Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Ode to an Easy Oatmeal

One of these days I'm going to surprise you all and just post a recipe without a long-winded tale to introduce it. Today is not that fact this may be a Personal Best Post in terms of the wordy-background-to-short-recipe ratio.

I'm always interested in learning about what other people eat. I'm especially interested in what people in other countries feed to their kids, since one of my hopes for raising my son is that he will appreciate the wondrous array of foods that the world has to offer. So, when I get to know someone from a different cultural background, I like to ask them what they have for breakfast.

Although this is not a carefully controlled study, I can't help but notice an apparent correlation between countries full of skinny people and eating a hearty breakfast. By "hearty" I mean almost anything except the processed-type of cereals, donuts, muffins and other sweet things that have crept onto the American breakfast table. Some cultures have eggs and tortillas, some have rice and fish, some have a nice big pork chop - my point being that breakfast truly is a meal that nourishes the body after the long break since dinner.
Does having a hearty breakfast sustain you longer into the morning than a bowl of cereal, with the net result that you eat less all day? I bet those Special K folks sure hope not.

Since I am trying to be a little more skinny myself, I am doing an experiment that throws American dietary advice out the window and treating myself to bigger morning meals. Last night's (homemade) veggie lo mein and kimchee stew with rice made surprisingly good breakfasts. I'm not sure I'm ready for the breakfast pork chop, though; I love bacon and sausage but I guess I have too much culinary bias to try chops for breakfast. (Isn't that odd? Maybe it's because I was raised with pork chops on the dinner plate, whereas the lo mein and kimchee entered my kitchen when I was an adult). At any rate, this observation, coupled with our horribly cold weather of late, has me hankering after hot breakfasts. But sometimes there are no leftovers, and sometimes I just want something more familiar as breakfast food. Which brings me to my point: oatmeal.

I wasn't a Big Oatmeal Fan until I discovered steelcut, or Irish-style oats. If you've never tried them, they have the same general flavor as rolled oats, but they aren't rolled - the grain is mostly intact, so they're bigger and chewy-er. (I'm not doing a good job of describing this...just take my word for it, they taste better!). oats are one of those food that I classify as Ludicrously Healthy, plus they taste good. The downside to the steel-cut variety is that they cost a little more than rolled oats (though you can find them in bulk at Whole Foods or other "natural" grocery stores) and they take a lot longer to cook. So it would seem that hot oatmeal is not an option for the whole hearty breakfast thing on a busy weekday.

But wait! Thanks to Marion Cunningham, author of "The Breakfast Book," there is a way to have your oats and eat them on a weekday, too. I call this "Overnight Oatmeal."

For 3-4 generous servings:
3 cups water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup steel-cut oats

Put the water in the top half of a double boiler. Bring the water to a boil and shake in the oats and salt. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, fill the bottom of the double boiler with water and bring that to a boil, too. When the 5 minutes of oat-simmering have elapsed, cover the pan and transfer it to sit in the hot water in the bottom of the double boiler. Leave it on the stove overnight and in the morning, the oats will be cooked. You can re-heat the oats by turning the heat on low to bring the water in the bottom of the double boiler to a simmer (let it simmer for ~15 minutes to heat the oats), or by scooping out individual servings into bowls and heating them in the microwave.

That's it. For ~15 minutes' effort in the evening - most of which is waiting for water to boil - you can have hot oatmeal waiting for you in the morning. If you don't have a double boiler, you can place the covered pan with the oats in a larger pan of water. Alternatively, you can use a small Crock-pot or put the oats and water in a covered dish and bake all night at 225 F (no need to pre-boil the oats with these methods).

I do love this recipe. Add some fruit and a little yogurt, cream, brown sugar or maple syrup and you're in breakfast heaven. (I should note that Marion says you can cook regular rolled oats in the same way. So if you don't want to deal with steel-cut, you don't have to).

You don't have to limit yourself to oats, either. I messed around with this a lot when my son was in the mushy-food stage, and tried out various grains and combinations. I came up with what I like to call the Rule of Threes, to make it easy to remember the recipe: (1) use three cups of water for every cup of oats, (2) up to 1/3 of the oats can be substituted with another type of grain, and (3) don't use more than 3 kinds of grain.

The last two rules came into being because I was trying to come up with a multigrain-type of porridge. Through trial and error I found that adding too many different types of grains muddled the flavors, and too much volume of different grains affected the consistency of the porridge. My favorite combinations are 2/3 cup oats with 1/3 cup (total) of millet and cracked wheat, millet and barley, or cracked wheat and quinoa. If you can find it, get "hulled" barley instead of "pearled" barley; the germ has not been removed from hulled barley. This gives an extra "snap" to the cooked barley that goes really well with the oats.

So give it a try, and let me know what combinations you like...or at least what you like to eat for breakfast :-)


Something About Mary said...

Marion Cunningham? Are you serious? Wasn't that the mom on Happy Days? Everybody loves Mrs. Cunningham. She's the epitome of endearing domestic diva.

Karen said...

Hee, hee...yes that was the mom on Happy Days! But I'm talking about a different Marion Cunningham: the cookbook author. She did the big revision of the Fannie Farmer cookbook, among others. Too much of a coincindence, I know!