Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Culinary Meditations, One: Slow Oatmeal

I have always been interested in good, basic peasant food, so as I work harder to prevent further health-related crises, I've been thinking long and hard about more deliberate eating.

People seem more and more inclined to either obsess about food or to simply eat what's cheap or handy. Neither extreme requires thinking through what we eat, or considering what it all means. But since food is one of the few real basic needs (along with clothing and shelter), it's a significant part of what I go on and on about on Owl's Farm: the education of desire.

Seeking to educate my taste buds, I've embarked on a small program to spend time each week cooking and thinking. This morning I wanted something warm and filling to eat, so I decided to make some oatmeal. Sometime last year I found out that instant oatmeal is next to useless as a source of soluble fiber--the kind that helps regulate blood sugar, lower cholesterol, and provide other good things to one's body. After that I bought steel-cut Irish oats, cooked them up in fairly large quantities, and kept them in the fridge to nuke for breakfast. But not long ago, in one of my more nostalgic moods, I picked up some organically grown rolled oats, and these are what I retrieved from the pantry this morning.

In an effort to keep the weevils at bay, I had removed the oats from their package and put them in an air-tight container, but forgot to put the cooking instructions in with them. Since I don't have much of a memory for quantities and proportions, I went to my old copy of The Joy of Cooking to look up oatmeal and found that Rombauer had left oatmeal out of her instructions for cereal grains. But I used her quantities for course grains as a starting point, and began with four cups of water and a cup and a half of oats.

I got the water boiling while I poured a cup of coffee, and added a few grinds of sea salt (probably no more than a quarter teaspoon). When the water hit a rolling boil, I started slowly pouring in the oats, and watched them perform their acrobatic roll around the pot. I held the last half cup back for a few moments, thinking that perhaps these would be a little less "done" in the end, and add some crunch.

Once you get the oats all boiling together, you have to keep stirring them so they don't stick and/or boil over--but you also have to lower the heat a bit.

I kept stirring for about ten more minutes, turned off the heat, and left the gruel to sit. It was still a bit watery, but I was pretty sure that the remaining moisture would be absorbed if I left it alone long enough to read the funnies and enjoy the rest of my coffee.

The living room, where I read the paper in my comfy chair, is three rooms away from the kitchen, but the aroma of warm oats reached me within a couple of minutes, mingling with the coffee and sending me back to my home town, and winter mornings around my grandmother's kitchen table.

When I returned to the pot, the oats were ready to eat, so I ladled some into a bowl, put a dollop of olive oil/butter spread in the center, drizzled it all with about a teaspoon full of ginger syrup, and added a handful of blueberries.

I sat down and stirred the melting butter into the oats with the ginger and blueberries. I'm pretty sure I've never tasted oatmeal quite as good as this. Whether the brand of oats was particularly well-milled, or whether my method made them better, or whether just paying attention made the difference, they were quite simply the best I've ever had. The flavor was subtly oaty, there was indeed a bit of crunch, and the tiny bit of salt was all it needed to round out the flavor. I got a serving of fruit from the blueberries, and a smidgen of fat from the teaspoon of butter.

At a time in my life when my senses seem to be either dwindling or getting lazy, it was an enormous pleasure to enjoy something so simple so much.

I look forward to the next experiment, in hopes that this marks a way to invigorate my experience of the world. It's far too easy to get lost in the rigors of teaching, grading, and administrating, especially in winter when it's difficult to occupy oneself in the garden. Small pleasures seem to reap large rewards when approached thoughtfully--something that seems far too easy to forget, even when one has teetered on the brink of existence all too recently.