When I was a tiny baby, my mom (who was a rank novice in the parenting game at the time) had read that the first thing she should try to feed me when she was weaning me onto solid foods was mashed banana. Sensible: it’s packed with nutrients and of a consistency that even a tiny baby could successfully gum into submission before swallowing and besides, who doesn’t like bananas, right? Well, erm… me, actually. I am told that she spooned the first bit into my mouth and that the reaction was instant: I screwed up my whole face, threw my hands up in protest while clenching and unclenching my pudgy little fists, threw my tongue into reverse and tried to back that disgusting goo out of my mouth as fast as I could. Four decades later, I still feel exactly the same about bananas, which goes to show that tastes don’t change. Or do they?
As babies, we are genetically programmed to want the food that is most beneficial to our chances of survival: mother’s milk. To put on weight, an infant needs a fairly precise ratio of fat (plenty of) to sugar (plenty of), and this ratio finds its most perfect expression in human breast milk. Ever wondered why vanilla ice-cream remains the world’s best-selling flavour? Because the ratio of fat to sugar in ice-cream is almost exactly the same as in breast milk, and (evidently) breast milk has a vanilla-like flavour. So some atavistic foodie yearnings stay with us for life – but others are definitely subject to change. The reason for this is partly physiological: as infants, we have around 30,000 tastebuds scattered throughout our mouths, but by the time we reach adulthood only about a third of these survive, mainly those on the tongue. So whereas we are all supertasters in infancy, our sense dulls as we grow, dulling strident flavours and accounting for the acquisition of all those super-salty, bitter, pungent or otherwise unusual “acquired taste” foodstuffs like caviar, olives, artichokes, Gorgonzola, coffee, beer and gin.
Me? I was the exception to the rule. After refusing my first bowl of gooey banana goodness (shudder!) I then proceeded at the age of two to go away with my parents for a weekend on a 2-day cruise and stunned everyone by subsisting on a diet of olives for the full two days. Sandwiches, ice-creams, sausages and all manner of kid-friendly treats were paraded before me, but all I wanted was more olives. Clearly I had a savoury tooth right from the start! But that’s not to say that my tastes have not changed. For most people the major change in tastes that comes with, shall we say, maturity is an increasing tolerance of spicy or bitter foods – a depressing function of our tastebuds retiring. But as always, I am the weirdo and for me, the changes have largely been an acceptance of textures that previously repulsed me. Boiled eggs? I used to literally start groaning in protest when my mom said she was making those – but since my skiing accident when I was trying to load up on protein, I have discovered the utter bliss of soft-boiled eggs and toast dippers. Similarly, as a kid I always took my cornflakes or other breakfast cereal with the least amount of milk possible because I wanted crunchy mouthfuls. The idea of a bowl of soggy cereal or (worse!) porridge made me queasy. But after my accident when I needed a good breakfast that Nick could make for me in 5 minutes flat before work, I was surprised to discover that I had developed a taste for oat porridge.
Everywhere you turn these days, you are told how terribly bad carbohydrates are for you and that they are literally killing us all. I find this hard to swallow, given that mankind has eaten carbohydrates for millennia and many societies still survive on a diet of mainly carbohydrates. I have said it before and I will say it again: carbohydrates are not the problem here (or at least, not the only problem!). If I had ten cents for every article I’d read that tells you how bad breakfast cereal is for you, I would be rich enough to retire. For the most part, I agree if by breakfast cereal you mean the over-processed, artificially coloured, sugar-laden stuff that big conglomerates would like to sell you (I am, for example, still traumatised by the sugar coated bran flakes with sugar-coated raisins that I was served in Wisconsin many years ago). But consider the humble oat. It’s not glamorous, technicolour or showy. It has a fairly bland, nutty taste, comes in beige only and has little by way of wizzy packaging – but it is packed with nutrients and potential health benefits. Here is a highlights package:
- oats are high in dietary fibre, protein, B-vitamins, folates, iron, magnesium, copper, zinc and manganese.
- oats contain no cholesterol or gluten.
- oats are a natural source of beta glucan, a form of soluble dietary fibre that’s been strongly linked to lowering levels of dangerous LDL cholesterol and helping to boost heart health. Beta glucan also promotes the secretion of appetite suppressant hormones, which aids in weight control.
- oats seem to help to balance blood sugar, control insulin sensitivity and cut the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
- oats help to lower blood pressure.
So ostensibly, I make this oat porridge with spiced apple, maple syrup and toasted pecans because it is (mostly!) good for me – but in reality I make it because it is so damn delicious. I make my oats with semi-skimmed cow’s milk, but you could make them with full-fat milk, almond/soya milk, or even water. Feel free to swap the maple syrup for honey; or if you have no apples, substitute any fruits that you do have to hand. My apples, though, were a gorgeous selection of South African Pink Ladys, Braeburns and Royal Galas (see also my reasons why you should buy South African fruit) that are now available in all major UK supermarkets while we await the arrival of the British apple season. Get them while you can. Oats, however, are available all year round 😉
Here are some other dishes I have made with South African fruit:
- Mustard-crusted pork chops with caramelised apple rings
- Plum, Serrano ham and mozzarella salad
- Grilled nectarines with a saffron and lavender syrup
- Spiced maple, pear and oat muffins
- 1 apple, cored, peeled and chopped
- a knob of butter
- 1 stick cinnamon
- 1 whole star anise
- 2 cloves
- a handful of pecan nuts
- ½ cup (50g) old-fashioned rolled oats (not the instant packets!)
- 1 cup (250ml) semi-skimmed milk (or use water, or milk of your choice)
- pinch of salt
- maple syrup for serving
- Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the spices and the apple and cook until the apple begins to caramelise. Add enough water to cover the base of the saucepan and simmer till tender, making sure it does not catch.
- Break the pecans into smaller chunks and toast over medium heat in a small non-stick frying pan. Watch them carefully as they catch easily!
- If using a microwave, place 1 cup milk and half a cup of oats into a microwave safe dish, add a pinch of salt and stir. Microwave on high for 90 seconds, remove, stir and microwave on high for another 60 seconds. (Alternatively, in a small saucepan on the stove, mix the oats, salt and milk and bring to the boil. Simmer for 5 minutes. stirring occasionally, then remove pan from the heat, cover and allow to stand for a few minutes.)
- Top the oats with the spiced apple compote, roughly broken/chopped pecans and a drizzle of maple syrup and serve hot.
And if you need some inspiration for cooking with South African apples, why not try Elizabeth’s apple cardamom cake; Meeta’s sticky toffee apple cake; Camilla’s apple marzipan dumplings; Nazima’s apple meringue tartlets; Sarah’s apple and beetroot salsa; Margot’s traditional Polish apple pie; Urvashi’s apple, cobnut and honey tart; Katie’s sausage & apple toad-in-the-hole; Kate’s celeriac & apple cake with apple ice-cream; or Bintu’s apple hazelnut muffins.
DISCLOSURE: I received the apples as a free sample from South African Fruit but was not remunerated or required to write about them and all opinions are my own. The beautiful art deco spoon is from Jennifer’s cutlery – have a look at their online catalogue!
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