i stand at the cookstove, stirring. and stirring. and stirring.
five minutes, maybe seven, bent in prayer. for that’s what seems to happen every time i stand there, spoon in hand, circles upon circles lifeguarding the oats.
oats + water + salt.
that’s the equation. quite simple. all the rest is alchemy, and stirring. keeping the oat bits from crusting against the bottom of my little blue pot, my pot the color of mama robin’s eggs, my pot that made the trip long ago from merry old england, sacred stirring ground of porridge.
oats in the morning — oats done properly, i’ve found — unfurl the day in slow time. meditative time. if ever the cookstove becomes prayer altar it is at the dawn, when the house is only beginning its morning grunts and hisses and shivers and burps. when the kitchen is dark except for the flame of the burner, and the single bulb that casts its faint beam on my pot.
i didn’t used to stand at attention, not for so long a stir anyway. but then i went to londontown, and one chilly morning i found a plump pot of porridge standing sentry on a shelf at a cozy corner cafe. i admit to being charmed by the name — porridge (poetic, with a hint of the ancient, the celtic, perhaps; and as opposed to the more plebeian, american, oatmeal) — as much as the contents lumped inside.
but then i dipped in my spoon. and what i tasted was pure soothe. if food has the capacity to sandpaper the rough spots of our soul — and i believe it most certainly does — then that first spoonful of proper british porridge declared itself “necessary balm.” balm begging to begin the day, every day. or at least the ones when fortification is needed. when what lies ahead in the hours to come just might fell you, buckle your knees.
while swirling the velvety porridge there in my mouth, i noticed the words on the sweet paper pot in which the porridge was served. again, a call to attention.
here’s what i read:
WELL WORTH THE WAIT
porridge is a surprisingly tricky dish to perfect (it’s taken us years to get ours right). stirring is good. boiling is bad. slowly, slowly simmering is the key. you just can’t rush a good porridge. so we don’t.
it was cooking instruction as koan, as kenshu (buddhist notions, both; the former a puzzle prompting deeper enlightenment, the latter a way of seeing).
and it captured my attention, all right.
deliciousness was only part of it. if something so simple demands such attention, such practice, i wanted to get to the bottom of it. even if it meant scraping the golden-crisped bits off the bum of the pot.
i turned, logically, to the patron saints of porridgery. i turned to british cookery writers. and there, what i found — for a word girl, anyway — was as delicious as anything i’d slipped onto my tongue.
consider this fine instruction from f marian mcneill, author of the 1929 classic, The Scots Kitchen, who advises that the oats should be sprinkled over boiling water, “in a steady rain from the left hand, stirring it briskly the while with the right, sunwise.”
which prompted this, the sort of snappy retort you might only find tucked in the pages of the british press, where one felicity cloake (oh, such a byline!), food scribe for the guardian of london, put dear f marian in her place thusly:
“having tested this out, it seems to make no more sense than the idea that stirring them anti-clockwise will encourage the devil into your breakfast.”
mon dieu. it’s testy at the cookstove this morning.
snippy retort aside (or perhaps because of it) this miss felicity has stirred her way to the top of my oat-writer’s heap. read along, and i’m certain you’ll promptly agree:
“to even approach the foothills of perfection, you need to use a pan,” she wrote in arguing against the microwave as appliance of oats.
or this, weighing the intrinsic virtues of milk v. water (might we note that only the brits would get their britches all in a knot debating the ideal ratio of fluid to fluid):
“scottish traditionalists insist that porridge should contain nothing more than oats, water and salt, but such an attitude strikes me as depressingly dour: after all, if no one had ever experimented, then we’d still be eating pease pottage, morning, noon and night. full-fat milk makes a delicious, but queasily rich breakfast, but, even allowing for the time-honoured creamy moat of milk at the end, porridge made with water only has a puritan thinness of flavour. after a bit of juggling, i settle for a 1:2 ratio of milk to water.”
and finally, from the felicity file, there’s her instruction for how you might choose to finish off your bowl of oaty perfection:
“a girdle of very cold milk, or single cream on special occasions, is essential, (traditionally, it would be served in a separate bowl, to keep the oats hot and the milk cold), but a knob of butter, as suggested by readers, while melting attractively into the oats, proves too greasy for my taste.”
i might never stop stirring, so entranced am i by all this back-and-forthing across the pond on the fine points of porridge.
but one more morsel (or two) before i close the oat bin: it should come as no surprise that a lump of gruel that’s been synonymous with breakfast since the year 1000 anno domini might carry with it a millennia’s prescription and particulars. for instance, the scots saw fit to carve up an oat-stirring stick, one that goes by the name spurtle, and if you’re a proper porridge stirrer, you’ll have one lodged in your kitchen drawer. it’s practically guaranteed to keep your oats from going all lumpy.
