ST. LOUIS — It takes a little courage the first time you saute onions with Indian spices and mix them into your oatmeal, but the queasy feeling passes. I promise.
I’ll admit that I wasn’t an instant convert. It felt like sacrilege. Violating your childhood treat with veggies and soy sauce still feels a bit … well, unsavory, but I’d like to change that. At a recent dinner, I served a curried steel-cut oatmeal dish with chicken and mixed peppers, but I waited until everyone applauded the texture and flavors before I confessed that “oh, by the way … that’s not quinoa.” No one complained, but there was a momentary look of dread in which you could see them pondering the question of whether to feel sick.
Suggesting roasted meat, red peppers and oatmeal to the uninitiated can seem as far-fetched as recommending spinach on a PB&J. However, despite its distinct breakfast connotation, oatmeal is just a grain.
Correction: It’s one of the least expensive whole grain options you can buy. And now you can buy bulk because you can use it sweet or savory. Oatmeal pancakes today, oatmeal jambalaya the next.
Once you wrap your head and your tastebuds around the alternatives, you’ll discover that oatmeal just might be the most versatile grain around. Brown rice is higher in calories and can’t compete with the sweet side of oatmeal; besides it lacks that cold-weather comfort appeal.
Barley, bulgar and quinoa would be the most likely next tier of rivals, but they are typically harder to come by and much more expensive. Not to mention that these savory menu items just don’t have much sweet breakfast cachet.
Oatmeal is a chameleon, especially steel cut, which has more nutritional value. But any variety of oatmeal is vaguely sweet, a great quality for curries and an added dimension in traditional savory dishes and stir-frys. Cook it a little longer and slower and the texture can be an alternative to creamy mashes like potatoes and other root vegetables. Oatmeal Au Gratin, anyone? How about Broccoli-Cheddar Oatmeal Risotto?
The Whole Grains Council describes oats like this: “In the U.S., most oats are steamed and flattened to produce ‘old-fashioned’ or regular oats, quick oats and instant oats. The more oats are flattened and steamed, the quicker they cook — and the softer they become. If you prefer a chewier, nuttier texture, consider steel-cut oats, also sometimes called Irish or Scottish oats. Steel-cut oats consist of the entire oat kernel (similar in look to a grain of rice), sliced once or twice into smaller pieces to help water penetrate and cook the grain. Cooked for about 20 minutes: steel-cut oats create a breakfast porridge … ”
No matter, I am not deterred. I’m winning converts by the day who now pause at the kitchen cabinet when the oatmeal water is boiling to wonder soy sauce or the honey? Cranberries and cinnamon or spinach and minced garlic?
Heart-healthy, low-calorie, cholesterol-lowering (typically gluten-free) oatmeal has always been so simple and uncomplicated. It was most definitely one of the first foods I learned to cook, though my preparation has evolved.
My first meals were rolled oats stewed to a yummy sweet mush in whole milk and sugar with a pinch of salt. I still crave it just like that sometimes. But my typical oats today are steel cut and slow cooked in a mix of almond milk and water flavored with pumpkin pie spice, agave syrup and a dash of salt that’s served with pecans, coconut, dried fruit and other toppings. I’ve dedicated a shelf of my refrigerator as a DIY oatmeal bar.
We’ve got some recipe suggestions here, but I’ll tell you that you can easily swap oatmeal for grits, rice and most other grains. And we’d suggest adding a little milk (whatever milk choice you prefer) to enhance the sweet, creaminess — a great quality for the shrimp and oatmeal recipe here. It’s oatmeal; you don’t have to hide that fact when it can be such a great addition to the dish.
BROCCOLI-CHEDDAR OVEN RISOTTO
Yield: 4 servings
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 bunch broccoli, cut into small florets
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 small onion, finely chopped
1 3/4 cups steel-cut oats
1/4 cup dry white wine
Freshly ground pepper
1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese (about 4 ounces)
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Bring the chicken broth to a low simmer in a saucepan. Toss the broccoli with olive oil on a rimmed baking sheet.
2. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a large Dutch oven or ovenproof pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly softened, about 2 minutes. Add the oats and stir to coat. Pour in the wine and cook until evaporated, about 1 minute. Add the hot broth, 3/4 teaspoon salt, and pepper to taste; bring to a boil.
3. Cover and set on the bottom oven rack. Place the broccoli on the upper rack. Bake, stirring the oatmeal and broccoli once halfway through cooking until most of the liquid has been absorbed into the oatmeal and the broccoli is tender, 20 to 25 minutes.
4. Remove the oatmeal and broccoli from the oven. Add 3/4 cup hot water, the remaining 1 tablespoon butter and the cheese to the oatmeal and stir until creamy (add a little more hot water to loosen, if necessary).
5. Stir in broccoli and serve.
Per serving: 570 calories; 28g fat; 13g saturated fat; 50mg cholesterol; 26g protein; 62g carbohydrate; 3g sugar; 11g fiber; 305mg sodium; 320mg calcium.
—Adapted from Broccoli-Cheddar Oven Risotto dish with arborio rice from Food Network Magazine (November 2013)
SPICY OAT CRUSTED CHICKEN WITH SUNSHINE SALSA
Yield: 4 servings
For the sunshine salsa
3/4 cup prepared salsa
3/4 cup coarsely chopped orange sections
For the chicken
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 tablespoon soft margarine or butter, melted
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
3/4 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 cups quick oats, uncooked
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon water
4 boned and skinned chicken breast halves (about 5 to 6 ounces each)
Chopped cilantro (optional)
1. Make the salsa: In a small bowl, combine salsa and orange sections. Refrigerate, covered, until serving time.
2. Heat oven to 375 degrees. In a flat, shallow dish, stir together oil, melted margarine or butter, chili powder, garlic powder, cumin and salt. Add oats, stirring until evenly moistened.
