Grains are a staple — the staple — the world over. Wheat, barley and rye have grown wild since time immemorial. Their cultivation stretches back to the stone age, more than 10,000 years ago. Little by little, people learned to work the soil, plant seed, cut the stalks and harvest the seeds. They domesticated the plants that became modern-day corn and rice. They used mills to grind the grains into flour, which they could then consume in the form of gruel or flat breads either cooked over coals or under the ashes.
Though cereal is a synonym for grain, most modern consumers associate the word with ready-to-eat cold breakfast cereals. It would be a pity to limit yourself only to them, as most are loaded with sugar and low in fibre. Is their popularity due at least in part to their colourful packaging and the surprise gift inside the box? While it’s true that the trusty old canister with the picture of the Quaker and the box of Cream of Wheat aren’t exactly what you’d call flashy, that doesn’t mean their contents are without interest.
A nourishing bowl
Hot cereals supply energy, mainly in the form of carbohydrates, and an appreciable amount of protein, especially when made with milk. In other words, they’re perfect for keeping you fuelled all morning. They’re also a valuable source of iron, zinc, calcium and at least five B vitamins. A serving of iron-enriched Cream of Wheat provides an impressive quarter of your daily iron requirement. And whole-grain cereals—ones that are unrefined or minimally processed—provide fibre that’s often missing from our usual diet of pale, highly processed foods.
Cream of Rice is found in most grocery stores and is prepared just like Cream of Wheat: you sprinkle it on hot water or milk and stir for a few minutes. It’s ideal for infants and anyone on a low-gluten diet, as it’s gluten-free. But it’s not the only way to eat rice in the morning. In China and several other parts of east Asia, standard breakfast fare is a bowl of congee or jook, a rice porridge whose texture can range from fairly thick to viscous, depending on the cooking time and amount of water used. Congee is usually eaten plain with small sides of salted and pickled foods. Sometimes small amounts of meat, fish, vegetables, nuts, peanuts and seasonings are added during cooking. All variations are tasty. There’s also a sweet version to which Chinese dates (the real jujubes) and sugar are added. As Dorothy said, “we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Do you like couscous? Though often overlooked, this form of hard-wheat semolina easily holds its own at the breakfast table. You can even prepare it with a mixture of juice and water to give it more flavour.
Mohand Yahiaoui, chef-owner of Montreal’s Rites Berbères restaurant, enjoys warm couscous in the morning. Like every good Berber from his homeland of Kabylia in Algeria, Mohand is an expert at steaming couscous. But what does he do with the leftovers? “You know, as the famous chemist Lavoisier said, ‘nothing is lost . . . all is transformed.’ You reheat the leftovers, then add raisins and a little plain yogurt, soured milk or kefir. In my country, this is what people eat before heading out to the fields. It’s substantial and extremely nutritious. Sometimes we also boil semolina, finely ground like polenta, and add a little olive oil. Other hot cereals we eat are rye meal or oatmeal simmered in cow’s milk from the morning’s milking.”
If you’re not hot on the idea of oatmeal, turn to porridge made from farina (soft-wheat semolina), better known in North America as Cream of Wheat. Invented in 1893, this hot cereal has a perfectly smooth texture. You sprinkle it on hot water or milk and stir for a few minutes. An instant version can be made in a microwave oven in less than two minutes. Nutritionally speaking, as Cream of Wheat is not made from whole wheat, it has a low fibre content. Nonetheless, it remains attractive as a source of iron.
Iranian by birth and a Montrealer by choice, Hemela Pourafzal is the head chef and owner of Byblos, Le Petit Café, a cozy restaurant in Montreal’s East End that serves haleem, a surprising porridge made from farina, cinnamon and turkey. Yes, turkey. Hemela explains: “Haleem is a common dish in Iran. We eat it early in the morning, especially in winter. There are plenty of mountains near Tehran, and lots of people go rock-climbing and hiking there on the weekend. When you arrive at the top, there are always stands with large pots of haleem to greet you. Eat some and you’re full till noon.” As the dish takes a while to prepare, haleem is usually bought ready-made, like the morning’s bread or breakfast pastries. “Whole wheat is cooked with turkey until very tender. It’s then sieved to remove the hull and obtain the cream. Butter, a little sugar and salt, salep (ground orchid tuber used as a thickener) and cinnamon are added next. Just before serving, the haleem is topped with melted butter, sugar and cinnamon, giving it a rich chestnut-brown colour. You mix it all together with your spoon and dig in.” Like oatmeal, haleem isn’t sweet to start with but each person adds sugar to taste.
A comfort food, a quick meal par excellence, the gruel of the poor, irredeemably linked with wartime sacrifice—oatmeal leaves no one indifferent. This icon of the breakfast table was brought to Canada in the 18th century by the Scottish, who call it porridge. Each type of oats—steel-cut, rolled, quick-cooking and instant—has its fans. The difference? The thinner the oats are rolled, the faster they cook. As a rule, you’re best off avoiding candy-laced oatmeal for kids and flavoured oatmeal, which is often too sweet. Instead, why not add flavourings you like? An excellent food from a health standpoint, oatmeal not only offers the advantages of a whole grain cereal but also contains soluble fibres that help prevent cardiovascular disease by lowering blood cholesterol.
In northern Italy, polenta—a kind of cornmeal mush with peasant roots—is often served with the evening meal. In her polenta course, Elena Faita, an instructor at the Mezza Luna cooking school in Montreal’s Little Italy, explains, “In Brescia, the region my husband comes from, they eat a lot of polenta. Often they let it cool and solidify on a plate, then cut slices as needed. But they never throw away the leftovers, which are always saved for the next morning’s breakfast. You cut the polenta into small cubes, put it in a bowl with some brown sugar, and pour on hot—not cold—milk. Some people also add a dash of cinnamon. Kids love it!”
A bowl of hot cereal does much more than nourish us. It also warms our heart and soul. What more can you ask for?
Tasty and nutritious garnishes
Here are some delicious combinations of ingredients for topping your hot cereals. Some add sweetness, others add crunch, fibre, spice flavours and fresh fruit. All will help you get the day off to a great start:
- Apples, cinnamon and brown sugar Dates and walnuts
- Raisins, almonds and nutmeg
- Blueberries, honey and wheat germ
- Maple-sweetened dried cranberries and hazelnuts
- Strawberries, pistachios and cardamom
- Toasted pecans and maple syrup
- Peaches, vanilla sugar and ground flaxseed
- Dried apricots and chocolate chips
- Banana and sweetened dried coconut