and of course, the brits have dedicated porridge pots: the porringer, a shallow bowl, often pewter or silver, dates back to medieval times, and weaves through history, a specialty ware of paul revere, colonial banger of metals when not galloping at breakneck speeds, announcing the coming of pesky porridgey brits. nowadays, the porringer is apt to be a specially-developed double boiler, or bain-marie, preferred for keeping oats from sticking to the pot bottom. and as if that wasn’t plenty, it’s thought that the lower temperature under the oats (provided by double-decker cookpot) might boost the little darlings’ cholesterol-busting capabilities. so scurry along, and grab your porringer.
but before you dash: the tried-and-true road to proper porridge, for which i turn to no less than london cooking sensation, nigel slater, who instructs:
Traditionally made with water ( The Scots Kitchen – F Marian McNeill’s recently republished 1929 classic – recommends spring water), it is sometimes made with hot milk. Stirring is essential if the porridge is to be truly creamy. You need a handful of oatmeal to a breakfast cup of water and a pinch of salt. To quote from McNeill: “Bring the water to the boil and as soon as it reaches boiling point, add the oatmeal in a steady rain from the left hand, and stirring it briskly the while with the right, sunwise.” Add the salt after it has been cooking on a low heat for 10 minutes. Serve with sugar, cream or a little more salt.
If the salt is introduced too early, it can harden the oats. Porridge needs cooking for longer than you think if the starch is to be fully cooked. It should be served piping hot – try the old Scottish habit of spooning it into cold bowls and having a dish of cream or buttermilk handy to dip each spoonful in before you raise it to your lips.
Use both coarse and fine oatmeal to give texture. (The larger the oat, the earlier you need to add it.) Stir in blueberries or blueberry compote (150g blueberries, 2 tbsp sugar, a squeeze of lemon simmered for 10 minutes). Raspberry purée is another favourite addition, as is golden syrup and cream. I have been known to add a swirl of marmalade, too, but it might upset the horses.
and that, dear friends, is a proper porridge. creamy moats. knobs of butter. slow road to morning prayer. and all.
are you of the morning oats persuasion, and if so, have you discovered the zen of stirring and stirring and stirring your oats?
We were in DC, arrived home this morning, and while away I decided to make oatmeal today. Didn’t know all the healing values. How’s your brother/sister in law?
Andrea Lavin Solow
everyone is getting stronger by the day. i’ll have to find out if oats are in the equation. xoxox
My Ab Fab is Irish Flahavan’s oats for porridge. They are available a lot of places these days – I have even found them in Duane Reade drugstore in Manhattan. Creamy and delicious – Dwyers (we were dairy farmers after all) use milk, no water. I loved the description of the milk “moat and girdle”!
A lot of porridge happened here in VA from Friday through Tuesday when snowed in and shoveling!
And very zen on a snowy morning.
i am now on a quest for flahavan’s. didn’t see it in any of my mucking about, but i am now on the case……loved the moat and girdle, indeed.
glad you found bowls of zen amid your snow mountains….
and, p.s., truth be told, i can’t bear to make mine without milk. though one of the healthy porridges i saw in london made it with coconut water. and it was delicious. oh so healthy!!
I have recently been using the American Test Kitchen’s recipe . . . it made it to a recent TV episode. The night before, for one serving, I use 3/4 cup boiling water and add 1/4 cup steel cut oats (I use Trader Joe’s organic steel cut). Cover, take off heat, and let sit overnight.
In the morning, add 1/4 cup milk (I have to use skim, but it’s better w/ 1 or 2%). Bring to simmer, and simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. After 10 minutes, remove from heat, cover, and let sit 5 minutes. Add favorite toppings, add a bit more milk or half and half and enjoy!
YUM! i did read quite a bit about night before soaking. so many oat roads to amble….
