Porridge doesn't get a lot of love and respect. It's the fairy tale stuff of Goldilocks, or the pauper gruel of Oliver Twist. But really, porridge can be a beautiful thing, especially during the cold slog of winter. It's a comforting way to start the morning, a nice warm hug of a breakfast. And, dare I say, it actually can be kind of exciting.
Some background: Most of us are familiar with a hot bowl of oatmeal, whether the usual flakes of rolled oats, or their delightfully nubby steel-cut cousins. A pat of butter, a pour of cream and maybe a sprinkling of brown sugar. Every now and then we'll try a seven-grain option. Cream of wheat and cream of rice, sadly, are usually abandoned once we've graduated from primary school. There is, however, much, much more.
By definition, porridge is any sort of cereal grain, cooked until nice and soupy. And when we say any sort of grain, we mean all of them. Sure, there are oats, and rice cereals. But anything can become porridge: buckwheat, amaranth, millet, spelt, teff, barley, quinoa. Grains can be cracked if they're large and hard, or just simmered up whole. It's a great way to introduce yourself to new ingredients, playing around with whatever you may find in the bulk bins of your local grocery store. As a bonus, you don't need to worry about overcooking an unfamiliar purchase — simmering unto mush is sort of the point of porridge. To cut down on your cooking time, you even can toss ingredients in the pot to soak and swell overnight, letting you enjoy the healthy heft of whole grains without spending too much time in front of the stove.
If the wide world of alternative porridge is not as exciting to everyone as it is to me, start with incremental changes. Simmer grains with a bit of cream instead of water, or, if you're feeling particularly luxurious, some coconut milk. Grate in a carrot or two, add a sprinkling of healthy flax seeds, or swirl in a few spoonfuls of leftover pumpkin puree or almond butter. A handful of raisins, currants or other dried fruit, coarsely chopped, will rehydrate along with the porridge, adding a subtle sweetness. A pinch of cinnamon or cardamom adds a nice bit of flavor, or try curry powder or white pepper for a savory breakfast.
The options for personalizing your porridge continue, even after it's out of the pot and into your breakfast bowl. Loosen things up with a bit of milk or cream, or a pat of butter. Boost the fiber with a sprinkling of wheat germ, and sweeten things up with a drizzle of maple syrup or sprinkling of brown sugar. Pretty much any fruit makes an easy match — fresh or frozen blueberries or some diced crisp apple. If you want more crunch, grab a handful of whichever nuts or seeds you have in the pantry — sesame, sunflower, cashews, almonds.
Maybe porridge doesn't quite have the flash of a fresh stack of pancakes or the punch of huevos rancheros. But it's not just a delicious and healthful way to start the day. It's a blank canvas for your imagination. Make it a tropical-scented, mango-topped indulgence, or a creamy polenta bed for your poached egg. There are limitless options with which to start any winter day.
Recipe: Tropical Amaranth Porridge With Coconut Milk, Mango And Ginger
The tiny grains of amaranth — not much bigger than poppy seeds — cook up to a delicious porridge full of essential amino acids. Coconut milk gives it a luscious creaminess, topped with juicy fresh mango.
Makes 2 servings
1 cup coconut milk, plus more for drizzling on top
1 cup water
3/4 cup amaranth
2 1-inch pieces crystallized ginger, minced
1 mango, peeled cut into cubes
Zest from 1/2 lime
1 to 2 tablespoons brown sugar or sweetened condensed milk
In a saucepan, bring coconut milk, water and salt to a boil, then stir in amaranth and ginger. Reduce heat until it just maintains a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has been absorbed and the amaranth has swelled and softened, about 20 minutes. (Add more water if the mixture thickens before the amaranth has fully cooked.)
When the porridge is ready, divide it into 2 bowls. Top with a drizzle of coconut milk, the mango, lime zest and brown sugar or condensed milk to taste.
Recipe: Saffron-Scented Millet Porridge
Millet is generally thought of pretty much as bird food. But cooked until fluffy, it can make a nice side dish. And cooked until soupy, it's porridge. Carrots and cashews are cooked with the porridge, along with a pinch of saffron and cardamom that scent it like an Indian pudding.
Makes 2 servings
2 cups milk
1/4 cup cashews
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 cup millet
1 carrot, peeled and shredded on the coarse holes of a grater
1 to 2 tablespoons brown sugar
Handful additional cashews or pistachios
Bring milk, cashews, saffron, salt and cardamom to a boil in a saucepan, then stir in the millet and grated carrot. Reduce heat until it just maintains a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has absorbed and the millet has swelled and softened, about 40 minutes. (Add more water if the mixture thickens before the millet has fully cooked).
When the porridge is ready, divide it into 2 bowls. Top with the additional nuts, if desired, and brown sugar to taste.
Recipe: Savory Polenta Porridge With Poached Egg
Italian polenta usually shows up at the dinner table, but it's a perfect backdrop for breakfast. You can top with blueberries and cream for a sweet option, or a poached egg for savory.
Makes 2 servings
2 to 3 cups water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup polenta
1 to 2 pats butter
2 large eggs
1/2 avocado, peeled and sliced
Hot sauce, to taste
Bring 2 cups water and salt to a boil. Add the polenta, whisking or stirring to prevent lumps, and reduce heat until it's just high enough to maintain a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has been absorbed and the polenta has become smooth and creamy, about 35 minutes, adding more water as needed.
When the polenta is almost done, heat a pot of water and poach the eggs (or pan-fry if you prefer). Stir the butter into the polenta, divide between 2 bowls and top with a poached egg, half the avocado and a few shakes of hot sauce. Season with salt and pepper.
Recipe: Sunflower Apple Oat Bran Porridge
Simmering a pot of steel-cut oats can take a good long while. But fiber-rich oat bran cooks up into a surprisingly tasty porridge in just minutes. Oat bran porridge is smooth and creamy, perfect for accenting with a crisp apple and crunchy seeds.
Makes 2 servings
2 cups water
3/4 cup oat bran
1 crisp apple, chopped
A few pinches cinnamon
2 handfuls sunflower seeds (or other seeds/nuts of your choice)
2 to 4 teaspoons honey
In a saucepan, bring the water and salt to a boil, then stir in the oat bran. Reduce heat until it's just high enough to maintain a simmer, and cook until the liquid is absorbed and the oat bran is soft, about 3 to 5 minutes. Divide into 2 bowls, and top with apples, cinnamon, sunflower seeds and honey to taste.
About The Author
Deena Prichep is a Portland, Ore.-based freelance print and radio journalist. Her stories have appeared on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace, The Splendid Table, Voice of America and The World, and in Bon Appetit, The Oregonian, Vegetarian Times and Portland Monthly. She chronicles her cooking experiments at Mostly Foodstuffs.
Copyright 2013 NPR.