The Invalid's Breakfast: Ginger-Scented Brown Rice Porridge

Thursday, November 1, 2012 9 comments

How easy is it to make oatmeal?

If you can boil water, you can make it. Heck, if you can tear open a pouch, pour the contents into a bowl, mix it with water and pop it into a microwave oven, you'll quickly have some creamy cooked oats. The only thing difficult about making oatmeal is imagining how someone could possibly make a hash of it. Until someone does.

Please, Sir, I [Don't] Want Some More

As a recent guest ('patient' inaccurately describes my antsy, get-me-the-hell-outta-here state) in one of the Philippines' most modern hospitals, I wasn't expecting to feast like a princess. But neither did I anticipate being fed like a Dickensian pauper, which is how I felt when the cover was lifted off my first breakfast tray.

There, in a pink plastic bowl, was my oatmeal - or something scurrilously appropriating that name. Desultory oats swam in a slurry as thin as bath water and looking just as appetizing. Needing more than the single packet of sugar provided to add flavor, I was tempted to invoke a nuclear option and dump an entire pouch of 3-in-1 instant coffee into the sullen mess. Surely, this was the bowl that put the 'eww' in gruel.

To blame my breakfast in bleh on bad cooking would imply a one-off event and the promise of later improvement, neither of which applied in these circumstances. This gloop went beyond bad cooking and straight into the dark realm of un-cooking: a deliberate act of cookery that strips food of every molecule of taste, texture and appeal, and renders it a joyless blob of alimentation in the names of efficiency and operational costs. This was the poster dish of Institutional Cooking.

[A Tangled definition]
/in-stee-too-shu-nal koo-keeng/: Daily preparation of limited dishes for large numbers of diners in one location, e.g schools, airplanes. A common denominator is a captive audience - students, travelers, prisoners, patients, etc., - who have few to zero alternative choices. The cost of meals is usually part of room and board, e.g. dormitory meal plans, taxpayer-funded incarceration...

As a relatively easy-going eater, I've found that not all institutional cooking is such a soul-wrenching experience. I can't speak to the offerings at correctional facilities, but I've had some satisfying meals at all levels of school cafeteria and I cheerfully, even enthusiastically, accept my tray of airplane food, especially on those fortunate occasions when Mr. Noodle and I have traveled in Business Class on trans-Pacific flights. The in-flight meals during these voyages were actually quite pleasant:

In Good Health

Judging from my medical center meals, however, it seems that hospitals need to play catch-up to provide food that would enliven, rather than dampen, their customers' patients' appetites. One dubious yet lucrative strategy has been to allow casual and fast food restaurants to operate on the premises. Recognizing the incongruity of such a partnership, other institutions have turned to innovative options to address the nutritional, cultural and morale-boosting importance of serving good, healthy food.

In 2011, The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York introduced a Foodservice Management in Health Care elective - the first such course offered by any culinary program with an aim toward balancing food quality and nutrition with budgetary constraints in healthcare settings. Students spend time at local hospitals' food services as part of the class in hopes of merging culinary creativity with operational efficiency to provide the kind of food that patients should and want to eat.

Healthcare facilities from Ohio to O'ahu are installing rooftop farms, complete with apiaries and chicken coops alongside vegetable plots, to provide fresh, local and organic ingredients for their menus. Among the most notable is the garden atop Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, which sets aside a section to grow the essential herbs for traditional post-partum meals served to Hmong mothers, in keeping with that community's tightly-held customs.

In addition to providing healthy ingredients for their in-patient meals, these hospital 'green roofs' also offer environmental benefits such as regulating building temperatures and thereby lowering heating and cooling costs, and filtering airborne pollutants. And in a neat twist, hospitals, schools and other large organizations involved with institutional cooking are turning food waste into plant food with specialized pulper systems that grind and dehydrate leftovers into compost for use on their own grounds.

My Two Centavos…

While I hope to avoid any future hospital stays, I'm happy to learn that healthcare institutions are taking these steps to improve the quality of their food. As anyone who has been admitted into hospital care may attest, it is at the very least an anxious and uncomfortable time. The well-being of mind is closely connected to the recuperation of body, especially when it is away from the comforts of home. Food plays an important role in bolstering both physical and emotional strength. Bland offerings, like my watery oatmeal, do little to encourage eating for a return to good health in the very place where healing is paramount.

