Oatmeal is hot, both literally and figuratively.
Starbucks and McDonald's hawk oatmeal spiked with fruit or nuts in the early morning. Datz Deli and Oxford Exchange in Tampa have joined the breakfast revolution by serving steel-cut oatmeal to kick-start the day. IHOP and Chick-fil-A added oatmeal to their breakfasts in the past year.
Oatmeal is now on 15 percent more restaurant menus than it was in 2008, according to Datassential, a research firm that tracks dining trends.
And we don't know if this will hurt or help oatmeal's trajectory, but actor Anne Hathaway credits oatmeal for her sickly, skeletal look in Les Misérables. She says she lost 25 pounds by eating "two thin squares of dried oatmeal paste a day." Not likely what nutritionists have in mind when they recommend oatmeal as part of a healthy diet.
Oatmeal — though maybe not the way Hathaway used it — has a host of nutritional benefits, among them the ability to reduce heart disease and keep cholesterol in check. Oatmeal is a complex carbohydrate so, unlike a piece of white bread toast or a glass of apple juice, its sugars are released more slowly into the bloodstream and keep you satisfied longer. Its fiber is also a boon to the system.
Yes, the hot cereal that Mom pushed on you before school is back with a vengeance, proving that she did know best. But now that you are doing the shopping, the choices are confusing.
Types of oatmeal
The oatmeal that most Americans are accustomed to is rolled oats. These come from oat groats, which are what remains when the husk is removed from the whole grain. The groats are then steamed and rolled, which allows them to cook quicker. Common oatmeals on the market:
Instant: This variety of precooked and thinly rolled oat groats often comes in packets with lots of flavoring additives. Though the oatmeal cooks quickly in the microwave and is convenient, it has the least nutritional benefit because of added sugar and sodium. Some of the fiber is lost in processing.
Quick-cooking: The oat groats are precooked (not as much as instant), dried and then rolled to give them their trademark flatness. It just takes a few minutes to cook them in hot water, and they tend to be mushy when done.
Old-fashioned: Use this variety, which is also called rolled oats, for cookies. These oat groats have been steamed and then rolled to flatten, but not as much as for quick-cooking oats. They take a bit longer to cook than the other rolled oats.
Steel-cut: For flavor and nutrition, this is the best choice. Steel-cut oatmeal is sometimes called Irish or Scotch oats. The groats are cut with steel blades, not rolled, and look more like chopped rice than flat ovals. They have more texture and some say even a nutty flavor. They need about 20 minutes' cooking time because they haven't been steamed to soften the pieces. They have about double the fiber as the different varieties of rolled oats.
Dressing them up
Now that we are in agreement that oatmeal is good for the body, the question becomes how to make it taste like something. If you must add brown sugar, do it judiciously. A cup of oatmeal cooked in water is about 150 calories. A tablespoon of peanut butter is about 100 and then a sliced banana can add another 75. Nuts up the calorie count, too.
Take all this into account when you top your oatmeal. But keep this in mind, too: A bowl of oatmeal is likely to keep you happy and sassy until lunch. Those extra calories from your healthy oatmeal toppings will also prevent you from coveting your co-worker's mid-morning doughnut. There's good reason why oatmeal is so hot.
Cooking steel-cut oats
In a dry saucepan, cook the oatmeal over medium heat until it smells toasty. That'll take about 3 or 4 minutes, depending on the heat. You'll hear it start to pop when it's ready.
When your cereal begins to sing, add four times the volume of oats in water (1/3 cup of oats, enough for two people, will take 11/3 cups water). Increase the heat to high until the water starts to boil, give the pot a good stir, then turn the flame to low to maintain a decent simmer.
Partially cover the pan with a lid, but be sure to prop it askew with a wooden spoon or a whisk. This is important: If the lid is on too tight, the oatmeal will boil over, and there is no clean-up project worse than scraping baked-on oatmeal off stove-top burners.
