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steel-cut oatmeal with native blueberries

It was zero degrees (Fahrenheit) when I woke up this morning. There are over two and a half feet of snow on the ground, and more predicted in a few days. This is serious winter weather that requires serious, winter survival food: oatmeal. No, I don’t grow my own oats, so this is a concession to my locavorian ideals. But if one must make “ethical” compromises, this is one that I feel pretty good about.

the perfect oatmeal

Oatmeal has been a favorite of mine since childhood. What’s not to like? Actually, there’s a lot that I don’t like about oatmeal. It has to be done right, or you might as well be eating wallpaper paste. Granted, “right” is a very subjective word, so I’ll be clear that this post is strictly about my preferences.  When it comes to cooked oatmeal, I like it toothy. No instant or quick-cook styles for me. Just give me regular, rolled oats — if you have the thick-cut variety, all the better. And don’t overcook, please. And add lots of chopped nuts and raisins.  When I eat my oatmeal, I want to chew!

out of the rolled rut, onto steel-cut

rolled oats on left compared with steel-cut on right

Imagine my joy when I discovered steel-cut oats (Irish oatmeal/Irish porridge). The product that folks generally associate with the word “oatmeal” is an oat groat (the whole, minimally processed oat grain) that has been steamed and rolled or crushed, thus the term, “rolled oats.” Steel-cut oats are cut oat groats. They look very different from the rolled oats; they are small, hard, grains rather than thin oat flakes.

Oat groats provide many of the benefits that we’ve come to expect from a whole grain products that contain the fiber-rich bran covering and the nutrient-rich germ, or endosperm. While there is some inconsistency in nutritional finding, an eight-ounce (cooked) serving has 150 calories, four grams of fiber, four grams of protein, and two grams of unsaturated fat. Additionally, oats are an excellent source of manganese and a good source of phosphorus, thiamine, and magnesium.

Nutrition aside, when cooked, they have a heartier texture, which suits me just fine.

hunting and gathering

While rolled oats are readily available in a variety of shapes and forms (some of which are highly processed, sugar-laden, and should be avoided unless one is at risk of starvation) at your local grocery, the steel-cut variety will require just a bit of extra searching, and some advance planning when cooking. They are well worth the effort! There is one variety of steel-cut oats that I’ve been able to find in nearly every grocery, from the large chains to the local mom-and-pops. The brand name is John McCann’s and it comes it a cute, vintage-looking 28-ounce, round tin. It should be near the Quaker Oats, but it’s small and easily overlooked. It’s much pricier than the usual rolled oats — I paid nearly $8.00 for my last tin — but because it’s more dense, the yield will be greater than the can size suggests.

For those of you who have access of a natural food store (one that sells bulk grains), forget the pricey tin of steel-cut oats and buy them in bulk. The product is the same and the price is significantly less. Store in an air-tight container and it will last for a long time, even with no artificial preservatives.

plan ahead for an “instant” alternative

add oats to briskly boiling water

Cooking steel-cut oats requires a bit more planning and dedication than microwaving a package of instant oatmeal. Some recipes suggest that you soak the oats the night before to reduce some of the cooking time, others offer toasting as a shortcut, but even so, you are looking at anywhere from forty to sixty-plus minutes to cook. Because of this investment of time, I usually make a large batch, enjoy a bowl that day, then divide the rest into serving-size portions and store in the refrigerator until I’m ready for more. If covered properly, these servings should last for a week to ten days in the fridge.  Here’s the recipe that I use, but I invite you to explore the Internet. There are some pretty interesting variations.

oatmeal is ready to eat

recipe for cooked, steel-cut oats

Servings: 8

  • 8 C. boiling water
  • 2 C. steel-cut oats
  • 2 C. rough-chopped walnuts (optional)
  • 1 teas. salt (optional)
  • garnish with milk, butter, buttermilk, brown sugar, raisins, fresh fruit, maple syrup to taste when serving

Bring 8 cups of water to boil in large pot (allow enough room to prevent boil overs). Add oats and salt (if desired) and stir well; reduce heat to allow for a moderate boil, stirring occasionally. Boil and stir until mixture begins to thicken, about 20 minutes. Reduce heat to slow simmer and cover pot. Continue to cook for about 30 to 40 minutes more, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. At this point, oatmeal is ready to eat, but may seem a bit on the thin (watery side). On the first day, it doesn’t have the same thick texture that you expect when cooking rolled oats. However, as it cools, it thickens up nicely!

