There’s a hike that I try to get to once a week. Nestled in the dramatic, golden Marin headlands, it starts above the Pacific coast just south of Stinson Beach, and makes its way determinedly up the mountain into Mt. Tamalpais State Park. Most of the time, it is the same tangle of trails that I fall into, instinctively. For a while I felt like I ought to explore new trails, step outside my familiar routine, understand the nuances of the park a little more deeply. Then I started to really appreciate going to the same place weekly. There are so many little details that are different, especially if I miss a week or two: the angle of the sun through the dark canopy of trees that I pass under as I make my way into the woods; which flowers are blooming, or not; the colors and textures of the forest floor; the hues of the grassy hills; which animals I might see or hear. (At dusk, I hear owls, other times, frogs, and often, seasonal cycles of birdsong; I’ve seen a young deer leaping out of the canopy; and once, a small, surprised bobcat.) And something else happens: because I don’t have to worry about where I’m going, I just get to be there. The mind relaxes differently when it’s not thinking about the how. Some weeks I go up there with so much angst from my life that I am not very much there at all. Others, I’m so deeply immersed in the shady cocoon of woods that I am caught off guard as dusk falls. Always, I leave feeling so much more like the me that I want to be.
Lately I’ve been fiercely grabbing on to these rituals, those familiar, everyday acts that fill the pockets of our days. Walking through my neighborhood in the evenings, often along the same few roads, or making that same, satisfying preparation of my favorite vegetables, week after week. I think some of it is because so much of my life – especially my work life – is about the new and the unfamiliar, so much of it is me in at the deep end, that I need the anchoring that comes with familiar habits.
Oatmeal falls very much into this camp for me: it’s comfortingly familiar and it is very much a ritual of the morning. It’s one of perhaps three breakfasts in rotation most mornings of the year. To all the naysayers out there, give this a try. It’s got the texture and the sweet/salty balance that is sometimes lacking in this most everyday of breakfasts, and the nuttiness and toothsome qualities of steel-cut oats really redeems it. I like to mix it up a little, depending on what fruit’s in season, and vacillating between the ease of quick-cooking oats and the deeper satisfaction of steel-cut. I love what Megan has done with the initial toasting of the oats in butter; it’s kinda genius and the simplest little step for the depth of flavor that it adds. Make a big batch at the beginning of the week and keep it in the fridge. And add nuts, fruit, cinnamon and cardamom generously, and maple syrup and even some toasted coconut flakes. These details make it feel both like you’re taking care of yourself and treating yourself. It’s a perfect ritual.
STEEL CUT OATMEAL WITH APPLES, PECANS + TOASTED COCONUT
Yield: 4 servings
adapted from Whole Grain Mornings, by Megan Gordon
I’ve been so excited for this gem of a book to be released. Now that it’s here, I’m smitten. Breakfast is such a rich subject, and Megan’s aced it. Steel-cut oats, I learned long ago, benefit from a little salt to bolster the sweet – don’t be shy here. Do whatever you like with them to finish, but give this method a whirl to start. The toasting of the oats is an awesome first step.
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 cup steel cut oats
3 cups water
1 cup unsweetened almond milk (use whichever kind of milk you prefer, of course)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
For each bowl:
1/2 firm apple, diced
In a medium, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-low heat, warm the butter until it is frothy. Add the oats and toast, stirring often, until they’re golden and fragrant, about 5 to 6 minutes. Add the water and almond milk, along with a generous pinch of sea salt and as much cinnamon and cardamom as suits your fancy, and bring to a boil, partially covered. Reduce heat to low and allow to simmer, stirring often enough to prevent burning, until the liquid is absorbed, about 25 to 30 minutes more.
To serve, top with the diced apple, a generous sprinkle of coconut flakes, and a small handful of pecan pieces. Finish with maple syrup – this is truly among the greatest of vehicles for this fine sweetener. Or start with the method above and finish with your favorite fruits and nuts. Regardless, enjoy.