ST. LOUIS — It takes a little courage the first time you saute onions with Indian spices and mix them into your oatmeal, but the queasy feeling passes. I promise.
I’ll admit that I wasn’t an instant convert. It felt like sacrilege. Violating your childhood treat with veggies and soy sauce still feels a bit … well, unsavory, but I’d like to change that. At a recent dinner, I served a curried steel-cut oatmeal dish with chicken and mixed peppers, but I waited until everyone applauded the texture and flavors before I confessed that “oh, by the way … that’s not quinoa.”
No one complained, but there was a momentary look of dread in which you could see them pondering the question of whether to feel sick.
Suggesting roasted meat, red peppers and oatmeal to the uninitiated can seem as far-fetched as recommending spinach on a PB&J. However, despite its distinct breakfast connotation, oatmeal is just a grain.
Correction: It’s one of the least expensive whole grain options you can buy. And now you can buy bulk because you can use it sweet or savory. Oatmeal pancakes today, oatmeal jambalaya the next.
Once you wrap your head and your taste buds around the alternatives, you’ll discover that oatmeal just might be the most versatile grain around. Brown rice is higher in calories and can’t compete with the sweet side of oatmeal; besides it lacks that cold-weather comfort appeal.
Barley, bulgar and quinoa would be the most likely next tier of rivals, but they are typically harder to come by and much more expensive. Not to mention that these savory menu items just don’t have much sweet breakfast cachet.
Oatmeal is a chameleon, especially steel cut, which has more nutritional value. But any variety of oatmeal is vaguely sweet, a great quality for curries and an added dimension in traditional savory dishes and stir-frys.
Cook it a little longer and slower and the texture can be an alternative to creamy mashes like potatoes and other root vegetables. Oatmeal au Gratin, anyone? How about Broccoli-Cheddar Oatmeal Risotto?
I know, I know, you’re not convinced.
The Whole Grains Council describes oats like this: “In the U.S., most oats are steamed and flattened to produce ‘old-fashioned’ or regular oats, quick oats and instant oats. The more oats are flattened and steamed, the quicker they cook – and the softer they become. If you prefer a chewier, nuttier texture, consider steel-cut oats, also sometimes called Irish or Scottish oats. Steel-cut oats consist of the entire oat kernel (similar in look to a grain of rice), sliced once or twice into smaller pieces to help water penetrate and cook the grain. Cooked for about 20 minutes: steel-cut oats create a breakfast porridge ….”
Et tu, Whole Grain Council.
No matter, I am not deterred. I’m winning converts by the day who now pause at the kitchen cabinet when the oatmeal water is boiling to wonder: soy sauce or honey? Cranberries and cinnamon, or spinach and minced garlic?
Heart-healthy, low-calorie, cholesterol-lowering (typically gluten-free) oatmeal has always been so simple and uncomplicated. It was most definitely one of the first foods I learned to cook, though my preparation has evolved.
My first meals were rolled oats stewed to a yummy sweet mush in whole milk and sugar with a pinch of salt. I still crave it just like that sometimes. But my typical oats today are steel cut and slow cooked in a mix of almond milk and water flavored with pumpkin pie spice, agave syrup and a dash of salt that’s served with pecans, coconut, dried fruit and other toppings. I’ve dedicated a shelf of my refrigerator as a DIY oatmeal bar.
We’ve got some recipe suggestions here, but I’ll tell you that you can easily swap oatmeal for grits, rice and most other grains. And we’d suggest adding a little milk (whatever milk choice you prefer) to enhance the sweet creaminess. It’s oatmeal; you don’t have to hide that fact when it can be such a great addition to the dish.
THREE-PEPPER OAT PILAF
Yield: 6 servings
½ cup chopped red bell pepper
½ cup chopped yellow bell pepper
½ cup chopped mushrooms
½ cup sliced green onions
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1¾ cups old-fashioned rolled oats, uncooked
2 egg whites or 1 egg, lightly beaten
¾ cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons minced fresh basil leaves or 2 teaspoons dried basil
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1. In a 10-inch nonstick skillet, cook peppers, mushrooms, green onions and garlic in oil over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are crisp-tender, about 2 minutes.
2. In large bowl, mix oats and egg whites until oats are evenly coated. Add oats to vegetable mixture in skillet.
3. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until oats are dry and separated, about 5 to 6 minutes. Add broth, basil, salt and pepper. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, 2 to 3 minutes or until liquid is absorbed. Serve immediately.
BROCCOLI-CHEDDAR OVEN RISOTTO
Yield: 4 servings
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 bunch broccoli, cut into small florets
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ small onion, finely chopped
1¾ cups steel-cut oats
¼ cup dry white wine
Freshly ground pepper
1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese (about 4 ounces)
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Bring the chicken broth to a low simmer in a saucepan. Toss the broccoli with olive oil on a rimmed baking sheet.
2. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a large Dutch oven or ovenproof pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly softened, about 2 minutes. Add the oats and stir to coat. Pour in the wine and cook until evaporated, about 1 minute. Add the hot broth, ¾ teaspoon salt, and pepper to taste; bring to a boil.
3. Cover and set on the bottom oven rack. Place the broccoli on the upper rack. Bake, stirring the oatmeal and broccoli once halfway through, cooking until most of the liquid has been absorbed into the oatmeal and the broccoli is tender, 20 to 25 minutes.
4. Remove the oatmeal and broccoli from the oven. Add ¾ cup hot water, the remaining 1 tablespoon butter and the cheese to the oatmeal and stir until creamy (add a little more hot water to loosen, if necessary).
5. Stir in broccoli and serve.
SAVORY PORRIDGE WITH BACON, CHEDDAR, FRESH TOMATOES aND CHIVES
Yield: 4 servings
8 slices bacon
½ cup whole milk
¼ cup water
1½ cups chicken stock
½ cup steel-cut oats
½ cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
¼ cup chopped fresh chives, plus 1 to 2 tablespoons for garnish
Salt and fresh pepper to taste
1 heaping cup grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
Cayenne pepper sauce (optional)
1. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook bacon in batches, turning frequently, until browned and crisp, about 5 to 8 minutes. Set aside on a paper towel.
2. While bacon is cooking, bring milk, water and stock just to a boil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Stir in oats and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook, stirring regularly, for 25 to 30 minutes, until liquid is absorbed and oats are tender and cooked through. Stir in cheddar, chives, salt and pepper and taste for seasoning. Just before serving, crumble bacon and stir into oatmeal. Top with cherry tomatoes and extra chives and serve cayenne pepper sauce on the side.
SAVORY OATMEAL AND SOFT-COOKED EGG
Yield: 1 serving
1 cup water or chicken broth
½ cup quick-cooking rolled oats
Coarse salt and ground pepper
Nonstick cooking spray
1 large egg
2 tablespoons shredded sharp cheddar
1 tablespoon thinly sliced scallions
2 slices of cooked bacon (optional)
1. In a small saucepan, bring 1 cup water (or chicken broth) to a boil. Add oats and pinch of salt; stir, reduce heat, and simmer until tender, about 5 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, heat a small nonstick pan over medium. Coat lightly with cooking spray. Add egg and cook until white is set and yolk is still runny, about 3 minutes. Season egg to taste with salt and pepper. Serve oatmeal in a bowl topped with cheese, egg, scallions and bacon (if using).