“You’re going to write a recipe for oatmeal!?” my sister shrieked from the bathtub in San Diego where she was when I called. This might seem like a reasonable question except that not an hour before she had sent me and email asking me how to make oatmeal. Like all simple foods, the difference between one that conjures up images of orphans lucky to get anything to eat at all, and one that you would actually choose to eat even if it wasn’t good for you, is all in the details. Very few people, and even fewer restaurants make great oatmeal. I do.
I am not the least bit hesitant to tell you that I make, hands-down, the best oatmeal I have tasted. Ever. Anywhere. It’s only fair, since this was my sole inheritance from my mother’s side of the family. My Grandmother Birdie was an early feminist: she worked, she smoked, she gambled, she cussed, she wore pants, and some say she adopted all six of her children because she refused to have sex with her husband. She also didn’t cook, except for one thing—you guessed it—which she called Oatmeal Cocktail, I assume because she wanted to dress it up a bit. A one-hit wonder, but at least it was a hit. And it was. Christy and I used to beg her to make it and I spent years trying to make my morning porridge live up to the memory of it before i realized her secret: so much butter and brown sugar it was basically an oatmeal cookie in a bowl.
To make oatmeal… start with steal cut oats. You can make rolled oats taste good in a pinch. (Isn’t it weird that they roll oats? I mean, why? I am going to find out). I like Bob’s Red Mill and Anson Mills oats because they taste good and they’re American and what’s more: they don’t come in that silly can like the Irish ones do, which is just a waste. I’m not going to give amounts because really, who needs a recipe for oatmeal?
Bring the appropriate amount of water to a boil in a saucepan. (Read the package to get a sense of how much liquid this is depending on how many servings you’re making.) Add a pinch of salt, a few shakes of cinnamon, and pour in some vanilla. Stir in the oats, lower the heat, and simmer the oats, stirring from time to time, until the oats are the texture of something you want to eat. If you like raisins put them in midway through the oat cooking process. Raisins on the side are a disappointment because they are shriveled and sugary and they never become part of the oatmeal. You need to put them in early so they plump up like they do in rice pudding. If you find that you are running out of liquid but the oats are not done, add more liquid. (As I write that, i think: Do I really need to tell people that? But my niece Johnna was over the other morning. She thinks I make the best oatmeal ever, and I keep telling her, without any success, that she can make the same oatmeal at home. So I put her in charge of cooking the oatmeal while I took care of my coffee addiction and ten minutes later she asked: “Is it done?” I said, I don’t know, put it in your mouth and see if it is something you want to eat. And then she said: “It’s hard. But there’s no more liquid.” So i said…) If you find that you are running out of liquid but the oats are not done, add more liquid. Cook the oats until they’re done.
Oatmeal is all about finishing. Taste the oatmeal to make sure it has enough salt and if it doesn’t, add more. Put the oatmeal into the bowls you’re going to eat it out of. Put a slice of butter on top of each serving. Sprinkle with a pinch of big, rock salt (like gray salt, Maldon will do but best to have nice crystals to bite into). And then finish it how you like. I think it’s best with a very little bit of honey or dark brown sugar—maybe some toasted sliced almonds or sunflower seeds—and a little half-and-half poured around the edge of the bowl. At some point the melted butter will meet the cream and then you know what it was to be a child in Birdie’s Oatmeal Cocktail world.