Alimentary, My Dear
Hot Stuff: Breakfasts That Stick by You
By Tamia Nelson
February 17, 2009
When I was a kid I hated breakfast, especially if breakfast meant hot cereal. But my complaints fell on deaf ears. My mother wasn't about to let any of her kids go to school on an empty stomach. "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day," she'd say. And that was that. It didn't do very much to improve my appetite, I admit, but my mother had other arguments at her disposal, and other means of persuasion. Let's call these the "or else" corollaries, shall we? So I ate what was put in front of me.
Later on, I came to the reluctant conclusion that my mother had been right all along. Breakfast is the most important meal, especially when you've got a hard day ahead of you. Work or pleasure, it makes no difference. Food is fuel, and your body won't go far without it. We paddlers can't fall back on imported horsepower when our muscles flag. We're on our own, whether we're just out for the day, taking a weekend break, or embarking on a Big Trip. Everyone has his or her favorite breakfast, of course, but most of the folks I've paddled with prefer something that's quick and easy to prepare. (Rest days are the exception here, obviously. Anything goes then.) And you won't find too many breakfasts that are quicker or easier than…
A Bowl of Hot Cereal
Cereals are grain food, and grains are good, chock-a-block with complex carbs and fiber. Or at least they are if they haven't been scoured by over-processing. The carbs are fast food for the long haul, just what paddlers' active muscles need, while the fiber helps hard-pressed digestions adapt to the altered routines of life under way. And that's not all. Hot cereal is hot, right? There's nothing better when a chill mist hangs low over the water and the sun is little more than a faint glow on the eastern horizon. Don't worry. Good doesn't have to mean boring. There's a whole lot to choose from on the shelves of your local HyperMart. Even the fussiest Foodie will find plenty with which to ring the changes, beginning with that familiar breakfast staple, hot oatmeal. Ignore what old Sam Johnson had to say. (In his famous Dictionary he defined oats as "a grain…generally given to horses, but [which] in Scotland supports the people.") The Scots were onto a good thing, and they knew it, even if splenetic Sam didn't. Better still, oatmeal is now available in both instant and "old-fashioned" guises, not to mention the compromise candidate—"quick-cook." So there's an oatmeal for every occasion, from up-before-the-sun, eat-and-run marathons to lazy, mazy days in camp, when your muscles are idle and your thoughts are free to wander down any path that tickles your fancy.
Now let's take a closer look at this versatile cereal in all its varieties.
Instant Oatmeal You can't get faster than instant, can you? This is hot food at its quickest. Buy it in single-serving packets—but remember that hungry paddlers will want more than one!— or save money by buying in bulk and deciding on the serving size yourself. Preparation couldn't be simpler. Empty one or more packets into a cup or bowl. Boil water (in a storm kettle, perhaps). Pour. Stir. Eat. (Careful! You don't want to burn your mouth.) It's fast, easy, and filling. Is there a downside? Yep. There always is, isn't there? In this case it's texture, or "mouthfeel" in Foodie jargon. Most of the instant oatmeal I've eaten has the consistency of library paste. Moreover, the artificial maple and cinnamon that are used in the flavored varieties often taste like the products of an industrial laboratory. No surprise there, I suppose. That's what they are. Luckily, you can always add your own maple sugar and (real) cinnamon to plain instant oatmeal, instead. It won't slow you down much.
Unless time really is of the essence, though, you can do even better than that. Just grab some…
Quick-Cooking Oatmeal No, it's not instant. But it's the next best thing. It cooks up in three to four minutes. You'll need a pot, of course. You do have a pot, don't you? Good. Then bring water to a boil, toss in the oatmeal (experiment at home to determine how much is enough for hearty appetites), stir, and simmer. You won't have long to wait, and you'll be glad you did.
Still not satisfied? Then there's always…
"Old-Fashioned" Oatmeal This is the genuine article. If you want the best, accept no substitutes. It's made from hulled oat grains ("groats") that have been steamed, rolled, and flaked. "Rolled oats," in other words. (If the groats are chopped rather than steamed and rolled, the result is "steel-cut" oatmeal.) Preparation is time-consuming, but not complicated. Boil water, add oats, stir, simmer for five to 10 minutes, and enjoy. The resulting cereal is chewy—very chewy if you start with steel-cut oats—and flavorful, with a rich, nut-like savor. There's no better breakfast.
Or is there? The shelves of the HyperMart sag under the weight of boxed hot cereals. Do you hanker for wheat? Rice? Buckwheat? No problem. Indulge yourself. And if those pall, how about cornmeal mush? A warning: Unless you were raised on the stuff you find in the store, read the small print on the package before slinging it into your cart. Some hot cereals aren't a whole lot more nutritious than the boxes they come in, and others require more or less elaborate preparation. In camp and on the go, the operative words are simple and satisfying. Leave time-consuming, multi-course breakfasts for Sunday mornings at home.
