Oatmeal is a quintessential winter food, but it sometimes gets a bad reputation. If you describe something as “the consistency of oatmeal”, it’s not usually a compliment. Oatmeal is mushy, often bland, and when it’s not bland, it’s because it’s over-sweetened. There’s one traditional way to prepare it, which is with raisins and brown sugar. How creative, right? The phenomenon of instant oatmeal hasn’t helped: the little microwave-friendly packets are mushier and sweeter than anything that came before them.
There are two ways to make oatmeal delicious: creativity, and good oats. I’ve been eating a lot of oatmeal this winter. It’s my weekday morning standby, and I’ll often make a more elaborate version on the weekends when I’m not cooking up pancakes or waffles. Good ingredients and variety and both key in keeping it tasty.
First, the oats. There are lots of kinds of oats out there, starting with instant, followed by quick-cooking, regular (or “old-fashioned”, as if regular oats were no longer cool enough), and finally steel-cut. There are also various fancy or multi-grain varieties. Instant oats cook the fastest – instantly, like magic. Steel cut oats take the longest to cook, about 45 minutes on the stovetop (and they don’t do well in the microwave).
As a general rule, the longer your oats take to cook, the healthier they are for you. This is because quick-cooking varieties are made by stripping out the slow-but-nutritious parts of whole oats. The more you strip out, the less nutrition remains. The longer cooking kinds also have more flavor and character, for the same reason. Considering that the “long” cooking time for “old-fashioned” oats is 3 or 4 minutes in the microwave, there’s no real reason not to use them. You don’t have to do anything – just wait 3 minutes longer while you go about your morning.
Steel-cut oats are another thing altogether, and they take both time and attention (in the form of occasional stirring). But they have as much resemblance to instant oats as bears do to teddy bears. They have texture. Character. A nutty flavor. They’re worth the extra effort for that alone, when you have the time.
But oats alone aren’t good eating, no matter how good the oats are. There are a thousand ways to spice up your oatmeal, and almost all of them are more interesting than raisins. My favorite source of inspiration for oatmeal is Trader Joe’s, where they have a huge selection of dried and frozen fruits, almost any of which could be a good addition. I like to use these better than fresh fruits, because they’re easy to keep on hand, less expensive, and once they’re cooked up, the difference isn’t that noticeable. If you’re using dried fruit, just add a little more water; if you’re using frozen, use slightly less water. Don’t limit yourself to fruit, either, though it’s my most frequent choice.
You’ve got choices of sweeteners, too. Brown sugar is most traditional, and has a nice flavor, but any sugar substitute will do well. The sweetener can add as much character as the main ingredient: I like to use maple syrup, with certain kinds of fruit. Honey can also be a nice touch (though, personally, it’s not usually my thing.)
Here are a number of oatmeal variations that I really like. (No pictures this time – my kitchen is still out of commission.)
- Dried blueberries and brown sugar (my current favorite)
- Raspberries and maple syrup (perhaps flavored with Earl Grey)
- Dried cranberries and brown sugar and ginger
- Cheddar cheese, a pat of butter, and fresh ground pepper (kind of like grits)
- Pumpkin pie: a large spoonful of canned pumpkin puree, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, pecans, and sugar
- Mashed banana, honey, and walnuts
- Tea of any kind, like chai, Earl Grey, or fruit teas
There are also a number of things I’ve seen, but haven’t tried yet:
- Nutella and peanut butter (saw this on a menu over the weekend, but didn’t order it, and now it’s haunting me. I will be making this when I have my kitchen back.)
- Dried cherries and vanilla extract
- Jam of your choice
- Chopped peaches (with honey, and optionally with cream)
I especially like the idea of savory oatmeal, which Mark Bittman first made me thing about, but it’s far outside my usual idea (and most people’s idea) of what oatmeal is. (Here’s an idea from Bittman for oatmeal with olive oil and tapenade, which would either be awesome or gross, and I can’t decide which.) I haven’t explored this idea much, but it seems like it has potential – though it doesn’t lend itself to a quick breakfast.
Do you like oatmeal, or do you think it’s weird? If you like it, how do you like to dress it up? I know I’ve hit on only a tiny fraction of the tasty possibilities that are out there.