It’s a sad reality, but oatmeal is not a photogenic food. Have a look.
Unphotogenic when cooking
I suppose you can’t expect much beauty from a food that is often referred to as “nature’s broom.”
Unphotogenic when cooked
"Food styling" doesn't really help
The thing is, it hardly matters. Oatmeal is the superlative breakfast food. It’s unbelievably good for you and it tastes…well, the way I make it, it tastes like an oatmeal cookie with cranberries and pecans thrown in for fun and fiber.
Not a bad way to start the day.
The key for me is to cook it for a very short amount of time–seconds, really. Basically, I just toss the uncooked oatmeal around in the boiling water. You can’t really tell from these pictures, but the flakes here are mostly intact.
I grew up in an “oatmeal household.” Both of my parents ate oatmeal regularly, especially when the weather turned cool, and they encouraged my brother and me to eat it too. There was never any chance of that. To me, oatmeal was the kind of food that was served in orphanages and mental asylums, the kind of food that a person with any say in the matter would refuse to touch. No amount of butter and brown sugar could compensate for that oatmeal’s most salient quality–its unrelenting mushiness. I was never able to stomach it.
Until, that is, I learned that oatmeal need not resemble flavorless paste. Of course, I had to leave home for that to happen.
Inevitably, a recurrent theme in this blog will be stories of how I have come to terms with the food traumas of my youth. What do I mean by “food trauma?” We all suffer from food traumas; some of us have lists of them. These aren’t exactly food aversions, although they can be. Specifically, food traumas are negative memories of those foods that your parents regularly served or prepared so badly that, decades later, you still cringe to think about them.
It seems to me that an especially large percentage of my generation suffers from food traumas because when so many of our mothers entered the workforce in the early 70s, a lot of them bought into the idea of processed convenience foods in big ways. Foods that saved time and energy were good, regardless of how they tasted. Remember Swanson T.V. dinners? The ones in the divided metal containers that you heated up in the oven? The rubbery fried chicken? The plastic mashed potatoes? The greyish lump of green beans? The mysterious fruit cobbler? They took an hour to cook, but the oven did all the work, and that qualified them as good food. Oh, heavens… My generation was on the frontlines of an American culinary revolution, and we have the scars to prove it.
These scars are mostly mental.
I look at the oatmeal situation now and can clearly see what the problem was. Their oatmeal was insanely mushy because my parents bought “instant” oatmeal. They did this because, as a modern couple, they reasonably believed that anything”instant” was better than anything “old-fashioned.” And they weren’t alone. Many of us were traumatized as a result of this kind of thinking.
But sometimes food traumas can be squarely faced. My oatmeal barely resembles the stuff my parents ate. I use “old-fashioned” oats, not the instant stuff that looks more like oat dust than oatmeal. I also cook it on the stove, not the microwave. I add crunchy and chewy things for textural variety and spice for–if you can imagine– flavor.
Here’s a quick recipe for two servings, one adult-sized and one toddler-sized. This oatmeal isn’t pretty, but it does taste good, in a solid, old-fashioned kind of way.
1/3 cup water
1/4 cup chopped nuts (I use pecans)
1/4 cup dried cranberries or other dried fruit
8-9 tablespoons old fashioned oats
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
A pinch of salt*
Milk or turbinado sugar to finish
In a serving bowl, combine oats, cranberries, pecans, and cinnamon. In a small saucepan, bring water to a boil. As soon as the water is boiling gently, drop in the vanilla and pinch of salt (if using) and then immediately add oat mixture. Stir very gently. You’re just trying to wet the oats. Heat oatmeal through for about 30 seconds; you may need to add a splash of water. Remove from heat. Pour cooked oatmeal into waiting bowls. I add milk to my daughter’s oatmeal; my own gets a sprinkle of about a 1/2 teaspoon’s worth of turbinado sugar. Serve immediately.
*The salt is a matter of some debate in my household. My husband maintains that the salt contributes to the flavor of the oatmeal. It certainly does, but the pinch of salt also makes the oatmeal just a tiny bit mushy, which is why I do not add it. Given my history,who would blame me?
For the past two months, my daughter Mimi and I have made pizza for dinner every Friday night. It’s a new tradition, one that we provisionally refer to as “Friday Night Pizza.”
