Summer is a parade of fruits. First come the berries — the strawberries, blueberries and finally the raspberries — followed by the stone fruits like cherries, peaches, apricots and whatnot. My friend Sarah has a certain combination of grains that she calls by the unfortunate name of “gruel.” Her gruel is not the kind you might expect to be served at the local prison camp. It’s thick and interesting, with a complex, nutty flavor, and it’s great beneath fruit from breakfast to dessert.
“I like it because it sounds like Dickens,” Sarah told me, knowing full well her grains aren’t gruel.
Porridge and gruel are two points along a spectrum of boiled grains that can be cooked and served with, among other things, berries and fruit. Porridge is thicker, and has a better name, derived from an old-world style of one-pot cookery called potage. Porridge has a homey, comforting sound that takes you to a world where breakfast is just right.
Gruel, on the other hand, is not a pretty word for food. The sound itself is unappetizing and rolls off the tongue like wet cement. As the inspiration for the word “grueling,” it implies that eating a bowl of the stuff is some kind of ordeal.
Whatever we call it, the good news is gruel is great with strawberries and yogurt, and it works in savory dishes too. Sarah’s gruel is on the thick side of porridge, and more like a pot of cooked grains than a liquid. It has no business being called gruel, but I suppose when you have as many glass jars filled with seeds as she does, you can call your potage Ahab the Sailor. But in hopes of never making you read the word gruel again, I’ll just call today’s recipe potage, short for Sarah’s Potage Process.
Based on a mixture of quinoa and steel-cut oats, Sarah tweaks her potage with smaller amounts of other grains like sunflower, hemp and chia seeds. It forms a thick matrix of grains that are not overcooked, with the right amount of resistance to the tooth.
There is a long tradition of mixing grains, fruit and some dairy product, from cobbler with ice cream, to granola and fruit with milk, to bread with butter and jam. Even a berry cheesecake, with a crust based on finely ground wheat, would qualify. Potage deserves a place on this pantheon as well.
When putting together a plate of fruit, cream and grains, the sweet and sour levels are crucial. If you have a sauce like chokecherry syrup, that’s ideal. Otherwise, make something with rhubarb, or pie cherries.
I usually cook my potage unsweetened, so the sweetness I add at serving time is the sweetness we get. Everyone likes a little sweetness — no big surprise there. But the tartness is an unexpected game-changer, making the whole dish more interesting and balanced.
The core of the potage process is to simmer a mix of equal parts quinoa and steel-cut oats, as both grains cook to perfection in the same amount of time, each arriving at a place that complements the other. Quinoa cooked to this point would not hold together alone, but the steel cut oats add their binding, moisturizing, some might say slimy soluble fibers, forming an invisible mortar, while the quinoa sucks up the excess, drying out the oats.
A pot of this gruel holds together with the ease of a pot of rice, and the leftovers don’t harden into a solid mass the next day — at least in my version, where I leave out Sarah’s chia and sunflower seeds, keep her hemp seeds, and add sesame seeds. This mix of nutty earth tones sets up a delicious, interesting contrast with the fruit, cream and especially that tartness.
The ways to doctor any such mixture toward sweet and creamy are many, but it can be served savory as well. My favorite is dressed with soy sauce, toasted sesame oil and minced green onion or scape, served room temperature.
Potage, pottage, porridge and other versions of the historical dish upon which this meal is based, is the original one-pot meal. Some renditions include beans, meat and bones, while others are sweet from the start. But the rules of this ancient game have remained steady since long before they were ever written down. Cook the pottage in a pot, slowly. Don’t burn it. Add water when necessary. But not too much, unless you want gruel.
Berry Peachy Potage
This rendition contains sesame and hemp seeds, but you should definitely explore ways to augment the quinoa/oat base, and find your own grueling groove, whatever that may be.
A 4-quart pot’s worth, about 10 small servings
1 cup steel cut oats
1 cup quinoa (I prefer red quinoa, for color)
4 cups water (with more at the ready)
1 tablespoon untoasted sesame seeds
1 tablespoon raw, shelled hemp seeds
pinch of salt
Berries and Cream option
1 scoop per serving of creamy material, like whipped cream or heavy yogurt
1 cup berries, cherries, apricots, peaches, apples or whatever is ripe and sweet
A sweet and tart syrup like rhubarb, cherry or chokecherry
Add the potage base ingredients to a heavy-bottomed pot, and bring to a boil. Bring back to a simmer and keep it there for about 20 minutes, until the grains have all swollen and softened to the point where they feel good to chew. The water may disappear before you get there, so be prepared to add more. Don’t over-stir, but keep track of what is happening on the bottom of the pot. When the grains are good to chew, turn the heat to low and slowly let the water cook off. Turn off the heat and let it cool to room temperature, and store in the fridge.
Serve room temperature or chilled with berries and creamy material.
Don’t let the components of this culinary structure mix until they reach your mouth. Just as you wouldn’t stir a plate of cheesecake into a sloppy mess before eating it, a dish of berry potage is best served deconstructed, drenched in a sweet, tart syrup, of course.