Summer is a parade of fruits. First come the berries, the strawberries, blueberries and, finally, the raspberries, followed by the stone fruits like cherries, peaches, apricots and whatnot. My friend Sara has a certain combination of grains that she calls by the unfortunate name of “gruel.”

Her gruel is not the kind you might expect to be served at the
local prison camp or Rainbow Gathering. It’s thick and interesting, with a
complex, nutty flavor, and it’s great beneath fruit from breakfast to
desert. 

“I like it because it sounds like Dickens,” Sara told me, knowing full well her grains aren’t gruel.

Porridge and gruel are two points along a spectrum of boiled
grains that can be cooked and served with, among other things, berries and
fruit. Porridge is thicker, and has a better name, derived from an old-world
style of one-pot cookery called potage. Porridge has a homey, comforting sound
that takes you to a world of where breakfast is just right.

Gruel, on the other hand, is what babies, refugees and
hippies eat. It is not a pretty word for food. The sound itself is
unappetizing, and rolls off the tongue like wet cement. As the inspiration for
the word “grueling,” it implies that eating a bowl of the stuff is some kind of
ordeal.

Whatever we call it, the good news is gruel is great with strawberries and yogurt, and works in savory dishes too — Sara’s gruel, anyway, which is on the thick side of porridge, and more like a pot of cooked grains than a liquid. It has no business being called gruel, but I suppose when you have as many glass jars filled with seeds as she does, you can call your potage Ahab the Sailor. But in hopes of never making you read the word gruel again, I’ll just call today’s recipe potage, short for Sara’s Potage Process. 

Based on a mixture of quinoa and steel-cut oats, Sara tweaks her potage with smaller amounts of other grains like sunflower, hemp and chia seeds. It forms a thick matrix of grains that are not overcooked, with the right amount of resistance to the tooth.

There is a long tradition of mixing grains, fruit and some
dairy product, from cobbler with ice cream to granola and fruit with milk to
bread with butter and jam. Even a berry cheesecake, with a crust based on
finely ground wheat, would qualify. Potage deserves a place on this Pantheon as
well.

When putting together a plate of fruit, cream and grains,
the sweet and sour levels are crucial. If you have a sauce like chokecherry
syrup, that’s ideal. Otherwise, make something with rhubarb, or pie
cherries. 

I usually cook my potage unsweetened, so the sweetness I add
at serving time is the sweetness we get. Everyone likes a little sweetness — no
big surprise there. But the tartness is an unexpected game-changer, making the
whole dish more interesting and balanced.

The core of the potage process is to simmer a mix of equal
parts quinoa and steel cut oats, as both grains cook to perfection in the same
amount of time, each arriving at a place that complements the other. Quinoa
cooked to this point would not hold together alone, but the steel cut oats add
their binding, moisturizing, some might say slimy soluble fibers, forming an
invisible mortar, while the quinoa sucks up the excess, drying out the oats.

A pot of this gruel holds together with the ease of a pot of rice, and the leftovers don’t harden into a solid mass the next day — at least in my version, where I leave out Sara’s chia and sunflower seeds, keep her hemp seeds, and add sesame seeds. This mix of nutty earthtones sets up a delicious, interesting contrast with the fruit, cream and, especially, that tartness. 

The ways to doctor any such mixture toward sweet and creamy
are many, but it can be served savory as well. My favorite is dressed with soy
sauce, toasted sesame oil and minced green onion or scape, served room
temperature.

Potage, pottage, porridge, and other versions of the
historical dish upon which this meal is based, is the original one-pot meal.
Some renditions include beans, meat and bones, while others are sweet from the
start. But the rules of this ancient game have remained steady since long
before they were ever written down: Cook the pottage in a pot, slowly. Don’t
burn it. Add water when necessary. But not too much, unless you want
gruel. 

Berry Peachy Potage
This rendition contains sesame and hemp seeds, but you should definitely adjust explore ways to augment the quinoa/oat base, and find your own grueling groove, whatever that may be. 
A 4-quart pot’s worth, yields about 10 small servings

Potage base
1 cup steel-cut oats
1 cup quinoa (I prefer red quinoa, for color)
4 cups water (with more at the ready)
1 tablespoon untoasted sesame seeds
1 tablespoon raw, shelled hemp seeds
pinch of salt

Berries and cream option
1 scoop per serving of creamy material, like whipped cream or heavy yogurt
1 cup berries, cherries, apricots, peaches, apples or whatever is ripe and sweet 
A sweet and tart syrup like rhubarb, cherry or chokecherry

Add the potage base ingredients to a heavy-bottomed pot, and
bring to a boil. Bring back to a simmer and keep it there for about 20 minutes,
until the grains have all swollen and softened to the point where they feel good
to chew. The water may disappear before you get there, so be prepared to add
more. Don’t over-stir, but keep track of what is happening on the bottom of the
pot. When the grains are good to chew, turn the heat to low and slowly let the
water cook off. Turn off the heat and let it cool to room temperature, and
store in the fridge.

Serve room temperature or chilled with berries and creamy
material. 

Don’t let the components of this culinary structure mix
until they reach your mouth. Just as you wouldn’t stir a plate of cheesecake
into a sloppy mess before eating it, a dish of berry potage is best served
deconstructed. Drenched in a sweet, tart syrup, of course.

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