Sloppy sandwiches made when you’re half-asleep are no one’s friend, while hawker food is too decadent for the everyday. But skipping breakfast leads straight to mid-morning coma, unlike sleep debt which may be recouped. What’s a busy and non-morning person to do, then? Make breakfast the night before. With a few quick finishing touches the next morning, the cereals based on overnight recipes will be ready to go when you are, and their complex carbs will keep energy levels steady till lunch comes around.
Start with a foundation of flaked wholegrain cereals. Let them stand in liquid overnight until they reach the desired toothsome softness. Add garnish and toppings. That’s it.
The most versatile grain flavour-wise, and feted for reducing cholesterol, oats come in the widest range of formats, from steel-cut and Scottish stone-ground to regular-rolled. Rye and barley are sturdy and filling. Quinoa offers a complete roster of amino acids, while buckwheat has nutrients and antioxidants. Ancient wheat varieties spelt and Kamut are high in protein and delicious. Mix and match grains for more oomph.
All the above cereals are available at supermarkets and health food stores in the form of flakes, which is the most common and convenient, and best for even hydration. Also, look for parboiled, rolled and dried red rice flakes called poha or avalakki at Indian grocers. Nutty-tasting and hearty, they are particularly suited to Asian spices and flavours. Instant or quick-cooking formats are not geared for long soaks, as such cereals become too gloppy.
Some grains, such as millet or quinoa, are small and fine enough to use whole rather than flaked, but should be fully cooked (see prep options 3 and 4) for best results.
To hydrate grains, the simplest but blandest option is water. More characterful is coconut water or apple juice (avoid very acidic juices). Milk is classic, but fermented dairy products give the most bang for the buck, adding probiotic benefits, protein, flavour and body. Try yoghurt, kefir – a traditional ferment that is tangier and runnier than yogurt – or low-fat buttermilk. The good fats and protein in soya milk and nut milks add a rib-sticking creaminess. If you’re into savoury grains – which is not so different from breakfast congee – consider using very light vegetable stock or Japanese dashi.
Every type and batch of grains will have different absorbencies. Start by trying a ratio of three parts liquid to one part loosely packed grain flakes, measuring by volume.
Once you get a sense of how much liquid the grain absorbs, adjust the ratio for thinner or thicker results, based on personal preferences. Should you end up with too much, leftovers can be used to ennoble pancakes, waffles or cake batter.
THE PREP OPTIONS
01 TOAST THE GRAIN FLAKES An optional step that heightens the nutty nuances of the cereal. Toss flakes in a dry pan over medium-low heat until they smell fragrant. Add a little butter or oil, if you like.
02 NO-COOK GRAINS Combine grain flakes with chosen liquid in a clean container, cover tightly, and chill for anywhere from five to eight hours. The next day, uncover, festoon with add-ons, and enjoy. Oat and barley flakes become creamy and sweet. Grains like rye or buckwheat may take some getting used to, but offer more assertive, complex flavours.
03 SLOW SOAK + QUICK COOK If the taste or texture of no-cook grains doesn’t appeal, bring the soaked cereal to a simmer on the stove or in the microwave, and cook for a few minutes until tender. This is a good option for chunkier grains such as steel-cut oats, buckwheat groats or cracked wheat, or small whole cereals like millet or quinoa.
04 OVERNIGHT COOK Grains are either combined with boiling liquid, or brought to a boil together with the liquid, then transferred to a heat-retaining vessel, tightly covered and left to cook in residual heat overnight. Use grains whose flavours you find more agreeable when cooked, and for high-fibre grains that swell generously.
The simplest and most classic breakfast garnishes are fresh or dried fruit, and raw or roasted nuts or seeds, but you needn’t stop there. Add fragrance with ground spices or natural extracts like vanilla and rosewater. Up the fibre and carbohydrate complexity – but don’t go overboard – with cooked ingredients such as sweet potato, pumpkin, red beans or chestnuts. If you must add sweeteners, opt for unrefined ones such as maple syrup or palm sugar.
To head in a savoury direction, consider grains as an alternative to bread – almost anything you could put on toast or in a sandwich, you can adapt into a topping.
Think smoked salmon slivers and salmon roe; crispy bacon, diced avocado and cherry tomatoes; shredded chicken, fresh coriander and fried shallots; or more local touches such as a swirl of sambal, poached shelled prawns and chopped spring onion.
Dessert For Breakfast
Yes, it is possible to start the day off sweetly without busting the blood sugar level. Stir these fruit-forward “content upgrades” into prepared overnight grains to make them taste like healthier reboots of your favourite dessert.