Breakfast with James Aarons

June 2, 2010 · 4 comments

James Aarons

I met James Aarons in 1987, when he was an accomplished dancer with the Nikolais Dance Theater, and I was living with a friend of his. What I didn’t know at the time was that James was also a remarkable potter with a profound gift for form and shape, and that he really liked caffeine.

Right before he left New York for San Francisco in 1989, James presented me with two things: a pitcher he had made for me (I love pitchers), and a beautifully-wrapped gift of a coffee grinder and a pound of Kona beans from the Porto Rico Coffee Company down on Bleecker Street. James left town a little while later, and landed in San Francisco right on time for the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Twenty-one years later, I still have the pitcher and the grinder, and James and I are back in touch. He is a master ceramic artist now, a master pizza maker, and has a particular granola fixation—at least that’s what I discovered when I asked him for his thoughts on breakfast.

The hands of a master potter and granola maker.

It’s such an odd thing to be asked to write something about Breakfast.  While my relationship with food is long, I’ll admit it’s mostly pedestrian.  In short, I eat.  Once, long ago, I was a semi-professional dishwasher and occasional garde manger.  Accent on long ago.  Today, with delight, I put good things in, chew and enjoy.

Since my slave days of clanging greasy plates and attempts at keeping steaming dish water off my shirt and shoes, I’ve learned a few things about food.  Most importantly, with regard to breakfast, I’ve discovered the Four Perfect Foods.  Out with salmon and flax seed, etc.  In with Toast.  Caffeine.  Granola.  Peach Pie.

I’m a lucky man.  I live in the Sierra Foothills in a tiny gold rush town.  It’s beautiful here.  We grow citrus while all the surrounding towns freeze over.  We delight in the summertime breezes that keep us coolish, and relish in the rich history of the area; we partake of a town-wide pancake breakfast each Fourth of July, an annual Enchilada feast to raise money for our historic Town Hall, and Turkey in a Barrel one week before there’s turkey in every oven across the land.  You get the picture.  Americana.  Still, culinarily speaking, there’s nothing much doing.  It’s so bleak that the top shelf at our local watering hole is covered in dust.  If it’s Old Raj you hanker for, drive west to San Francisco – two hours plus the bridge.

Favorite breakfast.  Nostalgic day starter.  Importance.  What is this thing called Breakfast, anyway?  It’s food, pure and simple.  Breakfast should ignite the spirit, fuel the brain and charge up the body for a long, productive day.  A meal that, for me, once contained Cheerios and milk, no talking – not a peep, and a dash toward the door at least six days a week has become a daily ritual of nourishment-gathering and a stabilizing force for what is to come.

Ideally, breakfast should be quick and easy so I head for the toaster.  I love the hypnotic (fall and) rise of toast made from a delightful loaf of Andrae’s whole wheat bread, slightly salty butter and a wedge of excellent cheese, jam optional.  There’s something about the counting down tick tick of my trusty Dualit 3 slicer, the crisp, aromatic fragrance of bread gradually caramelizing and the anticipation of tempered butter sheening over the surface of this delicious meal about to begin that holds my culinary interest year after year.  When the crackling hot toast and its attendant toppings are right, little else comes close to instant taste and texture sensation gratification.  To this I add a cup of caffeine and head for some intellectual stimulation that doesn’t include all the bad news that’s fit to print.  If I’m lucky, it’s Wednesday, Mark Bittman/Minimalist video day in the New York Times.  Thank you, internet!  He entertains me with a 5 minute how-to journey of quick cooking and reminds me that the end-cap meal of today could be just as tantalizing and easy as the one I’m now savoring.  Two or so slices later, my day begins in earnest and I’m on my way.  But by ten, I invariably crave more carbs, more protein, more food.  Toast, the mighty food group of russet crunch and convenience, isn’t living up to its reputation.

