irish oatmeal with cranberries and pecans

Morning oatmeal: A bowl full of health

28 October 2010

Eating oatmeal for breakfast gives me a warm belly and virtuous conscience. What’s not to love? A wholesome bowl of pure grain, a handful dried fruit or nuts, a bit of sweetness and a splash of milk. It’s a nutritional powerhouse – fiber, protein, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. It reduces bad cholesterol. It’s digested slowly, so it keeps your tummy content for longer. And it’s all homey, creamy goodness.

I’m known for being a produce evangelist – I’m always bringing fruits and salads to gatherings – but what I’d love to do is get my intestinally challenged friends and relatives to start their day with a bowl of oatmeal. I understand that for someone not used to eating much produce, even the equivalent of an apple a day can be hard to manage. But a bowl of oatmeal is also nutritionally rich and can be accessorized into something for anyone – sweet or savory, plain or elaborate. I say put what you like on it – even oatmeal with loads of toppings is fundamentally better than processed cereals out of a box.

Some people don’t like sweet in the morning. Speaking about his book, Food Matters, on National Public Radio, New York Times food writer Mark Bittman suggested a variety of savory toppings for porridge, including salsa and cheese, or soy sauce and scallions. Saveur photographer Penny de los Santos posted recently about oatmeal with olive oil, cracked pepper, sea salt and sharp aged cheese – including a gorgeous version topped with a sunny side up egg.

Then there’s texture. I love the crunchy-chewiness of steel cut oats, which in uncooked form look more like miniature brown rice grains than rolled oats. For those used to instant oatmeal (which, aside from the weird artificial flavors, I find inedibly salty), rolled oat oatmeal may be preferred for its more uniform mushiness. Harder to find are Scottish oats, which have been coarsely ground from oat groats and make a creamier porridge than steel cut. Here’s the difference:

  • Steel cut (Irish) oats – Oat groats that have been cut into two or three smaller pieces. Cook in 30-35 minutes, largely unattended. Quick cook varieties are ready in 5-7 minutes.
  • Scottish oats – Oat groats that have been stone ground. Cook in 30-35 minutes.
  • Rolled oats – Oat groats that have been steamed and rolled flat. Cook in 5-7 minutes. Quick cook varieties are ready in 3-5 minutes.

Steel cut Irish oatmeal takes time, but it takes hardly any effort. It’s easy to start a pot, reduce to low simmer and then take a shower while it cooks. Cooking overnight in a slow cooker or programmable rice cooker is also an easy option.

For steel cut oats, 1/4 cup makes one serving (about a cup of cooked oatmeal). For rolled oats, 1/2 cup uncooked oats makes one serving. For my family, I always make one cup of steel cut oats – four servings – and save any leftover for the next day.

Water in a saucepan on the stove (water-to-oat ratio is 4:1 for steel cut, 2:1 for rolled). Add oats.

Bring to boil, then reduce to simmer. Stir occasionally.

It’s done when thick and creamy.

Serve with your choice of toppings. My kids like raisins, brown sugar and whole milk, heavy on the raisins. My husband likes his with bananas, walnuts, brown sugar and skim milk (shown here before the milk).

For the sake of research, I had to try a non-sweet option. Though I am a fan of savory Chinese rice porridge, I couldn’t really stomach the idea of soy sauce and oatmeal. But I can pretty much eat anything with olive oil, pepper and cheese, and Penny’s pictures made it look amazing. So I tried a small bowl, using shaved Parmiggiano-Reggiano that my good friend Lisa actually brought me back from Parma.

Surprisingly yummy – the soft oatmeal provided a creamy backdrop for the coarse salt, spicy pepper and flaky Parmiggiano-Reggiano. But I still had to follow it with a bowl of sweet – cranberries, pecans, maple syrup and whole milk (after the photo).

I’ve tasted virtue, and it tastes sweet.

This hardly needs directions, but I have a printable version here: Steel cut oatmeal.

Buyer’s note: Steel cut oats are widely available these days. McCann’s in the white cylindrical tin are the quintessential Irish oats, but there are less expensive versions available (Trader Joe’s has Country Choice organic oats). For those wishing to stock up, Amazon has good prices on a four pack of McCann’s Steel Cut Irish Oatmeal or a six pack of Country Choice Organic Irish Steel Cut Oats.

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