Eight days a week: savory oatmeal
Image by kc kratt
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Savory oatmeal sits comfortably somewhere near the center of a Venn diagram illustrating all the dominant culinary trends of the last decade.
The forward momentum of the culinary world’s New Nordic movement focuses on earthy whole grains (barley, rye, millet, sorghum, etc.). At its epicenter, Copenhagen—a city increasingly known for its ability to tempt the the world’s dining elite to dinner—boasts what might be the only restaurant in the world exclusively dedicated to porridge. Grød’s popularity is due, no doubt, to the creative recontextualization of all cereal grains, including both sweet and savory varieties of oatmeal. This has spurred enough interest among Scandinavian epicures that Denmark now hosts its own regional qualifier for the highest honor in World Porridge Making, an annual competition held in the Scottish Highlands where the prize is the highly coveted Golden Spurtle.
Myriad traditional broken rice dishes (congee, juk, okayu, jook, etc.)—ubiquitous and wildly popular in every subset of Asian culture—have also risen in the wake of this trend, evinced most often by the ever-growing Momofuku/Milk Bar empire. Then there’s the postmodern, mind-bending genius of Heston Blumenthal whose UK restaurants include The Fat Duck and Dinner. His signature dish is a savory snail porridge.
While savory oatmeal might be the ultimate example of an on-trend dish in 2015, it’s really nothing more than a modern reinterpretation of long-held, ancient culinary practices with culinary roots that extend far back into the fossil record, before there was any written account of what we ate or how we ate it.
For our Neolithic forbearers, foraging wasn’t a matter of fashion, and the notion of eating local was the very crux of survival, extending to whatever limited reach our pre-agrarian hunter-gatherer ancestors may have had. Certainly, climate and the specific resources of a geographical area determined where cereal grasses were most abundantly found, so it’s a reasonable assumption that whatever the earliest version of everyone’s favorite apple-cinnamon flavored breakfast staple might have been, it was a humble dish. In the temperate northern regions of the world, cereal was most likely seasoned with little more than blood and crude fats such as suet, as this was long before sugarcane, maple syrup, or honey were cultivated or available with any regularity.
In the mid-to-late nineteenth century, when porridge made its way into mass production, it was with a product widely decried as food for horses, and marketed to the poor (lexicographer and apparent jerk Samuel Johnson famously defined oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”). This was before its many health benefits became evident—whole cereals are rich in soluble fiber, high in protein and vitamin B, and low in unhealthy fat (though many modern day packaged cereals are also hyper-processed and very high in refined sugar, preservatives, and additives).
Given its long, varied history, oatmeal can and has been used in every application imaginable. It’s been employed as a binder in blood sausages (like white and black pudding); as coating for cheese; as filler in stuffing (most infamously the Scottish delicacies of haggis and skirlie); in alcohol (like stouts and porters); as the base grain for artisanal whiskey; and in cakes, cookies, pies, and bread. (It also features in inedibles, such as skin care products and deodorizers.) But aside from its roots as caveman gruel, feed for livestock, and a nutritional power move, cooking with oatmeal as a savory starch instead of the familiar, cloying breakfast goop is nothing short of a revelation.
Oatmeal has the foundational properties and textural similarity of more familiar starches, such as pasta or rice. When properly prepared, oatmeal works effortlessly with anything from rich, braised meat to fresh, seasonal vegetables, and enhances nearly any dish featuring eggs. As a base ingredient, oatmeal should encourage its cook to experiment with texture and flavor, since any dish requires the addition of definition to brighten oatmeal’s uniform softness. Additionally, consider that rolled oats are the main ingredient in granola, which can also be made savory to great effect and used as a crunchy counterpoint to soups and stews—or maybe even soft, warm oatmeal if you’re feeling especially adventurous.
From a presentation standpoint, oatmeal is completely neutral, even dull, necessitating the creative and liberal embellishment of colorful leaves, herbs, and flowers. It’s naturally gluten-free and, for the converted, encourages a consumer’s interest and involvement with small millers producing an heirloom product through a multitude of different methods used for roasting and processing dehusked oat-grain, or groats. This can lead to a better, more wholesome, and more delicious oaty beginning to your recipe than you would typically find on the shelves of a neighborhood grocery store.
Oatmeal can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; it’s inexpensive, healthy, filling, as well as easier to prepare and more forgiving than risotto. For an in-the-know gourmand, it’s the perfect way to impress people with your culinary acumen, or to pull together a passable dish for yourself late at night when you’ve forgotten to go grocery shopping. (There’s probably a container of oatmeal lurking in the lonely, back corner of every kitchen cupboard in America.)
Like all great starch preparations, savory oatmeal promotes a confluence of styles and traditions, so having a solid master recipe under your belt is the easiest way to start experimenting and crafting something unique. If you’re intimidated, or have limited experience cowboying a recipe, the best starting point might be simply treating oatmeal like you would a more familiar base ingredient like arborio rice or cornmeal—simply season and garnish it as you would risotto Milanese with saffron and parmesan, or fold sharp cheddar and monterey jack into your finished porridge to approximate classic Southern cheese grits. Feel free to adjust your liquid-to-oat ratio—depending on how you prefer standard breakfast oatmeal—and, as with any recipe, use the best quality ingredients you can afford for optimal results. The goal here is to be able to taste the oats through whatever additional ingredients you add. Get as fancy as you’d like! What about a poached egg with radishes and thinly shaved mullet bottarga? Or simply cover your newfound favorite snack with butter, hot sauce, and soy and call it a day. All recipes here serve four as a side dish or two as a main dish; have fun!
Find recipes for Dan's savory oatmeal on the following pages!