Growing up in the countryside, the middle of nowhere, the boonies––whatever you’d like to call it––you would expect that the surrounding farmland served as a muse, providing a bounty of fresh, local flavour inspiration for my family dinners. You’d expect a mother canning away, preserving her harvest, sneering at packaged cereals for her kids’ breakfast. And you’d be extraordinarily wrong. It’s a very romantic version of my childhood that many people think was my childhood––and it really wasn’t.
My brother, sister, and I did “forage” for wild raspberries at our family cottage in (very, very, very) northern Ontario, Canada. But then we put them on our “looped fruit” cereal (trying to avoid angry legal emails here) for breakfast. My mother was, if I’m to put this nicely, unenthusiastic about cooking. She was a child of the 1950s and 60s, growing up with futuristic canned and packaged meals lovingly prepared by her mother, my grandma, who, still living in her mid-90s, has never and will never cook the way you think grandmothers are “supposed” to cook. (To be fair, my mom could make a great homemade strawberry rhubarb pie, likewise the best buttertarts in the known universe, and she always did a big spread for Christmas; I’m talking about the everyday here.) I wouldn’t change a thing though. I’ve been able to shape my own cooking style honestly through trial and error (emphasis on the error), and collect the cookbooks that reflect my personal taste in food.
By the time I was 11 or 12, I’d graduated from “looped fruit” cereal to “shredded squares of wheat” cereal with a canned pear perched on top. I was always highly amused when the milk got caught in the little pear belly button, and still kind of am, if I’m being frank (my cooking style may have matured, but I certainly haven’t). A little while later, I took one of my mom’s Canadian Living magazines, opened up to the cooking section, and saw greek salad. It looked simple enough and had, gasp, homemade dressing. For a girl who grew up on “lite” bottled dressings, this was truly living on the edge, and I figured at the very least I could make a salad. Naturally, I became obsessed with making greek salad, bringing it to school in my velcro lunchbag nearly every day, feeling like a boss with my homemade dressing. It seemed healthy and good for me and tasted alright, I mean, who doesn’t like feta cheese? That same year I roasted raw almonds (I know, I’m dangerous), snacking on them before hours of ballet that evening.
It wasn’t until my late teens when my mom passed away, nearly a decade ago now, did I start to experiment with more esoteric recipes (at this time “esoteric” to me meant things like couscous). My experimentation was likely for no other reason than: WHO THE HELL IS GOING TO COOK DINNER!? So, I started to read more about cooking, which further spurred my already existing cookbook collecting (okay, let’s call a spade a spade: cookbook hoarding) behaviour, and found dozens of recipes online that I’d seen chefs prepare on television. I bought “good” olive oil that I’d watched Ina Garten glug over potatoes before roasting, and baked chocolate malt sandwich cookies that Martha Stewart masterfully whipped up. I was cooking, people! Without supervision!
In university I bought cookbooks based on their bright covers, not really knowing who the authors were. One book in particular, In the Mood for Food by Jo Pratt, shouted at me with its loud, pink cover and a photo of Pratt eating a donut, presumably for breakfast. The image of a gorgeous adult woman on the cover, eating a donut, looking truly happy about the damn donut that she made, got me excited. I wanted to be that woman; I aspired to be Jo Pratt thereafter. I made the rogan josh recipe from her book probably too many times and served it with brown rice. Pratt’s book made me feel like I could maybe, almost, nearly-definitely start cooking with more real ingredients. I faked it until I could make it. After the rogan josh success, I made Pratt’s super-packable bulgar salad (pre quinoa craze days), and then I bought an Ina Garten cookbook (and then another…and then another…) and made her roasted salmon with an herb crust, lusting after the lifestyle she was selling along with it. I piggybacked on each recipe creation, gaining more and more confidence with each meal and dogeared recipe page. I even started to insert little sticky notes with substitutions. Nigella’s Feast taught me and my dad how to roast a whole turkey for Christmas. And in Jamie’s Dinners, I learned the basics of stew.
It was a slow, steady, and failure-rich experience when I learned to cook on my own. It wasn’t the pastoral dream filled with armloads of fresh vegetables that many people assume it was––this came later. To my surprise, I realized that I could try locally grown foods at the farmers’ market in my hometown (how had I never been?). I could even stop at a produce stand on a dirt road and pick up a pile of squash to have for dinner, and not just Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, but Wednesday night’s dinner for no other reason than I wanted squash today. These foods and meals may not seem exotic to you, but please understand that I had neither heard of nor eaten (to my knowledge) kale, now a stalwart ingredient in many homes, until I was in my twenties, making this all a rather big leap for me culinarily-wise. Still, my fancy-to-me creations skipped one meal: breakfast.