Let the oatmeal simmer for 20 minutes or so. Check it several times during the cooking. When the oatmeal is done, there will probably be some liquid on top, and there may be a thin layer of dried flour-skin. This will disappear when you stir it. The oatmeal itself will be tender but still have a bit of "pop."
Whisk in butter according to your conscience, toss in a small handful of dried fruit (I use a mix of raisins, sour cherries and cranberries), cover tightly and let stand off heat for five minutes for the fruit to soften.
You can doctor this base however you want. I like a mix of brown and white sugar (brown for molasses, white for sweetness) or maybe some maple syrup. Then some chopped toasted nuts — almonds or walnuts. Finally, I add just enough milk to make the mixture creamy. If I'm feeling splurge-y, nothing but half-and-half.
Russ Parsons, Los Angeles Times
10 oatmeal toppers
Raisins, brown sugar and cinnamon
Apricot fruit spread and sliced almonds.
Low-fat granola and fat-free milk
Cherry preserves and wheat germ
Toasted shredded coconut and dried mango.
Chopped dried figs and mashed ripe banana
Pear slices, maple syrup and cinnamon
Pumpkin or apple butter and walnuts
Orange marmalade and dried cranberries.
Source: Quaker Oatmeal
Overnight Pineapple Oats
You could use nonfat milk if you don't keep rice or soy milk (or almond milk) on hand. And you'd never miss the 1⁄4 teaspoon of cardamom.
2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 (8-ounce) can unsweetened crushed pineapple
1 1⁄2 cups rice or soy milk
1⁄4 to 1⁄2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1⁄8 teaspoon salt
1 or 2 sliced bananas
1⁄4 cup toasted pecans
Combine oats, pineapple, milk, cardamom and salt in a glass or plastic bowl. Stir well, cover and refrigerate overnight. The next day, stir in the bananas and top with nuts.
Source: Charlotte Observer
Savory Sriracha Oatmeal
1 cup rolled oats
2 cups water
Small handful whole cashews
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon Sriracha, plus more if desired
2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 large eggs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
In a saucepan over medium heat, combine oats, water, cashews, soy sauce, Sriracha, rosemary, and garlic. Bring to a boil, cover, and lower heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid is absorbed and oats are cooked through, about 5 minutes.
While the oats are cooking, heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over a medium heat. Once the oil is hot, crack in the eggs. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook the eggs to your desired consistency, though sunny side up is our preference so the yolk can ooze all over your oatmeal. For sunny side up, cook the egg (without flipping) until the whites are set and the yolk is still jiggly, about 2 to 3 minutes.
Spoon out the oatmeal, and top each serving with a fried egg. Drizzle a little bit of leftover oil from the egg pan over the plated oatmeal. Squirt additional Sriracha over all of it should you want a little extra heat
Serves 2. Source: Sriracha
1⁄2 cup vegetable oil
1⁄2 cup light brown sugar
1⁄2 cup maple syrup
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
3 cups mixed chopped nuts (almonds, pecans, walnuts, pistachios, hazelnuts and pumpkin seeds)
4 cups mixed chopped dried fruit (sour cherries, cranberries, apples, pears, apricots, raisins, dates)
Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Line two jelly roll pans with silicone mats or parchment.
In a saucepan over medium-low, heat the oil, sugar, syrup and salt until clear, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract.
Place the rolled oats and the mixed nuts in a large mixing bowl and pour the sugar mixture over. Stir with a spatula to coat the oats and nuts evenly. Divide the mixture between the lined jelly roll pans, patting with the back of a spatula to make thin, even layers.
Bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes, rotating the sheets and stirring halfway through.
Cool slightly before stirring in the dried fruit and storing. The mixture will keep in a tightly covered container at room temperature for at least a week.
Nutritional information per 1⁄2 cup serving: 238 calories, 4g protein, 31g carbohydrates, 3g fiber, 12g fat, 67mg sodium.
Makes 16 cups.
Source: Adapted from Christine Moore's Little Flower: Recipes From the Cafe by the Los Angeles Times.