Oatmeal: Not Just for Breakfast Anymore!


What sacrifices we make for the sake of speed –– take oats, for example. Look at those fallacious insta-tized flakes that pass for modern oatmeal. Even the noble look of the weighty friend on the label can't disguise the anemia of a processed product possessing all the appeal of gustatory dust.

Quickness is its one asset, and for that we have given up flavor, chewiness, aroma and much of the pleasure inherent in a grain that has been providing comfort and health since prehistoric times. The only commonly available oatmeal retaining any quality of oats has been dubbed "old-fashioned," as if flavor had somehow become passé.

All of the mass-market American oatmeal cereals are made from rolled oats. These oats are cleaned, graded and pearled – a process that removes the husk from the oat grain, steam-softens it, and then rolls it flat between heavy metal rollers spinning at super speed.

Oats processed in this way lose some protein, bran and B vitamins, but have a longer shelf-life than more natural oatmeal because enzymes in the grain are destroyed by the heat of steaming and rolling. These enzymes, in unprocessed oatmeal, cause the oil in the oat germ to go rancid once the grain is exposed to air. Hence, unprocessed oatmeal is sold in air-tight, vacuum-packed tins as opposed to the cardboard packaging of rolled-oat products.

Unprocessed oatmeal is sold as Irish or Scottish. Unlike rolled oats, the grain in Irish oatmeal is still in its original form. You can see the shape of the oat seed and feel its hard flinty grit between your fingers. When cooked, the oats soften, but they always maintain a wonderful chewiness, reminiscent of brown rice and other whole grains, rather than the soft insipid mush of quicker-cooking oatmeal.

Unprocessed oatmeal also has more oat bran than rolled oats, because some of the bran is removed along with the husk when rolled oats are pearled. Oat bran has gotten attention lately for its ability to absorb dietary cholesterol and remove it from the digestive tract before it can be absorbed into the blood stream.

Unprocessed oatmeal provides substantial quantities of oat bran without adding the extra calories and cholesterol, which have become problematic in other oat bran products like muffins and breads.

Unprocessed Irish and Scottish oatmeal takes longer to prepare than quick-cooking oats, but the process practically happens by itself. For every cup of boiling water, stir in one-eighth teaspoon (a big pinch) of salt and one-quarter cup (a large handful) of oatmeal. Cook briskly until the water becomes murky with oat starch and then turn down to a simmer, cover partially, and cook for half an hour, stirring every so often to keep the porridge from sticking to the pot.

An even easier method is one picked up from the back of the McCann's Irish Oatmeal tin. Start the oatmeal in the top section of a double boiler directly over the heat. When it comes time to turn the porridge down to a simmer, place the top of the double boiler over boiling water, cover it and cook for half an hour.

The result is slightly moister than cooking the oatmeal in a saucepan, and it takes no attention. I start the oatmeal first thing, shower, dress and put on the coffee. By the time I come down for breakfast, everything is ready to dish up.

There's an eternal raging war between the armies of sweet and savory oatmeal-eaters. Neither seems able to compromise. Sweet patriots swear by brown sugar, honey or molasses, and a decadent smattering of dried fruit. The other camp is stoic by comparison, at times luxuriating in a pad of butter, but by and large relying on a splash of milk as the sole adornment.

By anyone's standards, the principle sensuality of good oatmeal is the juxtaposition of piping hot porridge and icy-cold milk. Only the uniformed or hopelessly insipid would ever mix the hot and cold elements together, the tepid result being decidedly unappetizing.

In Scotland, oatmeal is often served in two bowls – one containing the hot cereal, the other holding the milk. Diners then dip each spoonful of porridge in the cold milk, thus keeping the temperature differential at its peak. My personal favorite is to accompany hot oatmeal, sweet or not, with a chilled pitcher of buttermilk. The textures, flavors and temperatures are ecstatic.

Because of its textural complexity and nutty flavor, Irish oatmeal can be added to soups and stews in much the same way that you'd use rice or barley. It can be ground in a food processor to a fine meal to blend with wheat flour for yeasted oat breads and Irish soda breads, or used on its own in traditional recipes for Scottish oat puddings and oatcakes.

It's even great leftover and cold. Serve cakes of leftover oatmeal in pools of cool cream or buttermilk, dappled with a sprinkling of brown sugar or a glaze of golden honey. Don't try this with quick-cooked oatmeal. The flaccid blob that results when such oatmeal congeals makes for better wallpaper paste than dessert.

With that said, don't throw out all of your quick oats. Although they are not very good for porridge, their light, nutty flavor and chewable texture make them perfect for cookies, breads and toasted cereals. You will find them preferable to Irish oatmeal in any recipe that does not call for cooking oats in liquid.

