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Offbeat oatmeal

Have bad childhood flashbacks of oatmeal?

Terrorized by memories of that grayish bowl of flavorless glop your mom made you eat before school?

Well, you’re a grown-up now. Time to ditch that packet of instant powdery stuff and cook up a comforting pot of steel-cut oats.

Never heard of them? They just might change – or at least shake up – your breakfast routine.

“I never was an oatmeal eater before I met steel-cut oats,” says Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for the Boston-based Whole Grains Council. “I had never liked oatmeal. Anybody who thinks, ‘Oh, I don’t like oatmeal’ they should try steel-cut oats.”

Why? Well, first off, they’re good for you.

All oats – even that powdery stuff in the paper packet – are whole grains. That means they’re loaded with fiber and other nutrients that will keep you full long after you would’ve reached for that third jelly donut. Eating regular bowls of oatmeal, whatever the variety, has been shown in some studies to reduce the risk of heart disease.

Not good enough for you? Steel-cut oats taste wonderful, too. But more on that later. First, a little oat lesson:

You’re probably most familiar with old-fashioned and quick-cooking rolled oats. (If you’re not, here’s a hint: They’re what’s inside that Quaker’s head in the big tubs at the supermarket.)

Rolled oats are flat and papery, made by steaming oat kernels and smooshing them with a roller. Quick-cooking or instant oats are made the same way, except they’re cut finely before cooking so they can make it to your breakfast table more quickly.

Steel-cut oats (which are also called Irish oats, Scotch oats or pinhead oats) are whole oat kernels, called groats, that are coarsely chopped by steel blades. Chopping them allows the oatmeal to be cooked in a reasonable amount of time – about 20 to 30 minutes or so.

“Whole groats would take forever to cook,” Harriman says.

Instead of looking flattened, like rolled oats, steel-cut oats resemble large grains of sand and look a little like Grape-Nuts cereal.

Steel-cut oats even edge out regular oats in nutrition by just a tiny bit. They have a lower glycemic index than old-fashioned oats, so they burn more steadily to keep your body fueled a bit longer.

Their taste and texture is different, too. They’re nuttier and creamier, a bit more dense and chewier than the more-familiar oatmeal.

And, like other oatmeal, they’re cheap. You can find steel-cut oats in containers near the other oatmeal in the cereal aisle. Brands such as McCann’s and Bob’s Red Mill are popular. But if you become hooked on steel-cut oats, your best bet might be to head to the bulk bins.

At Huckleberry’s, you can buy them in bulk for 99 cents a pound.

“They’re very popular,” says Melanie Chapel, bulk manager there. The store goes through a 25-pound bag of steel-cut oats a couple of times a week, Chapel says.

“People want something warm for breakfast,” she says.

And steel-cut oats provide the perfect backdrop for all sorts of toppings and variations. Sure, you can serve them just like regular old-fashioned oats, with a handful of raisins, a spoonful of brown sugar and a drizzle of cream. But this grown-up oatmeal can be gussied up in a variety of ways.

Stir in some canned pumpkin and sweeten with brown sugar or maple syrup. Make Elvis oatmeal by stirring in a little peanut butter and topping with sliced banana.

“I love them,” says Nancy Carpenter, clinical nutrition manager at Kootenai Medical Center. “I just put them in a pot on the stove and cover them with all kinds of fresh fruit.”

Toast up some walnuts and sprinkle them on top, along with some raisins and brown sugar. That’s what chef Char Zyskowski, owner of Spokane’s Apple Charlotte Cooking Co. likes to do. Zyskowski, a baker, also likes to add leftover prepared steel-cut oatmeal to her bread dough.

“It just adds to the grain,” she says. “And it’s fabulous. Just decrease the water a bit.”

Harriman likes to microwave a cut-up pear or apple with a little cinnamon until soft. Then she pours some frozen blueberries in a dish and puts the hot steel-cut oats on top, followed by the warm apple or pear.

“You have this wonderful fruity oatmeal mix,” she says.

Steel-cut oats do take about a half hour on the stove, but there are ways to shorten the cooking time. And you can make a big batch when you have time, store it in the refrigerator and reheat portions (adding a little milk to moisten it) all week.