Enter granola.  There is a plethora of pre-packaged nonsense out there masquerading as granola.  Mulberry/Golden Raisin/Coconut, Toasted Almond/Cinnamon, Fat Free (?) Chocolate Chip with Pecans, Nutty Munchy Pithy Blah Blah Blah.  I’m telling you, make it yourself.  That fancy, warp resistant half sheet from Williams-Sonoma you have in the cupboard ought to be used more than once a year at holiday time.  Granola is fuel for humans – the ultimate cornucopia of grains and nuts that fills us up and sets the most topsy-turvy of an early morning world on its axis and keeps us nourished well into lunch hour.

I began making my own granola a few years ago after receiving a wonderful cookbook written by the Metropolitan Bakery people in Philadelphia accompanied by a bag of their own granola.  For me, theirs was delicious, but perhaps a tad too sweet and in need of added complexity.  Through trial and error I improvised and fussed until the rhythm of my own recipe began to take shape.  Essentially I load up on an assortment of nuts and seeds, always reserving the right to wing it depending on what I have on hand. Now, every few weeks or so a big jar of granola is born and guaranteed to last many a hearty half a day.

I remain true to toast.  Its gloriousness really is a perfect food.  But to rev my engine and get going, I pour a short bowl of granola, top it with milk or yogurt, sip my coffee, google The Minimalist, then dream of the peach pie hopefully awaiting me when I return from a long day at work.  Granola may be the humblest of the Four Perfect Foods, but it’s serious food.  It’s not messing around.

James' breakfast

Breakfast

(also known as Granola – adapted from The Metropolitan Bakery Cookbook)

This recipe is loose.  Feel free to improvise. Makes enough for a while or to share with friends.

3/4 cup canola oil

3/4 cup honey

3/4 cup maple syrup

Slowly heat to simmering in a medium saucepan. Remove from heat.

Then add

1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

While the liquids are slowly heating, mix together

1 1/2 cups wheat germ

9ish cups oats

1 3/4 cups raw almonds or pecans, coarsely chopped

1/2 cup raw sunflower seeds

1/2 cup raw sesame seeds

1 cup raw pepitas

3/4 cup dry milk powder

1 Tbsp cinnamon

1/4 tsp ground clove

Stir the liquids and pour into the dry.

Mix well.

Spread out on 2 half sheets and bake at 275 degrees F for 25 minutes

Stir.

Rotate pans in oven.

Bake about 20 minutes more or until lightly browned.  It gets crisp as it cools.  Sometimes I stir and bake 10 minutes more because I like crunch.

Loosen and cool in the pans.

When cool, store in airtight jars.

Top with fresh or dried fruit and milk or yogurt.

Note:  I usually keep dried fruit out of my jar since it tends to go all tough and leathery when mixed in with the granola.

Thanks James….

James Aarons is a ceramic artist living in the Sierra Foothills in California.  Visit him at jamesaarons.com

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 margaret June 3, 2010 at 7:28 pm

Your quite wonderful james and breakfast too… free spirits.

2 Sonya Lee Barrington June 3, 2010 at 9:14 pm

Hey James………………thanks for the email. I am in Idaho visiting with my daughter Rachael and my twin grandchildren Gavin & Maddie who just graduated from 4th grade (my how time flies). I can hardly wait to get back to SF to try out the granola recipe!
Ta ta for now………..slb

3 Cindy Rankin June 4, 2010 at 12:25 am

What a fabulous article. I was yearning for the morning so I could indulge in my daily ritual of wheat toast and soy milk, my favorite morning breakfast; and homemade pizza, yum. I have to relinquish the caffiene…A sip of coffee puts me waaaaaay over the edge. Granola, I cannot wait to try this recipe. Igenerally have my granola with soy milk for lunch. Thank you so much for sharing, it was such a delight.
XOXO Cindy

4 Marcey Shipe June 4, 2010 at 11:23 am

Thank you so much for sharing. I enjoyed the article immensely and while reading I noticed that I was beconing very hungry. I agree, granola to the rescue. I will, of course, try this recipe. Sounds delicious!!

Take Care,
Marcey

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