Beyond Instant Oatmeal

Instant hot cereal comes in so many shapes, flavors and guises that, for some, there doesn't seem to be much reason to make it from scratch any more. Yet instant cereals have nothing on the satisfying texture and flavor of homemade oats and other hot cereals, which you can flavor the way you like, with creative toppings. You’ll get more nutrition from these less-processed grains, and you can save money when you make breakfast from already cooked, wholesome grains such as brown rice, quinoa or polenta.

Steel-cut oats have risen in popularity recently because of their high protein and fiber content and their toothsome texture. The challenge is they take up to 30 minutes to prepare, which I have a hard time pulling off in the morning. No problem – just cook them the night before, let cool completely, and reheat the next day or two with a little extra water, milk, or soy milk. Or soak the raw oats in water, milk or any other liquid the night before; they'll cook in just 10 minutes the next morning.

I've become a big fan of Scottish oats, which combine some of the al dente quality of steel-cut oats with the comforting, thick creaminess of porridge made from rolled oats. The oats are processed in a traditional stone mill, which leaves more of the bran behind. These oats take between 10 and 30 minutes to cook, so I usually make a double batch and have the rest the next day.

If you have leftover cooked brown rice, quinoa or other grains, place leftovers in a pot with 1 1/2 times as much water, soy milk or milk as the grain, by volume. Bring to a simmer and cook (uncovered) until the grain is very soft but still has a little texture, about 20 minutes. Cover and let sit for 5 to 10 minutes; the porridge will thicken as it rests, but if you prefer a thicker texture, pulse briefly in a blender. Season with a touch of honey, agave nectar or maple syrup and a pinch of salt. Or for jook, the Chinese savory breakfast porridge, drizzle with soy sauce and toasted sesame oil and sprinkle with green onions.

You can also make a great hot breakfast with leftover cooked polenta. Just slice it and cook it on a buttered griddle until browned on each side and warmed through, then drizzle with warm maple syrup or top with salsa and a bit of shredded cheese. It’s like a cross between hot cereal and pancakes---what could be better?

When it comes to fruit toppings, in addition to raisins, try chopped dried figs, dates or apricots—add them to the hot cereal and allow them to soften for 5 minutes, covered. Top with toasted walnuts or almonds. Or, combine frozen blackberries or strawberries with a cinnamon stick and a little maple syrup, and simmer gently for 5 minutes, then swirl into your oats. Lightly sweetened, fruit-flavored yogurt is another delicious topping.

Whether you like them savory or sweet, whole grain hot cereals will be a hearty and delicious addition to your breakfast repertoire. And there are so many options to explore—grits, groats, barley, and lots of multi-grain combinations, to name a few—plenty to keep your breakfasts exciting.