Here are some steel-cut oatmeal recipes to try:

Steel-Cut Oatmeal

From Alton Brown, Food Network

1 tablespoon butter

1 cup steel-cut oats

3 cups boiling water

1/2 cup whole milk

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon low-fat buttermilk

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

In a large saucepan, melt the butter and add the oats. Stir for 2 minutes to toast. Add the boiling water and reduce heat to a simmer. Keep at a low simmer for 25 minutes, without stirring. Combine the milk and half of the buttermilk with the oatmeal. Stir gently to combine and cook for an additional 10 minutes. Spoon into a serving bowl and top with remaining buttermilk, brown sugar and cinnamon.

Yield: 4 servings

Nutrition per serving: Unable to calculate.

Creamy Coconut Oatmeal with Dried Peaches and Candied Coconut Pecans

From Fine Cooking, March 2008. If you can’t find dried peaches, substitute other dried fruit.

1 cup steel-cut oats

3 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons light corn syrup

Kosher salt

1/2 cup coarsely chopped pecan halves

1/4 cup unsweetened dried shredded coconut

1/4 cup finely diced dried peaches

13.5-ounce or 14-ounce can coconut milk

Position rack in the center of the oven and heat to 350 degrees. Spread the oatmeal on a large baking sheet. Pick through for husks or pebbles and toast in the oven until light golden and fragrant, about 12 minutes. Transfer to large bowl to cool.

Line a baking sheet with parchment or a nonstick liner. In a small saucepan over low heat, combine 2 tablespoons of the sugar and the corn syrup, 1/2 teaspoon water and a pinch of salt. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is mostly melted, about 2 minutes. (It won’t dissolve completely). Off the heat, stir in the pecans and coconut. Spread the mixture in a thin layer on the prepared baking sheet and bake, stirring halfway through baking, until the coconut is dark brown, 16 to 18 minutes total. Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool. Once cool, crumble the pecan mixture into a bowl and stir in the peaches.

While the coconut pecans bake, pour the coconut milk into a large liquid measuring cup and add enough water to make 4 cups. Transfer to a 4-quart saucepan, add the remaining 1 tablespoon sugar and a big pinch of salt and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, whisking occasionally. Add the oatmeal and cook, whisking occasionally, until the mixture begins to thicken, about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the oatmeal is tender and thick, 25 to 30 minutes. Whisk occasionally at first and then switch to a wooden spoon and stir more frequently toward the end.

Serve the oatmeal in wide, shallow bowls, topped with the pecan mixture.

Yield: 4 servings

Nutrition per serving: Unable to calculate.

German Goetta

From Bob’s Red Mill. This is similar to what the Pennsylvania Dutch call scrapple.

1 pound ground pork

1 pound ground beef

8 cups water

2 1/2 cups steel-cut oats

1 large onion, sliced

2 bay leaves

2 teaspoons salt

Pinch of pepper

In a large pot with a lid, boil the water. Add salt, pepper and oatmeal. Reduce heat. Cover and let cook for two hours, stirring often. Add the meat, onion, bay leaves and mix well. Cook for another hour, stirring often. Remove bay leaves.

Pour into bread pans. (The size of the pan does not matter).

Refrigerate overnight.

To serve, slice goetta and fry until crispy or just until heated through. Serve with pancakes and eggs, on sandwiches, or in place of meat at dinner.

Yield: 8 servings

Nutrition per serving: Unable to calculate.

Griddled Steel-Cut Oatcakes

From Bon Appetit, September 2007

3 1/2 cups (or more) water

1 1/4 cups steel-cut oats

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup whipping cream

2 tablespoons pure maple syrup, plus more for serving

1 tablespoon packed dark brown sugar

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Melted butter (for brushing)

2 pints strawberries, hulled, sliced

Butter 13-by-9 inch pan or rimmed baking sheet. Bring 3 1/2 cups water to boil in heavy medium saucepan. Add oats and salt. Bring to boil; reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until oatmeal is tender but still firm to bite, stirring often and adding more water by 1/4 cupfuls if too thick, about 30 minutes. Add cream, 2 tablespoons maple syrup, sugar and vanilla; stir until mixture thickens, about 3 minutes. Spread oatmeal in prepared pan. Cover with plastic wrap and chill until firm, at least 4 hours. Or make a day ahead. Keep chilled.

Cut chilled oatmeal into squares or triangles. Heat griddle or heavy nonstick skillet over medium heat. Brush griddle with melted butter. Cook oatcakes until golden brown and heated through, about 3 to 4 minutes per side. Divide oatcakes among plates, drizzle with maple syrup, spoon strawberries over and serve.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Nutrition per serving: Unable to calculate.