I fried oatmeal today. I almost didn’t tell you that because it is such a brilliant idea I wasn’t sure I wanted to share it. That said, the idea was not original. It was my oatmeal version of the ribollita at Osteria Mozza, which is a version of the ribollita at Da Delfina, by which I am not referring to the popular San Francisco restaurant and pizzeria, but to the restaurant outside Florence that inspired that restaurant’s name. Which is all just to say that there are really no new ideas, or if there are, I’m not the one inventing them.
So back to the oatmeal. I make oatmeal often, and this idea came out of that fact in the way that Kenny Shopsin refers to as “Blue Chip Stamps.” (Those of you too young to remember the consumer seduction of these can click here for a primer.) Every once in awhile, Kenny says, although you are not doing it for the stamps, repetition has its payoff in the form of a good idea.
Ribollita soup is a classic Tuscan vegetable and bean soup thickened by stale bread. At Da Delfina, and more to the point at Osteria Mozza, it is fried vegetable soup—the “fried,” counter-intuitively, referring not to the vegetables, but to the soup.
“It’s a revelation!” I said to my friends when it came to the counter at the Osteria, where we were having dinner last Friday night: a thick square of what looked like wet, burnt bread floating in a pool of glistening, golden olive oil. “This is the best thing I’ve ever eaten in my life,” one of my friends said. Throughout our meal, the three of us couldn’t stop thinking about things we’d like to try to fry when we got back to our respective stoves. So this morning, when I found myself with a lump of dried out, cooked steal-cut oatmeal, it seemed like the obvious thing to do. I’d made the long-cooking kind of oatmeal, patiently going about my business, stirring from time to time, as the steal-cut grains worked to absorb the concoction of water, milk, cinnamon, vanilla, and salt. And then, cruelly, just as those grains were cooked to toothsome perfection (finally!), I got a phone call. I turned off the heat, put a lid on the oatmeal, and 20 minutes later, my breakfast had transformed into a sad, gluey lump. Ordinarily I would have added some water or milk, turned the heat on low, and reheated the oats to an acceptable compromise. But what with the fried soup now firmly planted in my subconscious, I got a better idea. I patted the oatmeal into a puck, sprinkled one side with raw sugar, and fried it up in butter. It was a whole grain reawakening.
To fry oatmeal, first, start with cooked oatmeal. Pat each serving into a patty about 3/4-inch thick and as wide as the diameter of a softball. Sprinkle one side with turbinado sugar (or white sugar if that’s all you have). Melt some butter in a skillet and let it get really hot; it can brown, but don’t let it burn. Carefully lay the patty sugared-side down and cook it until you think it’s a beautiful, rich color of brown, and crispy. You have to trust your gut here because if you try to look, the thing will fall apart. The good news is that it’s so gummy, you can piece it back together pretty easily–plus this isn’t an art contest, it’s food, and it doesn’t really matter if it falls apart a bit or has a big crack like the San Andreas fault down the middle. Once it’s done, flip it over and cook it on the other side. Crisp is the operative word here, the thing that’s going to make the difference between regular mushy oatmeal and fried oatmeal.
Serve each patty on a plate—ideally one with some color if you have it and here’s why: because you are now going to poor a shallow pool of half-and-half around the rim where the olive oil would be if this were ribollita, and this will have a considerably more beautiful effect on a plate that isn’t white. (Sadly, I only have white plates.) Serve it warm, and enjoy the prize of my labors. Better than a new lamp!