Friday, February 25, 2011

Steel Cut Oatmeal... All Night Long...

Now that's what I call a Power Breakfast!

Don't Argue With Mother...

     “Are you there?   Hello!  ...  Hello?  ...  Are you there?”

The voice of my co-worker Gretchen wandered up and over the divider between our cubicles.

     “Hello?  Are you there?”

     Hmmm...  Who's she talking to?  I took a sip from my coffee mug and continued writing an email to one of our customers.

     “Hello...  Hello...  Hello?”  Her voice came again, interrupting my thoughts for a second time.  “Hello?   Dave?   Hello!?”

     “Gretchen, I’m right here.”

She was just sitting five feet away from me on the other side of the divider.  I wondered why she didn't just stand up to get my attention.

     “Oh, you are there.  I figured you’d be there now, but I just thought I would check.”

     “Gretchen, I've been here since we opened.”  She didn't respond.  I finished proofreading the email and clicked 'Send'.

     “Oh...  I just didn’t want to interrupt you if you were busy with work.”

     “Did you need something, Gretchen?”

     “Are you okay?  You sound different."

     "Yeah, I feel fine."

     "Are you sure about that?  Your voice sounds lower.”


I took another drink and cleared my throat.

     "A-hem.  Mmmmpf.  Eh-rrggggg.  Grumph!!!  Uhh-ckACK!!!"

I muttered a few words under my breath, just to see if my voice was different.  But everything felt and sounded fine.

     “No, something’s wrong with your voice.  You sound absolutely terrible.  Are you getting a cold?”

     “Um... nope.  Not that I know of."

     “What did you have to eat this morning?


     "You heard me.  What did you have for breakfast?

     “Steel-cut oatmeal...  with raspberries, walnuts, and maple syrup.”

     “What else did you have?”

     “Coffee.  I’m just finishing my second cup now.”

     “Dave, you’re not supposed to have sweets on weekday mornings.”

     “Gretchen, I only put three teaspoons of sugar in my coffee.”

     “Dave, you know that too much sugar isn't good for you.  I've told you that before."

     “Gretchen, what on earth are you talking abo--.”

My voice trailed off, as I stood up and peered over the divider.  Gretchen’s back was toward me, and she was hunched low in her chair.  I heard snickering from a nearby cubicle.

     “Dave," said Caroline, standing up from her chair.  "She’s been talking to her son this entire time."

     “What?  No...  she's been asking me about my breakfast."

     “No, Dave.  She's talking to her son.  He doesn't have school today."

We both looked over towards Gretchen.  She was still hunched over in her seat.

     “No...  You know weren’t supposed to have Lucky Charms for breakfast today...  No, I don’t care if you have the day off from school...  "

I sat back down at my desk and opened the next email in the customer service Inbox.  

     "No, don't argue with me, Dave...  You know Lucky Charms are just for a treat on Saturdays.  ...  If you pull that stunt again, I'll take away your weekend cereal privileges.”

Ah, crows...  Mother Nature's
most reliable garbage disposal.
Gretchen’s fourteen year-old son was also named Dave.   On too many occasions in the past, I had tuned her out because I had just assumed she was talking to him.  One day, I had apparently ignored her for quite awhile, while she discussed with me a scenario involving a deceased spouse, a confused widow who was the sole beneficiary of a Roth IRA, and the disgruntled executor of the estate.  I was actually on the phone with my friend Alex.  According to a co-worker, the exchange lasted for almost twenty minutes.

     "So can I give the executor the password to access the account online?"

     "Yes, that sounds good."  Alex had asked if I wanted to come over to his house later to watch football.

     "Really?  But the executor isn't on the account.  You'd still give him the password?"

     "Absolutely."  Alex had asked if I could pick up some beer on the way over.

     "Okay, if you say so."

     "Actually...  No.  You probably shouldn't do that."  Alex wanted to know if he should invite the wives, but I didn't think that was the greatest idea.  Our other friend Brad had a one year-old at home.  He'd need to find a babysitter if his wife came along.

     "Oh.  Well, do you think I should ask Christine?  I mean... she's the IRA expert and all."