Below, however, are three methods for the real deal.

'Real' Oatmeal, Sweet Version

4 cups water
1/2 to 3/4 tsp. salt
1 cup Irish or Scottish oatmeal
1 Tbsp. brown sugar
2 Tbsps. unsalted butter
2 cups cold milk or buttermilk

For Mildly Chewy Oatmeal: In a heavy saucepan, bring the water and the salt to a boil. Slowly add the oatmeal while you stir constantly. Do not allow the water to stop boiling.

Cook the oatmeal briskly until the water starts to cloud.

Turn down to a bare simmer, partially cover the pan and simmer for 30 more minutes, stirring every 10 minutes.

Stir in the brown sugar and butter, if desired.

Serve with cold milk or buttermilk.

For Extra-Chewy Oatmeal: In a heavy saucepan, bring the water and the salt to a boil. Slowly add half the oatmeal while you stir constantly. Do not allow the water to stop boiling.

Cook oatmeal briskly until the water starts to cloud. Add the remaining oatmeal and stir briefly.

Turn down to a bare simmer, partially cover the pan and simmer for 30 more minutes, stirring briefly every 10 minutes. Stir in the brown sugar and butter, if desired.

Serve with cold milk or buttermilk.

For Soft, Lighter Oatmeal: Bring the water and salt to a boil in the top half of a double boiler placed directly over high heat. Slowly add the oatmeal while you stir constantly. Do not allow the water to stop boiling.

Cook oatmeal briskly, until the water starts to cloud. Place the top half of the double boiler over the lower half containing several inches of boiling water.

Partially cover with a lid and cook over moderate heat for 30 minutes. If at that time some liquid is still unabsorbed on the surface of the porridge, stir briefly to incorporate it.

Stir in the brown sugar and butter, if desired.

Serve with cold milk or buttermilk.

'Real' Oatmeal, Unsweetened Version

Follow one of the three methods for "Real" Oatmeal, Sweet Version – omitting the brown sugar.

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Oats have been imprisoned at breakfast for so many decades that most people would never think of adding them to a soup or serving them as a side dish.

Well, it's time to change your mind!

Steel-cut oats (sold as Irish or Scottish oatmeal) are cooked like brown rice (except faster). Here, they are prepared pilaf-style with onions – enriched with a hefty handful of cheddar and a garnish of toasted walnuts. It's a wonderful accompaniment for grilled or roasted salmon.

Cheddar-Cheese Oats With Toasted Walnuts

1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1/4 cup chopped onion, fresh or frozen
1/2 cup steel-cut oats
2 cups vegetable broth
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
3/4 cup (about 3 oz.) shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 cup walnut pieces, toasted
1 Tbsp. chopped parsley

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat.

Add the onion and cook until tender.

Add the oats and cook until the onions are lightly browned and the oats smell toasty. Add the broth, salt and pepper, and heat to boiling.

Cover and simmer until oats are tender, about 30 minutes. The mixture will still be wet.

Remove from the heat, adjust the seasoning, and stir in the cheese until melted.

Stir in the walnuts and parsley, and serve immediately.

Makes 4 servings.

Lemon-Lamb Stew With Oatmeal

11/2 lbs. lamb-stew meat
1 Tbsp. pareve margarine
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 rib of celery, peeled and diced
1 onion, peeled and diced
zest of 1 lemon
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 tsp. ground coriander
pinch of ground ginger
pinch of crushed red pepper
2 cups water
3 cups kosher beef broth
juice of 1 lemon
salt to taste
1/3 cup Irish oatmeal (not quick-cooking)
1/4 cup chopped parsley

In a deep soup pot, brown the lamb on one side in the margarine and oil.

Turn the pieces of lamb, and add the carrot, celery and onion.

Cook until the vegetables are lightly softened and the lamb has browned lightly on its other side.

While the lamb is browning, mince the lemon zest with the garlic.

Add that to the pot with the coriander, ginger and crushed pepper. Stir to mix, then add in the water, beef broth and lemon juice.

Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Simmer for 30 minutes.

Remove the lamb from the broth and cut the meat away from the bone, slicing it into bite-sized pieces.

Return the meat to the broth and bring to a boil.

Add the oatmeal in a slow, steady stream.

Turn down to a simmer and cook gently for another 30 minutes, until oatmeal is tender but still chewy, and has lightly thickened the broth.

Adjust the seasoning and stir in the parsley.

Makes 4 servings.

Andrew Schloss is a food-industry consultant and a cookbook author. His current book is Almost From Scratch: 600 Recipes for the New Convenience Cuisine.



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