Do you put sugar on your Cream of Wheat, or salt and pepper? What about on your oatmeal? Most of us fall in one category or the other, or sometimes both, depending on the grain in our breakfast bowl.
I’m a brown-sugar-on-oatmeal kind of gal, but on those cold winter mornings that called for porridge, my dad skipped the oatmeal and would eat Cream of Wheat with butter and salt.
That, in addition to the risotto I would eat closer to adulthood, introduced me to the idea of savory porridge. But it wasn’t until the past year or two that I started to notice that such a humble dish was making its way onto restaurant menus.
Polenta and grits have always been on the tables of both home cooks and chefs; now both are experimenting with using a wider variety of grains and cooking techniques to make an old dish new again.
Porridge — or, even less appealing, gruel — is one of the oldest dishes, actually. For the most part, porridge is any kind of grain or grain-like seed or starch simmered in liquid as served as soupy or dry as you’d like. It’s consumed all over the world.
Lawrence Eguakun, owner of Wasota African Cuisine at 1112 E. 11th St., grew up eating yam porridge because yams are a dominant crop in the part of Nigeria where he lived. In other parts of the country, he says, porridge was made with rice and millet because that’s what grew there. How you eat porridge “depends on where you come from,” he says, and the variety across a vast continent like Africa is staggering.
Congee, made with rice, is a popular porridge in many Asian countries, while corn-based porridges are celebrated in both Italian and Latin cultures. In other corners of the world, porridge is made with buckwheat, rye, barley, emmer, quinoa, millet, cracked wheat or oats, depending on what the farmers in the regions traditionally grow.
Nowadays, you can buy specialty grains on the Internet and explore the wide word of porridge in your own kitchen.
Kevin Fink, the chef and owner of Emmer & Rye at 51 Rainey St., named his restaurant after two of those grains, so it’s no surprise that he sometimes serves a savory porridge made with smoked oats and emmer berries, which are a type of farro.
Grains have a starchiness that creates a creamy porridge that satisfies without milk or cheese, although you certainly can add milk or cheese, as we typically do with grits and polenta.
“The binder of the entire dish is the cooking liquid that is cooked down,” Fink says. You can make a porridge with potatoes, but they tend to get pretty mushy the longer you cook them.
When you cook these kinds of grains with the goal of serving them light and fluffy, it’s a good practice to rinse them under water to remove that starch. But that’s not the right technique when making porridge, Fink says. You can toast the grains in a dry pan before adding liquid, which will bring out their nutty, earthy flavors.
Use the best broth or stock you can — and don’t cook the porridge on too-high heat. Simmering allows the grains to maintain their integrity more than a hard boil. Sometimes you want a contrast of textures, so you might cook half the grains one way and half another and then combine them, or you could use two different kinds of grains.
Fink points out that a savory porridge by itself isn’t as interesting as one served with complementary flavors, such as a braised meat, a pickled vegetable or a bright pesto.
That’s a pretty far cry from that brown sugar oatmeal that was my first introduction to porridge. Having tried to make savory steel cut oats that turned into a pasty mush, I can say that not all manifestations of this trend will suit all palates. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t exploration to be done.
Farro and Black Quinoa ‘Risotto’ With Pea-Shoot Pesto
Rather than requiring the cook to stir and stir and stir, this twist on risotto combines pesto with pre-cooked grains. You could substitute any cooked grains here, from buckwheat and barley to rice and millet. The recipe calls for making a pesto, which will leave some leftovers. You can store the pesto in the fridge in an airtight container; just drizzle a layer of oil on top before closing the container. For the pine nuts, toast them in a small, dry skillet over medium-low heat, shaking the pan frequently. The nuts will become fragrant and lightly brown. Cool before using.
1/2 cup lightly packed fresh mint leaves
1/2 cup lightly packed parsley leaves
1/2 cup lightly packed basil leaves
8 oz. fresh pea shoots (may substitute snap peas)
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 Tbsp. finely grated lemon zest and 2 tablespoons juice (from 1 lemon)
1/2 tsp. fine sea salt, plus more as needed
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
10 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
8 small cooked, peeled golden or chioggia beets, quartered
24 snow peas, thinly sliced
1 cup fresh English peas (may substitute frozen and defrosted peas)
4 cups cooked farro
2 cups cooked black quinoa
1/4 cup water, or more as needed
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Combine the mint, parsley, basil, pea shoots, one of the garlic cloves, the lemon zest and juice, the 1/2 teaspoon of salt, the pepper and toasted pine nuts in a food processor. Puree, and while the food processor is running, slowly pour in 8 tablespoons of the oil, processing until smooth. Taste, and add salt as needed. The yield is 2 cups; reserve half for another use.
Pour the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil into a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the remaining 2 garlic cloves; cover and cook until the garlic is tender, 2 minutes. Add the beets, snow peas and English peas and cook just until the peas start to become tender, a few minutes.
Stir in the farro, quinoa and water; cook, stirring, until heated through. Add the remaining cup of pesto, the butter and the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, stirring until creamy. If the risotto is too thick, stir in a few tablespoons of water at a time to loosen it. Taste, and add salt as needed.
Divide the risotto among wide, shallow bowls. Serve hot. Serves 6.
— Adapted from a recipe by Matt Kuhn, chef at Nopa Kitchen + Bar in Washington
Cracked-Wheat Porridge with Mushrooms and Turnip-Top Salsa
This vegetarian savory porridge relies on the umami of the roasted mushrooms, turnips and mushroom (or vegetable) stock paired with a zingy “salsa” made with the turnip tops. You could use any bitter leafy green for that salsa, including beet or carrot tops or arugula. You can buy cracked wheat in the baking aisle of many grocery stores, or wherever the cornmeal and gluten-free flours are found. Feel free to substitute other grains, but you might have to adjust the cooking time on the stove and amount of stock used.
For the porridge:
1 lb. hen of the woods (maitake) mushrooms, roughly chopped
1/2 lb. small white turnips with green tops (half quartered, half thinly sliced using a mandoline, and greens chopped for salsa)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, unpeeled
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
1 2/3 cups cracked wheat
1/3 cup white wine
7 cups mushroom or vegetable stock
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 cup grated Pecorino Romano
For the salsa:
2 tsp. red wine vinegar
1 1/2 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
1/4 tsp. crushed red chili flakes
1 large shallot, finely chopped
Kosher salt, to taste
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Make the porridge: Heat oven to 400 degrees. Toss mushrooms, quartered turnips, 1 tbsp. oil, garlic, salt and pepper on a baking sheet and roast until vegetables are golden and slightly crisp and garlic is tender, 25–30 minutes. Set mushrooms and turnips aside; peel garlic and mash into a paste.
Heat remaining oil in a 6-qt. Dutch oven over medium. Cook onion until golden, 6 to 8 minutes. Stir in cracked wheat and cook until slightly toasted, 2 to 3 minutes. Add wine and cook until reduced by half, about 1 minute. Add 1 cup stock and cook, stirring until absorbed, about 2 minutes. Continue adding stock, 1 cup at a time, and cooking until absorbed before adding more, until wheat is very tender and creamy, about 1 hour total. Meanwhile, melt butter in an 8-inch skillet over medium and cook until browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Stir butter, reserved garlic paste, Pecorino, salt and pepper into porridge and keep warm.
Make the salsa: Combine vinegar, half the thyme, chili flakes, shallot and salt in a bowl and let sit for 20 minutes. Stir in turnip greens, remaining thyme, and the parsley; whisk in oil.
Spoon porridge into shallow bowls and top with reserved roasted mushrooms and turnips. Garnish with sliced raw turnips and drizzle salsa over the top. Serves 6.
— From “Saveur: Soups & Stews” by the editors of Saveur magazine (Weldon Owen, $35)
Egg Curry Breakfast Bowl
This Indian-inspired bowl uses two teaspoons of curry powder and coconut milk, and although the title suggests that you’d eat it for breakfast, this would be a fine meal any time of day. Double the recipe if you’re planning on serving it as a dinner for four.
1/2 cup coconut milk
1 medium carrot, chopped
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh ginger
2 tsp. curry powder
1 tsp. packed light brown sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 (15-oz.) can diced tomatoes
1 1/2 cups cooked brown rice or other grain
4 large eggs, or 8 ounces soft tofu, cubed
2 scallions, sliced lengthwise (white and green parts)
Heat the oven to 400 degrees with the bottom rack positioned at the lowest level.
In a large nonstick skillet, heat the coconut milk and add the carrot, onion, and ginger. Stir over medium heat until the carrot is softened and the coconut milk is thick.
Stir in the curry powder, brown sugar, salt and tomatoes and mix well. Bring to a boil and stir in the rice.
Divide the rice among 4 ovenproof ramekins or bowls and make a depression in the center of each. Crack an egg into each depression (or add tofu). Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, to your desired level of doneness. (You may want a firmer yolk or a runny one; a runny yolk will act as a sauce.) Top with scallions and serve immediately. Serves 2 to 4.
— From “The Whole Grain Promise” by Robin Asbell (Running Press, $20)
Japanese Breakfast Bowl
This grain bowl isn’t exactly a porridge, but it’s a savory breakfast alternative to oatmeal or Cream of Wheat that can use up any kind of cooked grain you might have from last night’s dinner.
1 cup cooked quinoa, rice, or other grain
2 large eggs, whisked
1 tsp. soy sauce
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 scallion, sliced on a diagonal (white and green parts)
1/2 tsp. canola oil
1 cup watercress leaves or fresh baby spinach leaves
2 oz. lox or smoked salmon
1 or 2 pinches rehydrated wakame seaweed or sauerkraut (optional)
If using leftover grain, warm the cooked grain and set aside in a serving bowl.
In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs, soy sauce, sugar and scallion. Heat a small skillet over medium heat, then coat the pan with the canola oil. Pour in the egg mixture and scramble the eggs, using a spatula to scrape the cooked eggs and turn the mixture.
Top the grain in the bowl with the watercress and place the hot eggs on top, wilting the leaves slightly. Place the lox to one side of the bowl. Tuck a few spoonfuls of seaweed or kraut along the other side of the bowl, if desired, and serve. Serves 1.
— From “The Whole Grain Promise” by Robin Asbell (Running Press, $20)
Sampling some savory steel cut oats
Several companies are starting to pick up on the savory porridge trend, including Grainful, which specializes in savory steel cut oat side dishes and frozen meals. We tried a trio of the side dishes ($5.99 each) — jambalaya, Madras curry and cheesy oats — that you simmer on the stove.
After a disappointing start with the curried steel cut oats, the cheesy and jambalaya oats fared much better in our newsroom taste test. The spicy, smoky jambalaya needed some sauteed vegetables or meat to cut the heat and intensity of dried peppers and tomato powder used in the mix. The cheesy oats used a powdered cheese mix that you add after the steel cut oats have cooked for about 25 minutes. It has a distinct taste of boxed macaroni and cheese, but those of us who don’t mind that flavor enjoyed this polenta-like dish.
You can find these dried mixes and frozen meals at Central Texas H-E-B stores and online at grainful.com.
Coming Friday in Austin360
Matthew Odam reviews Rainey Street’s Emmer & Rye restaurant, which is named after heritage grains.