     "Yeah, I suppose you could ask her."  Alex said he'd check with his wife to see if she'd consider watching the little ones during the game.

     "Christine's not in today.  I think I'm just going to go ahead and give him the password."

     "That's fine."  Alex thought it would be a good idea if we ordered a two large pizzas...  one with pepperoni and one with green peppers, onions, mushrooms, black olives, and broccoli.  "And I'll make sure I pick up a twelve-pack, just in case Brad shows up."

     "Thanks a lot for your help, Dave."

     "Did you say something, Gretchen?" I asked, hanging up the phone.

There are two important lessons to be learned here.  The first is to make sure that the person you're speaking with is aware that you're listening to them.  Eye contact is helpful, for starters.  After enduring several botched attempts at meaningful verbal exchange, Gretchen and I eventually learned how to recognize when she was addressing me, whether the right one of us was actually listening, and whether or not either of us knew what was actually going on, if the correct listener was actually paying attention.

And the second lesson?  Always remember to eat a wholesome, healthy breakfast when you get up in the morning.

Mom always knows best, and Gretchen was right on the ball.  A big bowl of artificially-colored marshmallows scattered amongst over-processed, sugar-frosted grain turds is not the best breakfast for a growing boy.  In fact, it's not really a good breakfast for anybody.

Purple turds, pink gallstones, blue polyps, green bunions, yellow goiters, orange blackheads, red phlegm...

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.  Aside from providing the necessary energy to get going in the morning, a nutritious breakfast will fill you up properly and suppress the urge to snack excessively before lunch.  When I was a kid, I would have also preferred a big bowl of sugar-coated cereal before boarding the bus.  But my own mother made sure that I wasn't loading up on over-processed garbage in the morning.  As a youngster, my standard cereal of choice was Honey Nut Cheerios.  Not the healthiest cereal out there, but I could have done much worse.

Once I reached high school, I discovered Quaker Instant Oatmeal.  I had always found oatmeal to be fairly bland on its own.  Even doctoring it up with brown sugar and milk wasn't too exciting to me.  But Quaker Instant Oatmeal was different.  Each individual packet was a magical mixture of over-processed, quick cooking oats, along with enough powdered, artificial flavoring to make it taste like candy.  Just add boiling water and stir.  It certainly satisfied my morning sweet tooth.  But it was still oatmeal, so it must have been healthy for me...  right?   Right?

Well, kinda...  Not quite the pinnacle of whole-grain evolution, but I was on the right track.

For the remainder of my school years and throughout most of my twenties, I waffled back and forth between a number of whole grain, hot breakfast cereals.  I'd be satisfied for a few weeks before eventually tiring of the current selection and moving on to the next one.

And then, I discovered steel-cut oats.  As far nutrition and versatility, you can't do much better than this wonderful breakfast grain.  But before I get into the specifics of steel-cut oats, let's have brief review of our oatmeal facts, shall we?

A Quick Oatmeal Primer...

Every type of breakfast oatmeal that you can buy at the supermarket, including steel-cut oats, comes from the mighty oat groat.  Oat groats are whole oats that have been hulled and cleaned.  You can actually buy oat groats at certain supermarkets and health food stores, but they do take almost an hour to took.  To speed up the preparation time, the food industry has generously given us a number of different oat products, which are all created by processing the same oat groat to varying degrees.

The oat groat is what's harvested from the field.  In addition to the harvesting, the only other mechanical processing is the removal of the outer hull and cleaning.  Next in line are 'steel-cut oats', which are basically oat groats that have been 'cut' by 'steel' (duhhh? ... ) into several smaller pieces.  Beyond the steel-cut oat is where the heavy processing starts to kick in.  'Old-fashioned' or 'rolled oats' are whole oat groats that have been steamed and rolled into a thin, flat flake.  The advantage of this is the shorter cooking time.  Next in line are 'quick-cooking oats'.  Instead of steaming and rolling the entire groat (steamrolling???), the groat is cut into several pieces (Hey...  sounds like steel-cut oats!) and then steamrolled.

