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April 2015

Perfect porridge: Four easy steps to nutritious and frugal oat porridge

With a little preparation (and fermentation if you are game) - a bowl of nutritious porridge can be made in minutes. Little eco footprints

A hint of cool weather has me enjoying a bowl of porridge most mornings. Porridge may seem a time consuming everyday breakfast choice. But with a little preparation (and fermentation if you are game) - a bowl of nutritious porridge can be made in minutes.

Choosing your oats can be confusing.

Oat groats 9on the left) and rolled oats (right). Little eco footprints

There's groats, steel cut, rolled, quick – and I hesitate to even mention them – quick sachets or instant.

Oat groats. Little eco footprints

All these options start out as groats – the least processed option.

  • Oat groats are whole oat grains that have had their husk removed and are typically lightly steamed to increase shelf life.
  • Steel cut oats are made by cutting groats into pieces. 
  • Rolled oats are made by rolling groats flat. They are also steamed, unless you roll your own.
  • Quick oats are similar to rolled oats – but have been rolled thinly.
  • Quick sachets or instant oats have been chopped fine, flattened, pre-cooked, and dehydrated.

So which to choose?

Stick to groats, steel-cut or rolled – and you'll have yourself a hearty, satisfying and nutritious bowl of porridge.

There's no need for the quick oats – as regular rolled oats cook just as quickly if you soak them overnight. 

Buy in bulk to save money and reduce packaging

I save money by buying our oats in bulk. I buy Australian-grown organic groats and rolled oats in 5kg bags. It sounds like a lot of oats – but they keep in the pantry well and it means I need to buy breakfast cereal only every few months.

At around 45 g of oats per serve, a bowl of organic oat porridge can cost as little as 20 cents. Or even less if you buy through a bulk-buying co-op.

Here's four steps to a perfect porridge

Step 1. Soak or ferment.

Soaking oats overnight. Little eco footprints

The night before, or a day or two before for a fully fermented porridge, measure out your oats and water. Combine in a thick based saucepan if only soaking overnight or a glass bowl or jar if fermenting for longer.

For groats and steel cut oats, add ¼ cup of oats and 1 cup of water per person.

For rolled oats, add ½ cup oats and 1 cup of water per person.

The longer you soak or ferment – the quicker your oats will cook and the creamier and more nutritious your porridge will be.

You can speed up fermentation by adding a dash of whey, spoonful of sourdough starter or milk kefir. But it works just fine without adding these cultures. 

Cover loosely with a clean tea-towel and leave at room temperature at least overnight and up to two days (or alternatively you can try the perpetual soured porridge pot method). 

Step 2. Add spices, dried fruit, nuts or seeds

My favourite mix is (per person) around 1\4 teaspoon each of ground cinnamon and ginger, one cardamom pod and a tablespoon each of sultanas and almonds.

The options are almost unlimited.

Add your favourite dried fruits (figs, dates, apricots, or apple), nuts (walnuts, hazel nuts, or bunya nuts) and seeds (sunflower, pepitas).

I add these extras prior to soaking/fermentation to soften the dried fruits, activate the nuts and seeds, and sweeten the cooking liquid – but they can also be added just before cooking. 

Fermenting rolled oars by soaking for a day or two. Little eco footprints.

Bubbling fermenting rolled oats. Little eco footprints.
Bubbling fermented oats and sultanas ready to be cooked into creamy porridge. 

Step 3. Cook.

Add more water if needed, and simmer on low heat, stirring regularly.

Duration depends on the type of oats you are using and duration of soaking.

Rolled oats will cook in a couple of minutes. Steel cut take around 10 minutes, and groats take up to 20-30 minutes. Their chewy wholesome texture is worth the wait. Steel cut oats and groats will benefit from a few minutes sitting on the bench before serving. 

Another option is to thermal cook your porridge overnight. This works particular well for groats. The night before, bring oats to the boil and then place in a thermal cooker (effectively a big insulated pot). They will be warm and cooked in the morning.

Insulated food jar porridge. Little eco footprints

Alternatively, you can do something similar for a single-serve of porridge using an insulated food jar. This is a great option if you have to race out the door to work. In the morning, bring your oats to a boil and then place in the insulated food jar. An hour or so later, your porridge will be warm and perfectly cooked. 

Step 4. Add toppings.

Nourishing oat porridge made with rolled oats soaked overnight and topped with tahini, yoghurt and honey. Little eco footprints

I top my porridge with tahini, yoghurt and honey.

Other healthy options include fresh fruit, stewed fruit, butter, ghee, cream, dairy or nut milks, molasses, maple syrup, or coconut flakes.

No two bowls of porridge ever need to be the same.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 20th April 2015.

If you are interested in learning more about soaking or fermenting your grains, I highly recommend Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon and Wild Fermentation or the Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz.

Rhonda from Down to Earth recently wrote about soaking oats - and shared childhood recolections of soaking being common practice. Somewhere along the way we got impatient and decided to skip this important step. 

Time to simply play

Its important to allow children time to simply play. Little eco footprints

My daughter recently reminded me of the importance of setting aside free time. I told her of all the fun holiday activities I planned to book her into. I thought she would be excited. Instead she sat quietly then whispered "all I want to do is play at home". I tried to convince her how fun they would be. Then I stopped. I realised she had recognised what she needed most.

