Whenever I read about someone enjoying their porridge plain, ‘with just water and salt’, a small part of me withers and dies quietly inside. It is often, apparently, meant to seem like a badge of honour (specifically, a sort of Spartan-cum-Northern honour): look how I shun the decadent trappings of modern culinary life in favour of my abstemious bowlful of gruel; look how little I require to achieve true happiness. While I am undoubtedly envious – imagine how much simpler one’s entire existence must be if one is sated by just oats and salt – I can’t help but think of all the opportunities that are closed down by that Puritan preference for a no-nonsense breakfast bowl.
Slices of ripe banana, a dollop of blueberry compote and a handful of toasted sunflower seeds. Chopped ripe pear, jewel-like dried cranberries, a few wisps of fresh nutmeg and a drizzle of thick honey. Grated apple, plump sultanas, a dash of maple syrup. Roasted plums in ginger and orange juice. Poached pink rhubarb, toasted almonds and a spoonful of treacly brown sugar. While I draw the line at excessive over-adornment of porridge (nut butters, dollops of yoghurt and tropical fruit – with the exception of banana – have no place atop a bowl of the oaty stuff, in my opinion), there is a glorious world of fruity enrichment out there that goes way beyond water and salt. That said, a pinch of salt is a must in any bowl of porridge to bring out the flavour of the oats, even if you’re going to add sweet toppings later.
The best porridge toppings are those you can make ahead and keep in the fridge to spoon over your morning breakfast bowl. This has the advantage of making a weekday breakfast super-quick, but it also means you get a lovely temperature contrast between the piping hot porridge and chilled topping. This is a variation on one of my all-time favourite recipes: a simple compote of dried fruit simmered gently in flavoursome liquid to form a plump, syrupy mass of sticky-sweet fruity goodness. You can cook the fruit in anything from plain water to orange or apple juice, but my personal favourite liquid to use is tea.
Poaching fruit in tea gives it a lovely subtle flavour that will vary depending on which tea you use. A smoky black lapsang souchong will give a very different flavour profile to a light green tea or an Earl Grey. My current favourite is a tea from Bluebird Tea Co.’s new spring collection, Bears Like Marmalade. A blend of apple pieces, rosehip, hibiscus, orange peel, sumac, lemon peel and orange blossom, this one packs an incredible citrus punch as soon as you open the packet. It could well be, as Bluebird describe it, Paddington Bear’s beloved orange marmalade infused tea – there is a wonderfully strong marmalade aroma to the blend, and a vibrant fruitiness with every mouthful of this gorgeous rosy brew.
The dried apricots, prunes and cranberries in this compote drink up the orange-scented tea like thirsty succulents, becoming beautifully plump and tender as they simmer. They lose that cloying stickiness characteristic of dried fruit and become gorgeously soft and sweet instead, the tea simmering into a rich, dark syrup lightly flavoured with orange. You could use any dried fruit for this – figs, raisins, sultanas and dried berries all work well, though I’ve also experimented with dried mango and pineapple to good effect (which I suppose breaks my rule about no tropical fruit on porridge, but it’s dried, so it’s quite a different beast). Just keep the quantities roughly the same. I like to adorn the compote with slices of blood orange or normal orange just before serving, for an extra orange hit – try it. Thinly sliced apple would work well, too.
A batch of this will sit happily in the fridge for a week – simply spoon onto hot porridge, or serve with yoghurt or granola. You could even enjoy it for dessert with ice cream, or use it to accompany a simple slice of cake.
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Apricot, prune and cranberry compote in orange tea (makes 4 servings):
- 400ml water
- 2 tsp Bluebird Tea Co. Bears Like Marmalade tea (or other tea of your choice)
- 100g dried apricots
- 150g dried prunes
- 100g dried cranberries
Put the water in a medium saucepan and bring to the boil. Add the loose tea to the water, turn off the heat and set aside for 15 minutes to infuse. Strain the tea through a sieve or tea strainer and return it to the pan (discard the tea leaves). Bring to a low simmer, then add the dried fruit. Turn the heat down to a very gentle simmer, cover the pan and cook for around 1 hour, until the fruit has swelled and the liquid has turned syrupy. Check halfway through the cooking time - if it looks too dry, add a little more water. You want some orange-scented syrup left in the pan, but you don’t want it to be too watery. Set aside to cool a little before serving, or refrigerate and eat it cold. Add sliced orange segments or thinly sliced apple, if you like. Great on porridge, yoghurt, granola, or with ice cream or crème fraiche for dessert.