And then, we have 'instant oats'...  the disgraceful bottom-feeders at the base of the oatmeal pyramid.  You'll find these despicable creatures hiding out in basement bars and in the backs of cars.  Instant oats are basically quick-cooking oats that have been rehydrated with hot water to pre-cook them.  All you need to do is add the boiling water, and they're ready to eat.  They're the most convenient type of oatmeal to prepare...  I suppose.

But is all that extra processing really worth it for a bowl of underwhelming, 30-second mush, which is often loaded with artificial sweeteners?

I say...  ABSOLUTELY NOT!  Especially when you can make a delicious bowl of steel-cut oatmeal with just a smidgen of extra effort.

Aside from whole oat groats, steel-cut oats undergo the least amount of processing of any kind of oatmeal.  As a result, they break down in your digestive system and release energy much more slowly.  This keeps you feeling full longer and will help to put a beat-down on the urge to snack on Twinkies and Pop Tarts all morning long.  Since they have a relatively low glycemic index, they're also much kinder to your blood sugar.

Red Bob is your friend.
Remember, you can trust Red Bob
for all your hot cereal needs.
The nutritional benefits of steel-cut oats are many.  In addition to being an excellent source of both soluble and insoluble fiber, steel-cut oats contain phytochemicals, which are believed to play a role in fighting and preventing cancer, as well as a number of important vitamins and minerals, including iron, selenium, zinc, and vitamin E.

Like old-fashioned or quick-cooking oats, they can be prepared to a satisfying, creamy consistency.  However, since the bran layer remains relatively undisturbed when the whole groat is chopped up, steel-cut oats retain a chewy, nutty texture.  Even when cooked or soaked for extended periods of time, they won't get soggy or mushy like old-fashioned or quick-cooking oats.

The most common knock that I've heard against steel-cut oatmeal is that it requires too much time to prepare.  It's true that it can take a good half an hour to cook them on the stovetop from pot to bowl, with regular stirring required.  However, there is an excellent, simple, and reliable way to prepare them that requires very little time and attention.

Want to hear about it?  Then read on...

All Night Long...

Yup.  Lionel Richie was right.

The best way to make steel-cut oatmeal is to start preparing it the previous evening just before bedtime.  And then, just let them cook...  all night long...

By the time the morning rolls around, you'll barely have to do anything else to before enjoying a healthy, delicious breakfast.

Check out that action shot!  Look
at that oatmeal plummet like
snow into the boiling water.

There are several different brands of steel-cut oats that you can buy, but I've been pretty happy with Bob's Red Mill.  I actually buy quite a few of Bob's products, so this is a logical choice for me.  Also, the measurements in this process are for a single serving size, but the proportions can easily be doubled or tripled, depending on the number of servings you'd like to make.

First, fill a small pot with one cup of water, and turn your burner on high.  While the water is heating up, measure out a quarter cup of steel-cut oats.  Once the water has reached a rolling boil, turn off the stove and move the pot off the hot burner.

Then, dump the quarter cup of steel-cut oats into the hot water and put a lid on the pot.

And that's it!  You're done!  Nothing else to do at the moment except brush your teeth and drift away to a peaceful dreamland, filled with oatmeal-laden goodness...

     ...falling asleep...
































Oh, $H*%!

Okay, it's morning.  Time to get up.  First thing you want to do is burn your pajamas and undergarments.  Also, you'll want to immediately to strip your bed and toss the sheets in the washer.  Once that's taken care of, it's time to tend to your oatmeal.

Go ahead and take the lid off that pot, which has been sitting on the cold burner all night.  What do you see?  Yeah, that's right.  Your entire batch of steel-cut oats has absorbed a ton of the water in the pot.  It's all puffed up nicely into a delectable, creamy texture.  But there's still some excess water in the pot.  All you need to do is turn the burner on really low, leave the pot uncovered, and then go about your morning routine.

Make your coffee, feed the cats...  clean up the few dishes from dessert the night before, if need be.