3. In a second flat, shallow dish, beat egg and water with fork until frothy. Dip chicken into combined egg and water, then coat completely in seasoned oats. Place chicken on foil-lined baking sheet. Pat any extra oat mixture onto top of chicken.
4. Bake 30 minutes or until chicken is cooked through and oat coating is golden brown. Serve with Sunshine Salsa. Garnish with chopped cilantro, if desired.
Per serving: 475 calories; 22g fat; 5g saturated fat; 140mg cholesterol; 38g protein; 31g carbohydrate; 4g sugar; 5g fiber; 720mg sodium; 70mg calcium.
SOUTHERN SHRIMP AND OATMEAL
Yield: 8 servings
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups fat-free, low-sodium chicken broth
3/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup steel cut oats
1 cup shredded Colby Jack cheese
2 tablespoons butter, divided
3/4 teaspoon hot sauce, divided
1/2 cup cubed or sliced andouille sausage
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 pound large Gulf Shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 tablespoons Wondra flour
1 cup sliced mushrooms
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
2 tablespoons chopped green onion
1/4 cup chopped tomato
1. Bring water, chicken broth and sea salt to a boil in a medium saucepan; gradually whisk in oats. Reduce heat, and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, 20 minutes or until thickened. Stir in cheese, 1 tablespoon butter and 1/4 teaspoon hot sauce. Keep warm.
2. Cook sausage in hot oil in a large skillet 5 to 7 minutes or until crisp. Drain on paper towels, reserving drippings in skillet. Set sausage aside.
3. Toss shrimp with flour. Saute shrimp in hot drippings 1 minute. Add reserved sausage, mushrooms, garlic and cook 1 minute. Stir in lemon juice, 1/2 teaspoon hot sauce, thyme, green onion and tomato, stirring to loosen any browned bits from bottom of skillet. Remove from heat and stir in 1 tablespoon butter.
4. Serve shrimp mixture over hot oatmeal.
Per serving: 230 calories; 12g fat; 5g saturated fat; 95mg cholesterol; 16g protein; 17g carbohydrate; 0.5g sugar; 2g fiber; 845mg sodium; 145mg calcium.
—Recipe from Bob’s Red Mill 2011 Spar for the Spurtle competition.
THREE PEPPER OAT PILAF
Yield: 6 servings
1/2 cup chopped red bell pepper
1/2 cup chopped yellow bell pepper
1/2 cup chopped mushrooms
1/2 cup sliced green onions
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoons olive oil
1 3/4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats, uncooked
2 egg whites or 1 egg, lightly beaten
3/4 cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons minced fresh basil leaves or 2 teaspoons dried basil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1. In a 10-inch nonstick skillet, cook peppers, mushrooms, green onions and garlic in oil over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are crisp-tender, about 2 minutes.
2. In large bowl, mix oats and egg whites until oats are evenly coated. Add oats to vegetable mixture in skillet.
3. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until oats are dry and separated, about 5 to 6 minutes. Add broth, basil, salt and pepper. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, 2 to 3 minutes or until liquid is absorbed. Serve immediately.
Per serving: 125 calories; 4g fat; 0.5g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 4g protein; 19g carbohydrate; 2g sugar; 3g fiber; 325mg sodium; 5mg calcium.
—From the Quaker Oats Co.
SAVORY PORRIDGE WITH BACON, CHEDDAR, FRESH TOMATOES, AND CHIVES
Yield: 4 servings
8 slices bacon
1/2 cup whole milk
1/4 cup water
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup steel-cut oats
1/2 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1/4 cup chopped fresh chives, plus 1 to 2 tablespoons for garnish
Salt and fresh place pepper to taste
1 heaping cup grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
Cayenne pepper sauce (optional)
1. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook bacon in batches, turning frequently, until browned and crisp, about 5 to 8 minutes. Set aside on a paper towel.
2. While bacon is cooking, bring milk, water and stock just to a boil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Stir in oats and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook, stirring regularly, for 25 to 30 minutes, until liquid is absorbed and oats are tender and cooked through. Stir in cheddar, chives, salt and pepper and taste for seasoning. Just before serving, crumble bacon and stir into oatmeal. Top with cherry tomatoes and extra chives and serve cayenne pepper sauce on the side.
Per serving: 250 calories; 13g fat; 6g saturated fat; 30mg cholesterol; 14g protein; 20g carbohydrate; 4g sugar; 2.5g fiber; 450mg sodium; 155mg calcium.
—From Shape Magazine
SAVORY OATMEAL AND SOFT-COOKED EGG
Yield: 1 serving
1 cup water or chicken broth
1/2 cup quick-cooking rolled oats
Coarse salt and ground pepper
Nonstick cooking spray
1 large egg
2 tablespoons shredded sharp cheddar
1 tablespoon thinly sliced scallions
2 slices of cooked bacon (optional)
1. In a small saucepan, bring 1 cup water (or chicken broth) to a boil. Add oats and pinch of salt; stir, reduce heat, and simmer until tender, about 5 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, heat a small nonstick pan over medium. Coat lightly with cooking spray. Add egg and cook until white is set and yolk is still runny, about 3 minutes. Season egg to taste with salt and pepper. Serve oatmeal in a bowl topped with cheese, egg, scallions and bacon (if using).
Per serving: 295 calories; 12g fat; 4.5g saturated fat; 200mg cholesterol; 16g protein; 30g carbohydrate; 2g sugar; 5g fiber; 170mg sodium; 170mg calcium.
—From Martha Stewart Living