The adaptable oats

Few foods are simpler to fix: You can cook oatmeal in a saucepan or in the microwave.

February 12, 2010 17:48
Fix up an oat-based meal.

oats recipes 311. (photo credit: Kevin Eisenhut/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MCt)

In our quest to include nutritious whole grains in our diets, the easiest grain of all may be the hot cereal many of us grew up eating: oats.

There are three main types of oatmeal: rolled oats, or oat grains flattened into flakes; quick-cooking oats, which are smaller and thinner; and steel-cut oats, made of oat grains cut on a steel buhr mill in little pieces that look somewhat like bulgur wheat. Instant and quick cooking oats yield the smoothest oatmeal, and rolled oats have more bite. Oatmeal aficionados opt for steel-cut oats, which have an appealing al-dente texture.

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Friends and students of mine have told me that after following the oatmeal package directions, they were not pleased with the texture of the oats. Actually, few foods are simpler to fix. You can cook oatmeal in a saucepan or in the microwave. Package instructions generally call for cooking rolled oats and quick oats with double their volume of hot water or milk. These proportions make the oatmeal thick and sticky. To make creamier-textured cereal, I use more liquid, generally triple the volume of the oats, and I start with cold rather than hot water.

To make oatmeal that satisfies without adding butter or cream, I use nonfat milk for most or all of the liquid. Vanilla soy milk also gives a delicious result.

Oatmeal’s natural flavor is delicately sweet. Yet some people find that plain porridge makes a boring breakfast. Once the oatmeal is cooked to the desired thickness, it’s time to have fun with toppings. I keep rice pudding in mind as a model, but oatmeal is not dessert, and so I try not to make it too sweet or too rich.

The oatmeal I’ve encountered in hotels in the US was cooked in water and served with a pat of butter, a pitcher of milk, a bowl of brown sugar and sometimes sliced almonds. My friend Darina Allen, author of The Complete Book of Irish Country Cooking, wrote that buttermilk and honey were traditional Irish accompaniments for oatmeal.

At the top of my list of treats is fruit, but I rarely add it raw, except occasionally for sliced bananas. Most often I add apples as a quick compote. To make it, I microwave diced apples in a bit of water with sweet spices such as cinnamon, cloves or nutmeg, and if necessary, a touch of sugar. Apples with dried apricots and fresh ginger make a tasty topping; so do pears microwaved briefly with raisins and cinnamon. I prepare enough compote for several days, and then add a few tablespoons to our oatmeal when we’re ready for breakfast.

Dried fruit from dates to cherries and nuts of all sorts – raw or toasted – make wonderful oatmeal embellishments. If the fruit is a bit dry, you can add it when beginning to microwave the oatmeal and it will soften perfectly. For a sweet, fruity taste, I occasionally swirl a small spoonful of berry jam or orange marmalade into my bowl of oatmeal. A friend of mine likes oatmeal toppings with an exotic touch, such as crystallized ginger or dried persimmons paired with Mexican pumpkin seeds.

Nuts are best scattered over the oatmeal at the last minute so they keep their crisp texture. For an especially festive topping, I sprinkle a few slivers of bittersweet chocolate over the oatmeal, along with nuts and fruit.

If you’re feeling adventurous, you can follow the example of some Indian cooks who have adapted savory and even spicy dishes to oatmeal. One suggests preparing oatmeal using a South Indian rice recipe, and seasoning it with cumin seeds sauteed in ghee (Indian clarified butter), crushed black peppercorns, curry leaves, ginger and chopped cashews.

Based on this idea, I made a savory bowl of oatmeal for supper, flavored with salt, garlic pepper and paprika, and it was good. It resembled cream soup in consistency. Next time I will make it with mushrooms, as it reminds me of my mother’s oatmeal-thickened vegetable soups.


Some feel that steel-cut oats, also known as pinhead oats, are too much trouble to cook; yet they are even easier to prepare than rice, as you can add more liquid at any time without worrying that the grains will fall apart and form a sticky mess.

Bob’s Red Mill, a well-known American whole-grains company located in Oregon, recommends cooking steel-cut oats using 3 cups boiling water for 1 cup oats. For a creamier result, I start the oats in cold water and use more liquid.

Since steel-cut oats need about 20 minutes to become tender, I cook enough for several portions in advance, and microwave each portion at breakfast time with enough milk to make it creamy textured. Serve the oatmeal sprinkled with cinnamon or topped with fruit and/or nuts.

4 cups water
1⁄4 tsp. salt (optional)
1 cup steel-cut oats
Milk or soy milk, 1⁄2 cup per portion, or to taste

Combine oats, water and salt in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring often. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes or until the oats are tender to your taste. Check often and adjust the heat so the mixture does not boil over. Cool, then refrigerate if making in advance.

To use, microwave 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 the mixture in a bowl with milk until hot, stirring occasionally. Add more milk if desired.
Makes 2 to 4 servings.


You can substitute 1⁄3 cup raisins for the apricots.

2 to 3 tsp. chopped gingerroot
1⁄3 cup water
3 or 4 diced dried apricots
350 gr. apples, any kind, unpeeled
2 tsp. sugar or equivalent in sweetener (optional)
pinch of cinnamon (optional)

Combine gingerroot, water and apricots in a microwave-safe container. Dice apples and add. Cover and microwave 5 minutes, stirring once or twice. Taste, and microwave 1 or 2 more minutes or until apples are tender. Taste, and add sugar and cinnamon if desired.

Makes about 4 servings, as embellishment for oatmeal.


According to Darina Allen, an old Irish recipe for oatmeal soup calls for cooking a sliced onion with broth and cold cooked oatmeal, then finishing it with skim milk. Oatmeal soup is also popular in Scotland, where the vegetables of choice are onions, leeks, celery, carrots and rutabagas. Traditionally the Scottish soup is rich in butter, cream or whole milk, but the technique of thickening with oats is ideal for healthy cooking, as the oatmeal itself makes soups slightly creamy and contributes more nutrients than white flour.

This colorful soup, inspired by my mother’s oatmeal-thickened soups, makes a warming, comforting supper. It’s not a bowl of oatmeal with vegetables, but rather a vegetable soup lightly thickened with oats. For a creamier soup, stir 1⁄2 cup milk or soy milk into the soup just before serving and heat it through.

5 cups vegetable or chicken broth
1 boiling potato, diced
1 onion, chopped
1 bay leaf
2 medium carrots, diced
1 celery rib, sliced
1⁄2 cup sliced mushrooms (optional)
3 Tbsp. quick-cooking oatmeal (not instant)
2 medium pale green zucchini (white squash)
   (kishuim) or zucchini, diced
11⁄2 cups frozen peas or frozen mixed vegetables
1⁄2 cup cooked or canned white beans or chickpeas (optional)
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 Tbsp. chopped parsley or 1 Tbsp. chopped dill

Bring broth to a simmer with potato, onion and bay leaf. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Add carrots, celery and mushrooms and simmer for 5 minutes. Stir in oatmeal and add squash and peas. Simmer uncovered, stirring often, for 5 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Add white beans and heat through. Discard bay leaf.

For a smooth textured soup, puree all or half the soup with a blender. If soup is too thick, gradually stir in 1⁄4 cup boiling water. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add parsley at serving time.

Makes 4 servings.

Faye Levy is the author of Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home.

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