Message In a Bowl

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You can tell a thing or two about people by the way they make oatmeal.

Take, for example, my dad. Occasionally on a cold winter morning he would make oatmeal for my sister and me before school. It was…edible. Strictly utilitarian, Dad’s oatmeal was cooked in water, with a little brown sugar stirred in at the end. We didn’t have a microwave (my parents still don’t) and my dad didn’t go in for instant anything, so he always cooked the oatmeal on the stovetop. If there was a banana around, he sliced it right into the bowl on top of the oatmeal. It was practical and nourishing but not indulgent. That, in a nutshell, is my dad.

When my mom made oatmeal it was a different story. She cooked the oats in milk; she probably added half-and-half and maybe a pat of butter, too. She stirred in cinnamon and brown sugar-lots of it. She stirred the oatmeal the way she stirred risotto, constantly, so that by the end of cooking it was tender and creamy, almost like rice pudding. You can imagine whose version my sister and I preferred. (I know a few folks who go even further and make their oatmeal with condensed milk, at which point you might as well call it what it is: dessert.)

Susan Russo (aka Food Blogga) got me thinking about oatmeal recently, when she sent out a tweet about enjoying a bowl of it for breakfast. She had swirled applesauce into hers. I had not made oatmeal in awhile, but at that moment in the morning when I read her tweet, it sounded perfect, simple and comforting. We had a message exchange about it in which she offered another suggestion: adding apples sauteed in a little butter, as well as chopped Medjool dates and pecans, and then drizzling maple syrup over the top.

Susan and I met at the IACP conference in Portland last spring, and though we don’t know each other well, we have a few things in common. We’re both Italian and we both have roots in Rhode Island, where my dad grew up. I love her recipes; they’re fresh, healthful and creative, often Italian or Italian-inspired, and occasionally indulgent. As for her oatmeal, I like the fact that she considers it worthy of Medjool dates and of taking the time to saute apples for it.

Shortly after my exchange with Susan, I came across this blog post by cookbook author Mark Scarbrough about making fried oatmeal using leftovers. Mark uses steel-cut oats in his oatmeal recipe, and because they take a long time to become tender he cooks them overnight in a slow cooker. He chills the leftovers in a pan, turning them into a cake–not unlike a polenta cake–which he then cuts into bars and fries. Clever, I thought, and resourceful, and he’s not afraid to fry!

Like Mark, I prefer the coarse texture of steel-cut oats to flakes, and so that’s what I use. My oatmeal hovers somewhere between my mom’s and my dad’s (probably closer to my mom’s). I like the idea of it being healthful, so I sometimes make it with skim milk. But if I happen to have whole milk in my fridge I might use that. Or I’ll add a splash of cream or half-and-half. I stir in cinnamon and either brown sugar or maple syrup, and sometimes it takes me awhile to decide between the two. I also toss in a handful of dried cherries. As they cook, the cherries soften and plump up. I stir my oatmeal methodically as it bubbles on the stovetop, inhaling its sweet aroma and warmth, and daydreaming while it cooks (until I wake up and realize I have to to pack lunch for the kids).

I’m not sure what my oatmeal says about me; probably that I’m indecisive, and that I aspire toward eating healthfully but really lean toward indulgence, and that I am not a great manager of time. Whatever the case, I can say for sure that I make a decent bowl of oatmeal and it’s not a bad way to greet a winter morning. How do you make your oatmeal? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Buon Appetito!

Makes 1 serving

Winter Morning Oatmeal

Copyright 2010 by Domenica Marchetti


  • 1/4 cup steel-cut oats
  • 3/4 cup milk (skim, low-fat, or whole), or more as needed to cook the oatmeal to a cream consistency
  • 2 tablespoons dried tart cherries
  • Tiniest dash of salt
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons brown sugar or maple syrup, or to taste
  • Generous sprinkle of cinnamon
  • Splash of cream or half-and-half


Place the oats, milk and cherries in a small heavy-bottomed saucepan and sprinkle in the salt. Set the pan over medium heat and bring the milk to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and cook the oats at a very gentle simmer, stirring all the while. Stir in the brown sugar and cinnamon and continue to cook until the oats are tender and the oatmeal is creamy. This will probably take longer than it says on the box (the directions on the box of Arrowhead Mills oats that I used called for cooking the oats in 1/2 cup water for 10 to 12 minutes; mine, cooked in milk, took at least twice that long). Toward the end of cooking, add a splash (or two) of cream and half-and-half. Top with additional cherries and a sprinkle of cinnamon if you like and serve hot.

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6 Responses to Message In a Bowl

  1. susan from food blogga November 15, 2010 at 6:23 pm #

    In addition to our Rhode Island and Italian heritage, it appears we share an affinity for humble oats as well. What a lovely post, Domenica. Thanks so much for including me. How did we survive pre-social media? 😉

    • Domenica November 15, 2010 at 6:49 pm #

      Thanks to you, Susan. It was you who got me thinking about this in the first place. : )

  2. Nate @ House of Annie November 16, 2010 at 12:24 am #

    I cook my oatmeal with plain water and sprinkled with dried cranberries, cinnamon and honey at serving time. My trick is to cook it overnight, pouring boiling water over the oats and letting them absorb the water and cook on the unlit stove. In the morning I just turn on the fire for a few minutes, stirring to keep the bottom from burning. It’s quick and easy, so I don’t have to spend so much time in the morning preparing breakfast.

    • Domenica November 16, 2010 at 1:06 am #

      Hi Nate, thanks for your comment. Yours sounds like a great way to cook oatmeal, especially for a weekday breakfast. I’m curious about your stove. What kind is it?

  3. Maria/Maja November 16, 2010 at 4:05 am #

    All these versions of oatmeal sound wonderful……….no wonder I do not like my version – actually my father’s version………cooked in water with a sprinkle of salt and when it is cooked some cold milk is added. I tried the packaged stuff…….I liked the flavors……but was concerned about additives, etc……
    I just cannot imagine that I could not be more creative in the oatmeal department……..since otherwise I feel that I have the gift of creativity in me…….
    This was a great blog……to read…….I will subscribe……..

    • Domenica November 16, 2010 at 12:27 pm #

      Hi Maria,
      Thanks for your comment. Yes, there’s a lot you can do to improve on basic oatmeal. I’m glad you are enjoying the blog and I look forward to more exchanges.

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