Pizza is an ideal food to make with small children. Save the dough, sauce, and baking, pizza-making is almost pure assembly. There’s not a lot of knife-work either; I cut up the ingredients in advance and pile them onto a plate for Mimi. This approach is not only safe, it also allows for plenty of snacking, which is all part of the fun.
I’d like to say that Friday Night Pizza has been successful from the start, but I can’t; we’ve eaten a lot of bad pizza. It’s my fault, not Mimi’s. I wanted a rustic kind of pizza with a thin, flavorful crust and simple toppings. Easier said than done. The toppings have been fine–especially one early favorite of hot capicola and smoked mozzarella–but the crusts have been consistently bad. I’ve tried to blame the unbelievably humid weather, but the truth is that I’m just not comfortable with dough-making. The finished pizza crusts have definately reflected my dough discomfort. They have have been overworked, tasteless, salty, or just insipid. Last night, however, we had a breakthrough. And here’s the proof.
Nearly perfect pizza. The solution was to use the dough cycle of the bread machine. The toppings were simple–almost incidental to the finished product–just pepperoni and fresh mozzarella, with a final sprinkling of basil from the garden. Ah, but the crust. The crust was the thing: crunchy on the bottom, slightly chewy around the edges, mildly sweet from the honey in the dough.
I made the dough itself last week in the bread machine and froze it. On Friday afternoon, the dough defrosted on the counter and rose again. When we were ready to cook, Mimi punched it down–her favorite part of the process–then I dropped it onto the prepared pizza peel. We took turns rolling it out. Once we liked the size of the crust, I let it rest on the peel for about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, the pizza stone warmed up in a very hot oven (450 degrees for about 45 minutes). I grated some parmesan cheese onto the base of the crust and we used an off-set spatula to spread out some sauce (purchased sauce–once I perfect the crust, I’ll start to make my own). Next, Mimi carefully layered on the pepperoni and cheese.
Finally, and somewhat precariously, I slid the whole thing onto the scorching hot pizza stone for 20 minutes. After I took out the pizza, I left it alone for five minutes and then cut it into slices.
The finished product was simple, straightfoward, a little mishshapen, and very much worth such a small amount of effort.
The trouble that I’ve had with the dough seems appropriate, considering what’s really going on here. Friday Night Pizza is hardly an original idea for a tradition,but I reasoned that cooking it ourselves would make it just complicated enough to feel special. Frankly, however, I feel a little sheepish about using the bread machine to make the dough. Does using a machine nullify my right to proclaim my pizza crust “homemade?” Does it compromise the tradition in some way? Should I just admit defeat and call Domino’s?
These questions haunt me as I roll out the dough, which seems like a very serious culinary activity regardless of the origins of the item being rolled. They inevitably lead to me to other, more philosophical questions. Questions like: how do I teach my daughter to honor tradition when I don’t have a lot of spare time? How do I preserve traditional culinary practices like bread making? How do I champion slow food when life is so fast paced? Is it cheating to use modern conveniences and shortcuts?
These are important concerns because it isn’t just me and Mimi and the dough who assemble in the kitchen every Friday afternoon. It’s me and Mimi and the dough as we are presently, but I’m also aware that our future selves are loitering around there in the kitchen. To consciously institute a tradition, as I am doing, means that I’m taking the long view. As my daughter and I work out together the foundation of the pizza–that sticky, finicky, weather-affected dough–we also work out the details of the tradition. And is that tradition compromised by the long shadow of the bread machine?
In the end, I think using it is justified. It saves a lot of time; I’m not nearly as traumatized by poor results than I might be if I’d slaved over the dough myself; my daugher has a better time as a result. I didn’t make the cheese or the pepperoni either, and few people would fault me for that.
I did grow the basil. I am, after all, a traditionalist at heart.
Basic Bread Machine Pizza Dough
The dough recipe is adapted from one I found at allrecipes.com.
1 cup warm, flat beer–I used a honey porter
1 package of yeast
2 cups bread flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
2 tablespoons butter, room temperature
2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon course sea salt
Put all of the ingredients into the machine in the order recommended by the manufacturer (usually liquid first). The recipe makes two crusts, each about 8-9 inches in diameter. The dough freezes well, but as the description above indicates, it’s best to defrost the dough and let it have a second rise before working. Those rest periods seem to have improved the texture of the finished crust.