Warm bowl of oats great to combat gloomy, gray days

A steaming bowl of oats with fresh blueberries is the perfect remedy for gloomy, gray days. BY JACK CLEMONS
April 30, 2012

When last week’s weather brought windy rainstorms, we decided a steaming bowl of breakfast oatmeal was the perfect way to counteract the next day’s gloom. To make sure we wouldn’t be sidetracked by early interruptions, I assembled the ingredients in a slow cooker before we went to sleep. The following morning we awoke to the fragrance of cinnamon and found our way to the kitchen for scoops of dense porridge sprinkled with blueberries (see photo).

Because this recipe specified steel-cut oats, I wondered about differences between various types of oats packaged for sale in the grocery stores. Officially known as Avena sativa, this hardy grain originally grew as a weed among other crops. Although oats have been around for centuries, they’re still primarily cultivated for livestock feed. In his dictionary, Samuel Johnson defined oats as “eaten by people in Scotland, but fit only for horses in England.”

Oats must be processed directly after they’re harvested or they’ll turn rancid from their natural (healthy) fat content. It turns out the key difference between varieties of oat-based cereals is the degree and type of processing.

Cooked stovetop in boiling water
Steel-cut oats - 30 minutes
Scottish oats - 20 minutes
Rolled oats - 5 minutes
Quick oats - 1 minute
Instant oats - less than 1 minute
Oat bran - 2 minutes

First, the oats are cleaned and hulled to remove the inedible outer husk but still maintain their bran and germ. At this point, to turn the grain into oat bran cereal, the bran portion is culled out, leaving behind oat flour, which is milled or ground into the desired consistency.

If the grain will become some kind of oatmeal, the next step is toasting the grains to produce the signature nutty flavor. To make steel-cut or Irish oats, the toasted grains are chopped into tiny chunks the size of peppercorns. Stone-ground or Scottish oats are further processed into pieces as small as poppy seeds.

To get oats in the shape we find in the familiar red and blue canister, the next level of processing entails steaming the toasted oats. Once they’re wet and pliable, they’re fed through rollers and turned into flattened flakes called rolled oats. The larger-sized, old-fashioned variety takes longer to cook than quick oats, which have been broken into smaller pieces. Instant oatmeal is a type of rolled oats that is precooked and dehydrated; these typically have added sugar, salt and flavorings.

At first glance it might seem that the less-processed steel-cut or stone-ground oats would have higher nutritional values than rolled oats. But since they’re all forms of whole grains, the fiber and protein content are equivalent, except for the instant oats, which may have undesirable additives. One difference is found with oat bran: a one-cup serving will have more fiber, iron and protein than the same amount of oatmeal. Any type of oatmeal you add to your diet will provide potential health benefits from lowering cholesterol to reducing blood pressure.

There are some surprising places you’ll encounter oats - in certain beers and stouts, or when you’ve brought home cat grass for your kitty. Another is in Aveeno skin care products (notice the similarity to the name for oats: Avina), which feature the moisturizing and healing properties of finely milled colloidal oatmeal. I won’t give you recipes for facial masks, but I have included one for slow-cooker oatmeal. If you make this, do not skip the non-stick cooking spray step or you will find yourself chiseling oatmeal from the inside of your slow cooker for hours.

Oats are a chewy, tasty grain that can also work in savory dishes, as in the salad recipe or Cheddar oatmeal below. One of the tried and true ways to cook with oatmeal is to use it instead of breadcrumbs in your favorite meatloaf recipe. No matter how you add oats to your menus, you’ll make your heart happy.

Slow Cooker Oatmeal
1 1/2 C steel-cut oats (not quick oats)
1/4 C raisins (optional)
1 t cinnamon
1 T maple syrup
1 T honey
1 T brown sugar
1/2 t vanilla
Pinch salt (optional)
6 C water

Coat the inside of a slow cooker with nonstick cooking spray. Place all the ingredients in the slow cooker; stir to combine. Cover and cook on low for 7 to 9 hours. Stir before serving to incorporate any excess liquid. To serve, top with milk and fresh berries. Yield: 2 to 3 servings.

Cheddar Oatmeal
1 C steel-cut oats
2 C water
1 t olive oil
pinch sea salt
3 oz sharp cheddar cheese

Bring water to a boil in a saucepan; stir in oats. Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, until oats are tender, about 30 minutes. Scoop oatmeal into two bowls and drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and top with shavings of cheese. Yield: 2 servings.

Oatmeal Salad
1 C steel-cut oats
2 C water
1 tomato
2 scallions
1/3 C parsley
1/2 cucumber
juice of 1 lemon
1 T olive oil
salt & pepper, to taste
lettuce leaves

Place the water in a saucepan; bring to a boil. Stir in oats, reduce heat and simmer until tender, about 30 minutes.

Chop the tomatoes, scallions and parsley; peel and chop the cucumber. Combine the vegetables in a small serving bowl. When the cooked oats are no longer steaming hot, add to bowl with vegetables. Whisk together the lemon juice and olive oil. Drizzle over salad and toss to combine. Serve on Romaine or Bibb lettuce leaves. Optional addition: top with sliced chicken breast or turkey. Yield: 2 servings.

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