That doesn't mean you can't embellish whatever comes out of the box, however. Here are some special touches to consider:
And don't neglect granola. While it's usually eaten cold, you can always add warm milk (that is, warm water and nonfat, powdered dry milk). Hot cereal was never easier.
Not happy with with any of the prepared cereals you find in the HyperMart? Then…
Why Not Roll Your Own Cereal Mix?
Take your departure from a childhood favorite that's no longer available, or start from scratch. This can be as simple as premixing plain instant oatmeal (bought in bulk and repackaged in plastic bags) with sugar and raisins (or cinnamon, diced dried apples, and powdered coffee creamer, if you're feeling bold). Boost food value with seeds, chopped nuts, and wheat bran. Experiment. Innovate. Copy. There's only one hard and fast rule. Try out all new concoctions at home before adding them to your backcountry menu. Nothing spoils a trip faster than a belly ache.
I have my own favorites, of course, one of which is a granola concocted from rolled oats, wheat bran (and wheat germ), crushed hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, and brown sugar, along with dried fruit. I call it Tamia's Tasty Granola, and it's great eaten hot as well as cold. Recently, though, I've been thinking of updating this recipe to incorporate sesame and flax seeds. I already add them to my favorite pizza and bread dough, after all. Can breakfast be far behind? No way! But I don't have a monopoly on innovation. In the Same Boat reader and inveterate outdoorsman James Stone has been conducting his own experiments with hot cereals. When his favorite mix disappeared from store shelves, he set out to reproduce it with ingredients he bought in bulk—triticale flakes, wheat, barley, quick oats, rye flakes, and flax seeds (the original had flax flakes, but James couldn't locate a source, so he made do with seeds, instead). He uses a 1:2 mix of cereal to water, and throws in some chopped dates (which he's previously rolled in oat flour) while the cereal cooks. After it's done, he adds brown sugar and more chopped dates, along with a splash of milk. A bowl of this hearty hot breakfast—James calls it "Magic Morning Mix"—keeps him going from dawn to early afternoon.
This is a game anyone can play, obviously. So why not turn your hand to inventing a hot cereal you can really call your own? Here a few more ideas to get you started:
Going-to-Seed Oatmeal Buy a big box of plain instant oatmeal, then measure out the following individual-serving portions into plastic bags. (Try it at home first; your idea of a serving may be different than mine.)
- ½ cup instant oatmeal
- 1 tablespoon nonfat dry milk (or soy-milk powder, if you prefer)
- 1 teaspoon flax seeds
- 1 teaspoon sesame seeds
- 1 tablespoon craisins or raisins
- a pinch of cinnamon
- a pinch of salt
- brown sugar to taste
Come dawn, pour the oatmeal mix into a cup or bowl. Then add one cup of boiling water—less if you like your spoon to stand up in your oatmeal. Stir. Eat. That's it! Or how about…
Oat Bran Plus? This isn't instant, but it cooks up in a flash. For each hearty serving, blend these ingredients together in a plastic bag:
- ¾ cup oat bran
- 1 tablespoon powdered milk (or soy-milk powder)
- 1 teaspoon chopped hazelnuts
- 1 tablespoon chopped dried apricots
- a pinch of cardamom
- a pinch of salt
- brown sugar to taste
Figure on one quart of water for every THREE servings (that works out to one and one-third cups of water per serving). Bring the water to a boil, dump in the prepackaged mix, stir, and simmer. Keep stirring until the cereal has the consistency you want—the longer it simmers, the thicker it gets. In any event, it won't take long. You're not fond of cardamom, hazelnuts, or apricots? No problem. Substitute at will. Then again, you may want to try something completely different, like…
Hearty Wheat Treat for Two On a day when you're not in a hurry to get out on the water, try a bulgur breakfast for a change. (You can substitute cracked wheat for bulgur, if you like.) Here's what you'll need for TWO servings:
- 2/3 cup bulgur
- 2 tablespoons sunflower seeds
- 2 tablespoons powdered milk (or soy-milk powder)
- 2 teaspoons chopped walnuts
- 2 tablespoons chopped dried apples
- a pinch of nutmeg
- a pinch of salt
- brown sugar or other sweetener to taste
Put one and one-third cups water in a pot and add the Wheat Treat mix. Bring to a boil, then lower the flame (or move the pot to a cooler spot on the fire) and simmer, stirring frequently. When the bulgur has cooked long enough—the longer it simmers, the softer it gets, though 10-15 minutes is enough for most folks—remove from the heat and eat. A hint: This is filling fare. Bring a hearty appetite to your backcountry table.
OK. You're on your own now. Adjust quantities. Substitute ingredients. Experiment at home, then add the winners to your trip menu planner. And be sure to let us know about your favorites! The morning is always easier to face if there's something new for breakfast.