Gourmet porridge trend has ancient grain appeal

by Anna Klainbaum
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Maria Speck's Burgundy Bulgur from "Simply Ancient Grains."

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — The humble bowl of porridge is appearing on more menus across all dayparts, proving that the down to earth dish may have what it takes to be one of 2016’s leading food trends.

“I love oatmeal, but there is so much more to it,” said Maria Speck, author of “Simply Ancient Grains,” of the growing interest in a comforting bowl of cooked grains with unexpected toppings.

“A young generation of chefs across the country is experimenting with new grains,” she said, and the underutilized ingredients offer unique textures, subtle flavors and exciting colors — think of black rice and golden polenta — that bring a fresh culinary perspective. “They’re as easy to cook as a pot of pasta and extremely forgiving,” she said. “If you’re a chef, you look for these things.”

While the trend has already taken off in parts of Europe, at such porridge-only restaurants as London’s Porridge Café and Denmark’s Grød, grain combinations and savory breakfast bowls are making appearances on upscale menus in the United States. At Little Park, New York City, Heirloom Grain Porridge is served with hen of the woods mushrooms, poached eggs and pine nuts. Sqirl Los Angeles popularized the savory breakfast brown rice bowl with Sorrel Pesto Rice topped with preserved Meyer lemon, radish, feta and poached egg, and international chain Le Pain Quotidien has added an Organic Brown Rice Pudding to its brunch menu.

Alluring alternatives

“This concept is popping up more and more on popular restaurant menus,” said Nicholas Ahrens, product applications culinologist at Bay State Milling Co., Quincy, Mass., a provider of flours and plant-based ingredients.

“The consumer is looking for less processed or unprocessed foods in the raw or whole form,” he said, adding that whole grains and seeds fit well within the trend and are versatile enough to be used in either sweet or savory concepts.

“An ancient grain porridge can be made with milk, brown sugar and cinnamon in the morning to create a warm, wholesome breakfast,” Mr. Ahrens said. Those same grains may be cooked in a rich chicken broth finished with roasted vegetables and grilled chicken to create a healthy lunch or dinner option.”

It is important to mix and match components appropriately, because each grain and seed performs differently, Mr. Ahrens said.

“Each has its optimum absorption and rate of hydration,” he said “For instance, when cooking these grains and seeds in a single pot it is important to add them at different times as some grains will cook faster than others.”

It is important to mix and match components appropriately, because each grain and seed performs differently.

Ms. Speck said that in addition to interest in whole grains, gluten-free eating is driving the trend.

“People are looking for alternatives,” she said, and porridge made of amaranth, buckwheat, cornmeal, millet, teff and some rices may provide a wheat-free option.

From burgundy bulgur topped with blueberries and orange blossom water to coconut buckwheat porridge with cinnamon and buttered dates, Ms. Speck’s recipes show how the bounty of grains and toppings now widely available to both chefs and home cooks may put a modern twist on a traditional dish.

“We want to eat what we want to eat today; we don’t necessarily eat like we did 300 years ago,” she said.

Modern congee

While many riffs on oatmeal and grits are trending, so are veggie-forward, Asian-inspired rice porridges, known as congee. Seattle restaurant Kraken Congee offers a menu platform centered on rice porridge topped with haute ingredients like pork belly, duck, wild mushrooms, sea scallops and local salmon. Kraken chefs and co-owners Garrett Doherty and Shane Robinson said that the hearty and comforting dish is typically not known as a gourmet dish, but it serves as a perfect base for culinary creativity.

“That’s the beauty of the dish,” Mr. Robinson said. “(There are) so many directions to go with it. There is no wrong combination. As long as it tastes good, then why not?”

The congee base itself allows for some creative freedom beyond rice, he said, by using a multitude of different grains, such as farro, barley or even oats.

“We are also able to introduce the idea of eating congee to a whole new demographic by topping it with mouth-watering ingredients,” he said.

This story originally appeared in the December issue of Culinology, the official magazine of the Research Chefs Association. To read the latest issue, click here.

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