Just barely bubbling. Breakfast
is almost ready.  Next, you
need to choose your toppings

After about eight minutes or so, the mixture in the pot will start to bubble just the slightest bit.  At this point, just give them a quick stir every few minutes, just to prevent them from sticking to the bottom of the pot.  Once most of the excess water has boiled out and the mixture has been reduced, go ahead and turn off the burner, and then pour the oats into a serving bowl.  If the oats are still a bit watery, that's okay.  They'll thicken a bit more after sitting for another minute or so.

Now...  this next part is extremely important.  DON'T YOU DARE...  reach for a spoon and start eating.  You've just spent all night (well...  not really) making this wonderful oatmeal.  If you just start eating it now, you might as well be flushing it down the toilet.

I've never understood why anybody would go through all the trouble to make any kind of oatmeal, and then just settle on eating it plain, or with only milk and brown sugar.  What a waste.  Instead, you should be topping this big bowl of hearty goodness with...  at minimum...  a natural sweetener, at least two kinds of fruit, and a handful of some kind of nut.

One of the reasons that we're all getting so fat, lazy, and sick in this country is because we're shoveling garbage into our mouths...  AND...  we're not eating enough fruits, vegetables, or fiber.  In this situation, this is your opportunity to think of yourself as the artist.  This heaping bowl of piping hot steel-cut oatmeal that sits before you is your blank canvas, just crying out to be decorated with fruits, nuts, and other healthy toppings.  New research is showing that we should really be getting as many as eight servings of fruit and vegetables per day.  You should be asking yourself how many servings can you squeeze into this one bowl?

How do I go about decorating my oatmeal?  Let's take a look at this morning's bowl.

First, I always sprinkle on a generous dose of cinnamon.  That's a given every time.  Next, we need to think fruit.  I always go for two kinds of fruit...  a handful of fresh or frozen fruit, and then a big scoop of some kind of mushed up fruit or puree.  Applesauce or a mushed-up, overripe banana can work well.  For my mushed up fruit, I've recently been on a pumpkin kick.  Pumpkin is loaded with vitamin A and is also a good source of iron.  If it's not in season, just buy the stuff in the can, which is just as nutritious.

I've also added a handful of frozen wild blueberries.  If they're in season, you definitely want to go for the fresh kind...  preferably the fresh kind from Maine.  But frozen blueberries work just as well in the middle of the winter.  The market near my office just happens to sell Wyman's of Maine Frozen Wild Blueberries...  how 'bout them apples?  Speaking of apples, if you peel, core, and cut up a fresh apple the night before and toss it in the hot water with the oats, they'll be the perfect consistency to eat in the morning.

Next it's time for a handful of nuts.  Almonds or walnuts are my most common choices.  If you're feeling adventurous, you can also try pecans.

Finally, I drizzle on a modest amount of natural sweetener.  My favorite is maple syrup, and this is what I've chosen today.  But I've recently been experimenting with unsulphured molasses.  Just one tablespoon of the stuff is a good source of potassium, calcium, magnesium, and iron, and it sweetens the whole damn bowl, bringing out the flavors of the fruit.  I've also had success with honey and agave nectar.

Notice anything missing?  Yeah...  no milk.  I've traditionally added milk to old-fashioned oatmeal, but I always leave it off the steel-cut variety.  I find that adding milk to steel-cut oats takes away its creamy texture, leaving it way too gritty.  And, I've recently been cutting most of the milk out of my diet.  I still do cheese and buttermilk in cooking, but I now use soy milk anymore in my smoothies, lattes, and cereal.

On that note, there's a lot of conflicting, and in some cases, misleading research out there at the moment regarding dairy products...  including how much is good for us and whether we should really be eating dairy at at all.  I won't say any more about that here, as this is a topic which probably deserves its own blog entry.

But for now, I've decided to leave the milk off my oatmeal.  There are plenty of grains and vegetables that can help me get my calcium fix.

Lastly...  bury your spoon into your bowl and mix everything together.  Yes, it looks kind of sludgy, but this is the best way to evenly distribute all of your toppings throughout the oatmeal.

Dig in, and enjoy your healthy, delicious breakfast.  You've earned it.

Oatmeal References:

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