Hot cereal brings comforting start to the day

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WHETHER you call it porridge, gruel, mush, or hot cereal, there is a world of wonderful grains for hot breakfast on a cold New England morning.

Some gag at the thought of hot cereal. Others drool thinking about brown sugar, a pat of butter, and milk melting into a creamy bowl of steaming oats. Carol Halewood of Lexington shudders as she recalls how her mother held Carol’s nose and force-fed her oatmeal when the weather dipped below 40 degrees. She won’t go near the stuff today.

Carol Bohmer of Cleveland, on the other hand, smiles thinking of her Sunday semolina supper. Growing up in New Zealand, she remembers, ”after a big midday meal, we were given hot cereal for dinner. The best part was the square of chocolate my mum put into our bowls. We watched it melt and made spirals with our spoons.”

A wide variety of hot cereals is on grocery shelves. Quaker Oats are smooth and creamy, while McCann’s Irish Oats are crunchy. Wheatena is toasty and textured, while Farina is bland but satisfying. Cream of Rice looks like wallpaper paste, but adding milk, a smidge of butter, and brown sugar is great for a hurting tummy. Wolff’s Buckwheat Kasha is often eaten as a side dish and makes an earthy porridge. Remember Marky Maypo who bellowed, ”I want my Maypo!”? This instant, maple-flavored, presweetened combination of oats and rye is deliciously nostalgic.

Grocers put the ”pure” stuff on the top shelf and place the flavor-enhanced (artificial), presweetened, individually packeted items at eye level. These are adorned with pictures of vanilla beans, cinnamon buns, and apples. One oatmeal brand even contains ”dinosaur eggs.” A candy egg melts and a candy dinosaur emerges.

With all the hype, you can’t be sure just what you are buying. Ingredient lists consist of multiple, multi-syllabic words and sugar in its varied forms (dextrose, sucrose, guar gum). Compare this to the one or two ingredients listed on the packages you can barely reach.

Most of us eat hot cereal with something on top. Adding your own salt, butter, milk, brown sugar, maple syrup, granola, or raisins gives you some control, and you can at least pronounce what you are eating. One teaspoon of brown sugar is 15 calories, raisins add iron, cinnamon a little flavor, and maple syrup about 50 calories per tablespoon. Nutritionists turn to hot cereals when looking for good sources of fiber and iron, especially for women. The cereals are naturally low in cholesterol and fat.

Cooking time is determined by how much the manufacturer has processed the cereal. The larger the oat flake, the longer the cooking time. ”Instant” means fairly small and very processed and requires 30 to 90 seconds; ”quick cooking” needs about 3 minutes; and ”old-fashioned” will take anywhere from 5 to 8 minutes. Grits and Irish oats are in the ”eternity” category at 20-30 minutes.

John McCann’s Irish Oats (available at Trader Joe’s and Bread and Circus) are prized by oatmeal aficionados. Their crunch, grainy texture, and nutty flavor attract devotees. The whole-grain groat (inner part of the oat kernel) is not rolled flat, but cut into two or three pieces, leaving little nuggets, which is the reason for the 30-minute cooking time.

McCann’s Web site offers shortcuts, though. Soaking oats overnight, chopping the oats in a food processor, toasting them in the oven, and microwaving all save time. Basically, you are doing the processing. The microwave takes about 12 minutes for two bowls, and can leave a big mess if the oatmeal overflows – but the crunch remains.

One suggestion is to put the oats in a crock pot overnight on the low setting (one cup of oats to four cups water) and add raisins and cinnamon. You wake up to a wonderful aroma and a pot of delicious hot oatmeal. The problem is that the crunch disappears. If you like creamy oatmeal, this is a great idea. Make enough for several days and store in individual containers in the fridge. Just add a little milk and reheat for 2-3 minutes in the microwave. However, to enjoy this cereal as it is intended, there is no substitute for standing at the stove, stirring occasionally, and eating right away.

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