What our busy over-scheduled kids need most is time to simply play.

I reduced the number of scheduled activities and organised a few play dates and sleepovers at home instead. I've slowed down the scheduling and am setting aside plenty of time for unstructured play.

Unstructured play, the kind of play that happens without adult guidance or formal toys, is worth encouraging. Research has shown that unstructured play helps children develop their physical and emotional strengths, creativity, and imagination. Unstructured play among children is particularly valuable for teaching them how to share, negotiate, communicate and resolve conflicts.

It seems counter-intuitive, but I find myself having to schedule and organise unstructured play. It's not a matter of simply ensuring my daughter has free time - because if she managed her free time she'd spend it sitting in front of a screen.

Here are some of my favourite ways to encourage unstructured play:

1. Suggest a cubby house be built

Provide some sheets, a couple of cardboard boxes, or send them outside and see what they can find.

I recently sat back and watched my daughter and a friend create a cubby house in a small tree in ourbackyard. They enthusiastically planned their world and then decorated it. They negotiated, created, collaborated, and assessed risk. To them, they were simply playing, but to me they were gaining valuable life skills that will help them in the real world - far beyond their temporary tree house.

I especially love that cubby houses provide a place seemingly separate from the adult world. A child-created cubby can give children a much-needed sense of freedom and achievement. It may only be a sheet over some chairs, a cardboard box, or a gap under a shrub to us, but to a child it's their own secret space. Somewhere where they rule - if only for a moment.

2. Visit a natural environment

Take a thermos of tea, sit back and watch the kids find something to do. It won't take long. There's space to run and explore and endless natural objects such as sticks, stones, dirt, leaves, mud and water to play with.

3. Let there be mess

Unstructured play can get messy. There might be mud pie making, cardboard boxes scattered across the living area, or every towel dragged out to create a tent. I've learnt to accept the chaos and mess. It's a small price to pay for the valuable play. But I do make sure to involve the kids in clean up.

4. Provide plenty of creative materials

We've had bits of waste timber sitting by our back door for a couple of weeks. It's become our daughter's favourite play material. I also like to sacrifice the kitchen table for the day. I place paints, recycled containers, glue and other craft material on the table and tell her she can create whatever she wants.

One of the benefits of unstructured play is that it doesn't cost anything. Kids don't really need loads of fancy toys or expensive activities - what they need most is time to simply play.  

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 13th April 2015.

I recently read these relevant words by Rachel. They beautifully expresses what our children need most and are worth a read. 

How to help a timber chopping board last a lifetime

Restoring a timber chopping board with vegetable oil and steel wool. Little eco footprints.

I like the idea of useful everyday items being beautiful. We don’t need to decorate our homes with ornaments or nick-nacks when the bowls, spoons, or chopping boards we use hold meaning and make us smile.

My favourite chopping board is a beautiful solid piece of jarrah from the south-west of Western Australia. It was bought while on holiday with money gifted from friends. It brings to mind many fond memories and is still in great condition despite being used almost every day for 10 years. With proper care, there’s no reason why it shouldn't last 100 years or more.

Properly cared for timber chopping boards improve with age.

Their well-worn surface has character and they are just as hygienic as new timber chopping boards. In contrast, plastic chopping boards become a haven for bacteria once marked with knife-cuts.

A good-quality timber chopping board will easily outlive a plastic one. We have a timber chopping board that belonged to my husband’s grandmother. There’s no way I’d use a plastic board of a similar age.

To ensure your wooden chopping board lasts a lifetime or two it is important to care for it properly.

Hand-wash your timber board in warm, soapy water. Dry with a tea towel and leave to dry even further on a rack.

Never leave a timber chopping board submerged in water and don’t put it in the dishwasher. Soaking or washing in a dishwasher will cause the wood to swell and later contract as it dries. This movement can cause timber to crack or delaminate along glue joints.

Store your board in a dry location.

One of reasons timber does not harbour bacteria like plastic is its ability to expand and close small cuts. It is somewhat self-healing. But this ability to self-heal decreases as the timber loses natural oils or becomes badly scratched.

Every month or so your timber board will benefit from some extra love to replenish oils and smooth out cracks.

Apply a generous amount of food-grade oil and rub in with fine steel wool. I use vegetable oils such as rice-bran oil or olive oil because that’s what I have in my cupboard. Other options include walnut oil or grapeseed oil. Some suggest using mineral oil rather than vegetable oil because it’s less likely to go rancid. But I prefer not to use a petroleum product on something I prepare food on.

Rub the oil in with fine steel wool until the surface feels smooth and scratch-free. Depending on the condition of your board, this can take five to 30 minutes. Think of it as meditation time.

Set the board aside for a while so that the oil can soak in. Repeat if the board was extra dry. Wipe away any excess oil once you have finished.

If the board is splintered or extra rough you can sand with fine sandpaper prior to applying the oil.

A plastic board will probably be easier to care for. You can toss it in the dishwasher. But you’ll be replacing it every few years. And I doubt it would warm your heart like my favourite timber board.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 6th April 2015.