I continued to eat packaged oatmeal in university, justifying my choice thusly: “But it says ‘organic‘ and has flaxseed, so it is obviously gourmet and super healthy.” I know, I know, it’s actually very yucky and tastes like artificially flavoured tissue paper, but, well, I liked it then and I’m not ashamed to admit it. When I took a deeper interest in my own health and nutrition (and wallet), I realized I could make oatmeal from simply rolled oats. Wild, right? Just plain oats cooked in the microwave with some fresh berries on top was how it started. And then I tried cooking the oats with milk and whoa, was that a treat. And then I added cinnamon. And holy smokes, buckle up, I got really wacky and tried cooking it on the stovetop. I learned a few new things each morning, namely, you can’t add blueberries to the oats while cooking or you’ll turn your breakfast a rather unappetizing, slightly space alien shade of grey-green; and always, always add more salt than you think––the oats can take it. Of course, at this time savoury oats weren’t on the menu because I’m confident they weren’t invented yet (i.e. on Pinterest).
Savoury oats skeptic? That’s okay, I was too, but think about it: Oats are a perfect blank canvas, much like rice for risotto, to take “dinner spices.” And savoury oats don’t have to be for breakfast if the concept makes you feel uneasy––try them at lunch or dinner instead. Consider oats as you would any other grain, even think of them as polenta if it helps. They are ready, willing, able, and I would go so far as to say eager to accept whatever flavours you throw at them. Here I’ve done butternut squash, now appearing at roadside farm stands everywhere, along with a soft-boiled egg and thread of homemade herb oil. These pretty, autumnal things feel completely relaxed and comfy-cozy on a fat pillow of oats cooked in, yes, milk, and on, yes, the stovetop.
Homemade oatmeal for my morning meal is a habit I’m more than happy to keep up, even if it does take a little longer. But I’m clearly in no hurry, after all, it only took me a decade to start cooking breakfast from scratch! In my experience, one must learn to walk in the kitchen before one can run. It’s a marathon I’m carb-loaded and stretched for though.
For the hungry, find the recipe below. For the curious, here’s a list of some of my very first cookbooks in no particular order (some were my moms, some I picked up on my own, some were gifts):
Food That Really Schmecks (make the pancakes!) by Edna Staebler (1968)
Ken’s Soup Krazy by Ken Kostick (2000)
Looneyspoons (I believe this is out of print, The Looneyspoons Collection (2012) has your back!) by Greta Podleski and Janet Podleski (1997)
The Best of Bridge (my brother’s favourite holiday “wife saver” (terrible title) should be on your list!) by The Editors of Best of Bridge
In the Mood for Food (make the rogan josh!) by Jo Pratt (2008)
Jamie’s Dinners by Jamie Oliver (2004)
Feast by Nigella Lawson (2006)
The River Cottage Cookbook by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (2008)
The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook (make the maple scones and the brownies!) by Ina Garten (1999)
Williams-Sonoma New Flavors for Dessert by Raquel Pelzel (2008)
- Herb Oil
- 2 large sprigs fresh rosemary
- 5 large sprigs fresh thyme, plus more for serving
- 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- Roasted Squash
- ½ butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into ½-inch cubes
- 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Sea salt, to taste
- 1¼ cups almond milk, plus more to thin
- ½ cup large flake rolled oats (not instant)
- ½ cup walnuts, chopped
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- ¼ teaspoon sea salt
- For Serving
- 2 extra-large eggs
- Ground black pepper, to taste
- For the Herb Oil: In a medium, clean glass jar, stuff herbs in the bottom and cover with oil. Make sure herbs are fully submerged. Tightly seal and place in a cool, dark place for 5 days. Strain and discard herbs. Store in an airtight glass jar in the pantry for up to 1 year.
- For the Roasted Squash: Preheat oven to 375ºF. On a large rimmed baking sheet, toss squash with oil and salt. Roast for 25 to 30 minutes, until tender and beginning to brown. Keep warm.
- For the Oatmeal: Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, bring milk, oats, walnuts, lemon juice, and salt to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook, uncovered, stirring often for 10 to 15 minutes. Add additional almond milk or water to thin, 1 tablespoon at a time, until desired consistency.
- For the Soft-Boiled Eggs (6-Minute Eggs): Meanwhile, fill a medium saucepan with 4-inches of water and bring to a boil. Gently place eggs in water and cook for 6 to 7 minutes (extra-large eggs verge on the 6.5 to 7 minute mark). Drain and rinse with cold tap water. Gently tap and peel to remove shell.
- To Serve: In two warmed bowls, scoop in oatmeal, top with squash, a halved soft-boiled egg (halve over oats so it doesn't "yolk" everywhere), a drizzle of herb oil (or plain extra-virgin olive oil), and crack of black pepper. Garnish with additional thyme if desired and serve immediately.