Now having lived in Ireland for twelve years I know of what I speak…yes to the Flavahans, who are friends from our Waterford home. If you want to read lots and lots of info about oatmeal porridge google Ballymaloe House, Myrtle Allen, and Darina Allen. You probably know all about them, but if not I will introduce you to the most influential cooks in Ireland.
oh, yes, yes, i have notes galore from ballymaloe and darina allen, including their ruling, after much debate, that the ratio of oats to water/milk at 1:3 is deemed best.
and as long as we’re citing the porridge pros, there’s this from jeff bland, executive chef at edinburgh’s balmoral hotel, who claims that “one of the most important things is once the porridge is cooked, to turn off the hob, put a lid on it, and just let it sit there for 10-15 minutes”. (or simply for five, if making porridge for one).
i’ve been finding the restive five minutes is especially heavenly. especially when i lift the lid and get hit in the face with a steamy blast. i think that’s when the most oaty magic is happening, there under the steamy lid…..
are you living in ireland NOW? because if you are, don’t be surprised if you soon hear a rap at the door……
How especially informative and lively when the conversation at the table turns to FOOD! Better yet, simple food that warms you to the core, with all you need to know to make it. Spurtles, believe it or not, are a-plenty on Etsy, hand-turned and with all manner of pedigree. And organic Flahavans porridge oats are available online if not at your favorite grocer’s. (For all the hours it steals from us, that darned Internet can be pretty handy.)
But bam, what is the whole history of your sweet robin’s egg blue porridge pot? I’m intrigued!
oh, honey, leave it to you to spot the pot! i LOVE that little pot. it’s my heart-skipping pot every time i reach for it. i seem to have a fondness for enamelware. and this pot, from Riess, of deutschland, actually, is a wonder. i call it my porridge pot, and that’s pretty much all i like to use it for. i must say i wince (but don’t tell) when i see my boys dump a can of, say, cincinnati chili in it. first, there’s the color. it’s the only thing in pot cabinet that’s that avian shade. it feels velvety in the hand. and it’s serious. it gets the job done, with no folderol. sadly, it’s no longer available, which makes the one i have all the more cherished.
since my architectural wonder hates shopping in any form, i had little to none of it in london. but that only whetted my appetite. i’d seen a red enamelware mug in a shop window, and don’t you know i ordered up a pair the very minute i’d shaken off my jet lag. so this trip, the only enamelware i acquired was the pair of coffee mugs. the pot has been in my keeping for a few years. i originally found it on food 52, those purveyors of very fine kitchen wares.
i love that spurtles of varying pedigree are abundant on etsy. i might have to let my fingers do a little more walking, down the spurtle and the oats aisle…..xoxoxo
You are a wonderfully bad influence: I immediately checked out Food 52, then googled Riess, of Austria actually, the town of. Ybbsitz, to be specific, which had me wondering how close it was to Lunz am See, which is bisected by the river Ybb, and where the Furnwegers have lived by some variation of the name for at least 400 years. In fact, they still live on a lane called Hammersweg, or Hanmer Way or Path. The 400-year-old house my grandfather was born in is called Hammerhaus. It was originally a forge, and it backs up to said Ybb River. It turns out Lunz and Ybbsitz are 34 minutes away from each other by car. Crazy small world. (And slow Friday afternoon.) What a world tour that little egg-hued pot launched, from England to Scotland to Austria and back. Thanks, bam! You inspire in so many ways.
i should have double-checked the provence of my pot before blithely typing deutschland. it’s been so long since i procured, i forgot. and i stand corrected. and CHARMED, by your winding and wonderful word tour of Lunz am See. does that mean Lunz by the sea? (how’s that for austreio-anglish? love your story. maybe we should trek to the Riess factory……bless you and your infinite charms…..
p.s. i just peeked at the pot bottom. right there in faint gray letters: MADE IN AUSTRIA. i oughta look at my pot bottoms more often. xoxo
Lunz by a cold, deep alpine lake. xoxoxo
There is an art to cooking porridge… and there is an art to life… I do believe you’ve mastered both. ❤ xoxo
you sweet angel. i don’t believe i’ve mastered either, but i keep stirring….xoxox
Late in the week to the conversation, but intrigued as oats float my boats during the winter. I used to boil and toil but now, every Sunday night, take my McCann’s steel cut oats and dump that cup into my Zojiurushi rice cooker, add 4 cups of cold water, set it on porridge setting, and walk away. All the while the steam sends that lovely slow cooked oat earth smell into the universe. When it is done I can stand to attention or let it sit and stay warm. I line up my squat Mason jars and line them with chopped apple/nuts/cinnamon/teaspoon of for-real maple syrup and then parse out the creamy oatmeal into the five jars. Tops tightly screwed, they are popped into the refrigerator. Monday through Friday I grab a jar and head to work. Microwave 3 minutes…rest, sigh. East meets West in the most delightful way. Love that the table has provided history and pathways to a wonderful comfort food.
you had me at the soldier line of squat mason jars. oh my. i LOVE the picture of all of them standing quietly, politely, awaiting their fill. it’s the most adorable make-ahead equation i’ve ever heard. i LOVE it. you’re a genius. but we knew that a long long time ago. xoxoxoxo