wasn’t taking any chances. I tracked down the chef who was responsible for preparing breakfast each morning on the ship and asked his advice. He spoke little English, I spoke even less Spanish. With a bit of help from a waiter who spoke a little of both, I figured out the chef cooked up about 50 pounds of oatmeal each morning in huge vats filled with gallons of water.

Realizing it was going to be tough to downsize the chef’s recipe for hundreds and shaking my head in confusion, a nearby busboy from Jersey came to my rescue. His sage advice? If the stuff is too thick, he said, add more water; if it’s too thin, add more oats! Ah, right!

And that’s pretty much what I’ve done. I also made the strategic decision to actually buy a decent product – McCann’s “Steel Cut” Irish Oatmeal. I also finally realized that oatmeal really is gruel – sort of plain and tasteless. Just like the busboy suggested, adding a little liquid at the right moment is the secret to creating a smooth and pleasant base. Then add toppings to taste. Sweet!

I’ve been making oatmeal several times a week for the last month or so. I’m delighted to report that I’ve mastered the art of preparing tasty gruel.

Now, if I could only figure out a way to skip over the rest of summer and leap directly into fall – a pleasant drizzly morning; cool, damp and dark. Guess I’ll just crank up the AC instead and go stand under a cold shower for a few minutes before preparing breakfast.

Up next: Boiling the perfect weiner!

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