Remove from heat, serve with desired garnish.

When sufficiently cool, place in covered storage container for later serving.

these one-cup containers are perfect for storing the extra oatmeal

an individual serving of oatmeal, ready to pop in microwave for about a minute

the view from my window

The predicted snow came. Twenty-five inches in my part of Connecticut. It was, and still is, beautiful. A friendly snow, as January blizzards go. While the volume was substantial, it was really rather benign–light and fluffy, little blowing or drifting.  But it did slow things down a bit, and that is almost always a good thing.

a winter treat — anytime 

dig in! granola, milk, and last summer's blueberries

How do you spend a gift “snow day”? One of my favorite places is in the kitchen, making something warm and hearty, something I might not have time for on a more scheduled day. Granola. Why not? It takes a bit of time to make, mostly because you need to bake it slowly at a low temperature. It’s aroma fills the house with a feeling similar to what you achieve with a baked apple pie: sweet warmth, goodness, security.

It’s not just a winter treat at all; I enjoy it year round. It’s full of good-for-you ingredients with high doses of fiber and Omega 3 fatty acids. It’s not exactly a “diet” food since much of what makes it nutritious also adds calories and fats (like the nuts), but you can take comfort that there are few hollow calories in this granola.

getting the goods

Go to your local health food, or healthier food store and raid their bulk items aisle. Not only will you get better products (a good variety of organic options), you’ll most likely spend a lot less than buying the prepackaged varieties.

granola recipe

Preheat oven to 250°

Spray large roaster pan with oil spray — I like to use olive oil in pump bottle.

Mix in a large mixing bowl the following ingredients in these approximate quantities:

  • 4 C. regular (organic) rolled oats — NOT instant or quick cooking
  • 2 C. raw sunflower seeds
  • 2 C. raw wheat germ (toasted will work, but raw is better)
  • 1 C. ground flax seeds — must grind or crush to release oil, which contains the good nutrients

    I use a thoroughly cleaned coffee mill to grind the flax

  • 1 teas. salt
  • 4 C. roughly chopped nuts de jour. I love nuts and load my granola with them, but I use whatever I have on hand: walnuts, almonds, pecans usually — heavy on the walnuts since they are so high in Omega 3 fatty acids.
  • 2 Tbsp. pure vanilla
  • 4 Tbsp. water
  • ½ C. mild flavored olive oil or other good quality vegetable oil
  • 1 — 1 ½ C. honey
Mix all ingredients until thoroughly moistened. The order of the ingredients isn’t really important, but I put in the dry ingredients first, then add the oil and liquids. The mixture should be sticky and moist, but not drippy. If it feels too dry, add a bit more honey and oil.

no particular order needed for adding the ingredients

Pour into prepared baking pan; bake at 250° for 30 minutes.

mix ingredients very well

Check and stir, then pat down softly. Continue to bake another hour to hour and a half, check, stir, and pat down every 15 to 20 minutes. Check it more often once it starts to brown a bit. You’ll find that the browning process is not linear. Once it begin to brown, it will brown or burn quickly.

check the granola often at the end, should be light brown around the edges

When done, remove from the oven. If you like chunky granola, let it cool before you stir it, and it will form big hunks. Once cool, add raisins, craisins, dates or other dried fruit, if desired.  Keep in air-tight container.

store in airtight container

The granola should easily keep fresh on the shelf in an air-tight container for four to six weeks. If you need to keep it longer than that, divide the finished batch and store part in the freezer until ready to use.

When using the frozen granola, remove from freezer and thaw completely before opening the container. That will prevent moisture from creeping into the thawing granola.

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