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 taste buds 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?
I know, I know, you're not convinced.
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 ..."
Et tu, Whole Grain Council.
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.
It's oatmeal; you don't have to hide that fact when it can be such a great addition to the dish.