In Praise of Porridge…

This might seem an odd topic for a summer post, but since deciding a few weeks ago to reduce my intake of bread and other gluten-heavy substances, I have been starting each day with a bowl of delicious (and gluten-free) porridge–or as we like to call it here, a big bowl of health.

Now, writing about porridge may seem an unnecessary venture as folks like Mark Bittman (for one, with his vegan-until-six strategy for optimal health and greater sustainability), and his faithful followers, have long preached the benefits of eating one’s daily gruel, expounding on the plethora of available grains, both glutinous and gluten-free, and the manifold approaches one might take toward their preparation.

Before Bittman, there were mothers and grandmothers who served up oatmeal and Cream of Wheat and Red River with milk and, at least when mom was looking the other way, copious amounts of brown sugar. And later, in university, a host of instant hot cereals that could be easily made with a spoon and a mug of hot water. Though I found these cereals for the most part revolting, they did make excellent companions on hiking and camping trips, and could satisfy the appetite and its cravings when there was little money in the bank and seemingly nothing in the pantry.

For me, however, what has made this last month of porridge consumption feel like something worth writing about is the discovery of what might be called a summer porridge, and the abundant pleasures associated with its preparation. In fact, there is something quite meditative about the process, and this is perhaps one of the things I like most about it. Instead of shoving some toast into my mouth while sitting at the computer or walking to the metro, or not eating anything at all–my heretofore range of possible breakfast activities–I am required to wait patiently near the stove for 10-15 minutes, gently stirring.

Sure, the same kind of attention can be given to the folding of an omelette or the boiling of an egg, but as I prefer to eat this most perfect of foods for lunch or supper, my morning meal has long been of the toast with cheese and jam variety. And because in all aspects of my life I am striving for a greater sense of calm, this two-minute breakfast leaves me feeling both spiritually and physically wanting.

It may sound hokey, but its true.

And so to porridge. When I moved out of the house at 19, I stopped eating porridge altogether, thinking it too old-fashioned and uncool. In fact, for most of my 20s and 30s, I did not eat breakfast at all, save the occasional tub of yoghurt, which a fellow student told me was scientifically-proven to increase memory and therefore aid in the writing of exams. Eating breakfast just made me hungry, and because I was rarely organized enough to make myself lunch and could not be bothered to go out and hunt something down, hunger was something I wanted to avoid. When my husband got wind of this a few years ago–I was often off to work before he rose–he took it upon himself to improve my habits. That this agenda coincided with a shift to working later in the day made it easier for him to put his plan into effect, yet though I have long enjoyed the pleasures of a leisurely weekend brunch, the eating of breakfast remained something of an obligation.

But things have changed.

My favorite breakfast treat, both to eat and prepare, is a bastardized version of a recipe I found in Mangoes and Curry Leaves by Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford.

The pleasures begin at the market, especially now, with the abundance of peaches, plums and fresh berries available (in the winter, mangoes and frozen berries will suffice). In addition to fruit, I also pick up as many different kinds of nuts as I can afford and find that pecans and cashews are especially good.

Duguid and Alford make a semolina porridge, which can be eaten with both sweet and savory accompaniments, but since my goal is to eat less gluten, I have been using a mix of corn meal, sorghum and buckwheat called Mighty Tasty Hot Cereal.

Then you need some plain yoghurt, a sweetener of some kind, a stash of limes, some sesame oil, and a few spices: ground ginger, red chillies and mustard seed.

The preparation is a breeze.

Heat a little sesame or vegetable oil in a pan with a lid. Warm gently and add your three spices–about a 1/2 teaspoon of each if you are making breakfast for two. Let them sizzle a bit and become fragrant and then dump in a cup of water and bring it to a boil. When the water boils, add a pinch of salt and 1/3 cup of the cereal, and stir to break down the lumps.

Put the lid on, lower the heat, and let it simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. If you want to add dried fruit such as raisins or apricots, do so around minute 8. And if it becomes too dry at any point, simply add a little more water and stir it in.

When the porridge is done, ladle into bowls and top with the fresh fruit and nuts that you have chosen to eat. Place a dollop or two of yoghurt on top, drizzle with honey or maple syrup, and if desired and in stock, a little coconut. To finish, squeeze a wedge of lime over top.

Though I have yet to get tired of this, I have also been eating an array of other grains: oatmeal with cardamom, raisins and soy milk; millet cooked in home-made almond milk with nuts and fruit, and just a few hours ago, quinoa with yoghurt, mango-peach salsa, and fresh berries. Even on the hottest day of last week’s heat wave, we had porridge. Because what you want more that anything on a day like that is to feel good inside, and I can think of no better food to bring about that goal than summer porridge.

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