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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Oh, to be in England, eating oatmeal!

The first time we went to London we stayed in the Hotel St. Ermin in St. James Park. It’s an Edwardian hotel with a lovely grand staircase, just right for making an entrance when one comes down to tea in the afternoon, and a tiny elevator (capacity 6 without luggage) for those times when you just can’t trudge another step.

Our package included the daily breakfast. Bill was in heaven. In case you don’t know, an “English” breakfast is roughly the equivalent of the American “Country” style breakfast. Eggs, toast, sausages, potatoes, bacon (not the same as American bacon but good), and other things such as fried bread, dripping toast, grilled mushrooms and tomatoes, beans and porridge (oatmeal). This does not include the cereals – dry cereals, flakes, clusters, puffs, and things like shredded wheat, “Wheatabix”, oat cakes and other things served in a bowl with milk or cream.

On entering the dining room, we were shown to our table and asked if we preferred coffee or tea. Almost immediately a tray containing cup, saucer and pot of tea or coffee was presented along with a jug of milk. Also presented was a rack of toast – six slices of various toasted breads, cut in half and buttered, along with a pot of jam. This was just to get started.

I first went to the “buffet” to get a bowl of porridge. Yes, I know it’s oatmeal, but the porridge was nothing like the gloppy, gluey oatmeal we usually have when cooking whole oats, or the bland, texture less mass obtained by pouring boiling water over a packet of instant. This was porridge – real Goldilocks style porridge, neither too hot nor too cold but just right. Thick and creamy, warm and comforting, stuff that could convert a confirmed Yank into a full fledged Anglophile.

The porridge was self-serve. Arrayed on a small tray in front of the porridge pot was a jug of cream, thick as butter, and on alternate days a bottle of treacle or one of Golden Syrup. One morning there was a bottle of “American” (Maple) syrup on the tray and one cold, rainy morning, a tiny bottle of Scotch whiskey (The St. Ermin was a Scottish hotel).

After a bowl of delectable sustenance I went back for the rest of the meal. I usually chose bacon, maybe a sausage, potatoes and an egg cooked to order by the chef. A few mushrooms and maybe a grilled tomato and I was good for the day. That was the great thing – after a breakfast like that, I did not need another meal until late in the afternoon. Bill was good for at least two trips through the buffet line. He loves sausages in all their permutations and the variety offered pleased him greatly.

One morning, there was no porridge. I was crushed. Instead of the porridge pot the chef was making waffles in a waffle iron. I passed on the waffle but I missed my porridge. But the pot returned the next day. Before our stay ended I asked the chef how he cooked the porridge, explaining that I wanted to achieve its creamy texture at home. He warned me to use only steel cut oats (in America we often find rolled oats or old fashioned oats – not the same thing). He also told me to basically double the amount of liquid called for in the package instructions, and to replace half the water called for with milk. In a nutshell, here is how to make porridge.

Finding the oats is the first task. If you can find McCann’s steel cut oats that is a good place to start. Even better is Hamlyn’s “pinhead” oatmeal. The oats are even finer cut than McCann’s and make a creamier porridge. Even their instructions on the label are closer to what the hotel chef told me.

For each ¼ cup of oats use about 3/4 to one cup water and 3/4 to one cup milk. Add a bit of salt and cook over low heat until creamy and tender. Of course, you will experiment and find the amount of liquid and cooking time that suits you best. And here are some tricks to make the job easier, faster or better.

Try using a double boiler, or simply a bowl placed over a pan of simmering water. Put the oats and liquid in the bowl and cook until done.

Try toasting the oats before cooking. Spread them in a small skillet and cook over low heat for a few minutes, stirring, until they release a nutty fragrance. Continue as usual.

Soak them over night. Place the oats (toasted or not) and water in a pan or double boiler overnight. Next morning, add the milk and continue as usual.

Prepare them in a small crock pot. I have one that is meant for keeping hot dips and sauces hot. I place my oats, milk and water in the little pot and plug it in when I go to bed. Next morning my oats are done and ready to eat.

Serve them with milk, cream, brown sugar, granulated sugar, syrup, honey, jam or molasses. Some people still like a lump of butter on their oatmeal. I will not discourage you.

Leftovers can be reheated or stirred into soups, stews or bread dough! Be sure to sprinkle rolled oats over the top of your oatmeal bread loaves before baking!

Eating this oatmeal, or “porridge” can transport me back to St. James Square, to the Albert Pub in Victoria Street where Bill enjoyed watching the Chelsea Pensioner nursing his pint and where Bill himself sampled a small pork pie. Back to Covent Garden and Charing Cross Road, to the Garrick Theatre and the Army & Navy and to a tea shop in York. To the food halls in Harrod’s, the Underground (mind the gap) and Canterbury. I don’t eat porridge nearly often enough. Maybe I’ll have some this weekend.

Quotable Quotes; in the category Remember, I said this was a Scottish Hotel!

“Oats. A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” Samuel Johnson

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Monkey See? Or Not?

My brother used to have the most fascinating things in his room, not including himself. A hookah, which he used to smoke while pretending to be the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland, much to the delight of my sister and me; impossibly thin and sharp tweezers with which he would extract the occasional splinter from my finger (he was the only one I would allow to perform this delicate and potentially painful operation); a Morse code key that clicked enticingly when he sent or received messages from friends – yes, it was connected and operable.

Perhaps not as fascinating but no less interesting was his paperweight. It was a brass or bronze sculpture of those famous monkeys, one with his paws over his eyes, one over his ears and the last over his mouth. You remember See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil. The monkeys were on a leather pad embossed with the words “Do Not Monkey With Things On This Desk”.

We understood this to mean that should we be so brazen as to enter his room uninvited or unbidden and actually touch anything on his desk, the consequences would be severe. Probably no more than a cessation of invitations to enter – but that was a grave punishment indeed!

Tony was the coolest, the best, the most awesome older brother to ever walk the earth. At least, that’s how he seemed to my sister and me. Any chance to spend time with Tony was not to be passed up. The fact that many of our friends found him to be sinister or even creepy had no impact on our affection for him. One of his favorite ploys was to come into the basement where we were playing with friends, enter dad’s workshop, flip on the power saw (wwwrrrrraaaaaaaaugh!) and remark, with a demonic grin, “Hey, come in here a minute. And bring your friend”.

Such action was practically guaranteed to send any friends (who had not left already) scurrying up the basement stairs and out the back door faster than you can saw wood! Now that I think of it, this may have been a ruse to get rid of excess neighbor kids at supper time.

No matter, Tony was and is the hero of the younger members of the family (don’t know about the older ones, we were not in the same age group and did not communicate in the same way).

I often think of his desk monkeys and wonder where he got them and what happened to them. I often wish I had a similar talisman to place on my desk, to keep away inquiring minds and hands and eyes. And I often wish I possessed his particular power to strike awe and fear into those to whom he chose.

Quotable quotes; in the category You Better Stay Out Of My Room

"Privacy is not something that I'm merely entitled to, it's an absolute prerequisite." Marlon Brando

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Would You Believe Part III?

Okay who would have guessed that only weeks after reading Catcher in the Rye and presenting it for Book Club discussion the venerable and reclusive J. D. Salinger would leave this earth?

I wonder if ours was the last club to select this classic for discussion before Salinger’s death. I don’t know of any way to find out, but it is interesting to contemplate. At least, it is to me. You may not think so.

Quotable quotes; in the category Beauty is truth but truth is in the mind of the beholder.

"People always think something's all true."
J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye