Winter mornings are certainly a time for a hot cup of coffee or tea, and something nice and hot to put in our tummies. Pancakes and waffles drenched with butter and maple syrup come to mind, but if you would like something a little healthier, you can't beat oatmeal. And as Chef Jerry Pellegrino knows, oatmeal is not only a wonderful breakfast food, it can be put to a lot of other uses.
First of all, a little bit about outs. This nutritious grass is a high performance cereal grain. Known scientifically as "avena sativa" (sativa being Latin for cultivated), the seeds pack a powerful punch. After harvest, the raw hull of the seed is knocked off leaving something called the "groat". From here on, you can eat them.
The whole grain groat is a tough old thing, but cooked long enough it can be eaten by humans. You can actually buy a bag of groats to try, if you like. Look for the Bob's Red Mill brand. But most commonly, groats are a mainstay of animal feed.
You can process groats in a number of ways to make them more palatable. Grind them between millstones and you get "ground oats," a sort of flour. Cut the groats up with whirling steely blades and you get "steel cut oats." Steam the groats and then flatten them between rollers, and you get the flattened "rolled oats" we hear so much about. Pre-cook the rolled oats and you get something that cooks up almost instantly, hence the name "instant oats."
Oats are a fabulously healthy food. Their carbs are high quality, slow burning, with low impact on blood glucose levels. They are loaded with tons of fiber which promote gut health and help reduce bad cholesterol. The protein is very high relative to other grains, and it is gluten free. Ounce for ounce, few foods give you such a sensation of fullness after a meal.
When choosing oats, cooking time is the big issue. Steel cut oats, which are minimally processed, require up to 30 minutes to cook. The taste and texture are super, but it's up to you if you want to make the investment. Rolled oats, which is what the traditional Quaker Oats are, take about 5 minutes to cook, and benefit from 3 minutes quiet resting. Instant oats need only 1 minute cooking and then 3 minutes resting. Nutrition, texture and flavor all decline somewhat as you move from steel cut to instant, but even the speediest instant oats still have considerable flavor and nutrition.
I don't know if anyone needs to be told how to cook oatmeal, but here's what the experts say. First, water is preferable to milk for boiling. The solids in milk can burn and ruin the flavor, so go with water. You'll want 3 parts water to 1 part oats for rolled and instant; 4 parts water to 1 part steel cut oats to account for the longer cooking time.
Of course, you'll want to get the water boiling first, then put in the oats. And don't forget a pinch of salt. Consider it mandatory. Once the pot is boiling, turn it way down and simmer the oats. Stir them, remembering the more stirring the creamier the final product. And when the oats are finished, give them a few minutes to rest while you collect your bowls and spoons.
As we said, oats go well beyond simple breakfast food. We learn as kids to appreciate oatmeal cookies, and many of us have had cobblers with an oatmeal crust.
But if you grind your oats in a food processor, the resulting flour can be used in bread making. Also, a lot of bakers like to sprinkle oats on the crust of their loaves for added texture.
If you ever want to try your hand at home-made sausage, cooked oats are an excellent binder. We don't have to look past Scottish haggis to prove that. If you want to try a less challenging recipe, try using oats when you fashion hamburger patties.
I love making Scotch Broth with beef bits, carrots and pearled barley. But you can easily substitute oats for the barley and have a super soup. And of course you can use oats to thicken your stews...remember how creamy they can be.
Want to make you own granola? Well just start with oats before you add all the other goodies. And finally try using oats in your pie crust, much the same way you would use crushed graham crackers.