The medical care and personal interaction I received during my hospitalization were excellent. Now, if only they would take a wee bit of advice about their breakfasts from a food blogger with some time on her hands as she mends at home…

Ginger-Scented Brown Rice Breakfast Porridge

Aside from a surprisingly decent plate of inasal (marinated and grilled) chicken, my recent hospital meals were unremarkable. But I was particularly disappointed by the oatmeal, which is one of my favorite foods. As soon as I felt well enough to stand by the stove, I decided to make the kind of breakfast that I wish had been served - creamy, tasty and easy to make.

Instead of oats, I turned to my rice, my ultimate comfort food; specifically, I chose starchy short-grain rice, which cooks up stickier than long-grain and is therefore ideal for a creamy porridge. For flavor, I used ground ginger, which has always soothed whatever ailed me, and muscovado sugar, which lends a mocha tint and a less sweet but more caramel-like taste than white sugar. Finally, I topped the porridge with grated Asian pear tossed with calamansi juice for a contrasting crisp texture and a hint of bright citrus.

Makes 2-4 servings


1 cup cooked short-grain brown rice (approximately ⅓ cup uncooked)
1 cup whole milk
½ teaspoon ground ginger
3 tablespoons muscovado sugar + extra for sprinkling
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 pear, grated or shredded
1 teaspoon calamansi or lime juice
Crème fraîche, heavy cream or plain yogurt (optional)

In a small saucepan over medium- high heat, combine cooked brown rice, milk, ginger and sugar. Bring to a very low boil and cook, stirring often to avoid burning or sticking to the bottom, for 10 to 15 minutes or until the porridge is creamy. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla, then set aside to cool a bit.

In a separate bowl, toss shredded pear with calamansi juice. Drizzle a tablespoon of crème fraîche, cream or yogurt over the porridge, garnish with citrus-y pear and sprinkle with muscovado sugar.


  • kat said...

    Yeah, my dad just had a long stay in the hospital too & the food was just not good, which made the stay seem even longer. I hope you are geting better fast!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Kat - Hi and thanks! Yes, I'm doing better but have to remind myself to not overdo it. I hope your dad is recuperating equally well. I hate to dump on the folks in the hospital kitchen, but some of that food never should have been! You know what they say: if you want it done right… ;-)

  • The Duo Dishes said...

    It's nearly impossible to get a good meal in hospitals unless you are rich and famous...or have a friend sneak in a decent dish for you. It's nice to be home, recuperate and eat well as your body repairs. Take care of yourself!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Rebecca - Thank you & hope it doesn't sound conceited when I say it tasted a whole lot better, too! ;-)

    Duo - Thanks and I will take it easy! I've made a cozy nest on the sofa from which to tweet, blog, email, etc. I think I've got another week to be able to milk sympathy from the hubs before I'll have to get my own treats from the fridge! ;-)

  • BettyAnn @Mango_Queen said...

    I enjoyed your take on how health care facilities are doing their part to jump into self- sustainability programs to improve nutrition and taste in what they serve. Thanks for all these helpful info and providing where you obtained the resources. It's worth looking into what these institutions are doing! And now for the recipe -- oh my I didn't realize brown rice could churn such a delish porridge! I must make this soon. Thanks for sharing the recipe. Glad to see you're on the mend. I absolutely LOVE the blog redesign! I can tell you now, my own WD, @bigredtim would surely approve of what you did on this site! Get well wishes & hugs sent your way :-)

  • Lori said...

    Oh wow, that is awful. Your version on the other hand sounds amazing! It is on the agenda to try soon. I hope you are doing okay. And say out of the hospital and that oatmeal. :)

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    BettyAnn - It was very heartening to read about hospitals' making the extra effort. The food at St. Luke's was the only off-note in the whole package - the level of care and quality of facilities were topnotch otherwise! Glad you like the new design. I found a free template online & am very pleased with it. 8-)

    Lori - LOL! I will do my utmost to avoid being a 'guest' in a hospital again. But if I do, I will be sure to bring my own oatmeal! ;-)


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