by Lauren Chattman
After making and consuming cinnamon buns, crème brulee, and a variety and number of Christmas cookies too numerous to mention, it was time this week for a little, but not too much, culinary restraint. What could I make that would qualify as nutritious and satisfy my sweet tooth at the same time? A bag of steel-cut oats and a handful of dried figs sitting at the back of the pantry caught my eye as the perfect breakfast combination for a healthy New Year.
Old-fashioned rolled oats (the ones with the familiar Quaker on the round box), begin as whole oat kernels but then are steamed and rolled into thin flakes. No matter how carefully you cook them, they always turn to mush when combined with milk or water. I may feel guilty for overindulging during the holidays, but not guilty enough to want to eat gruel in January. Steel-cut oats, in contrast, are oat kernels that have simply been chopped into thick bits. When cooked properly, they are slightly chewy and full of whole grain flavor, providing pleasure rather than punishment first thing in the morning.
Steel-cut oats have the same health benefits as rolled oats. They contain a soluble fiber that has been proven to reduce the absorption of cholesterol into the bloodstream. They have been shown to regulate blood sugar levels, an important factor in preventing complications associated with diabetes. And they contain phytochemicals associated with a lowered risk of getting certain cancers.
Steel-cut oats are surprisingly versatile. Beyond breakfast, they can be used to make oat risotto (just substitute oats for rice in a favorite recipe), or kneaded into bread dough to give it some whole-grain goodness. When I’m eating dessert again, I plan to use them in a fruit crisp topping, along with butter, brown sugar, and sliced almonds. They’re too crunchy too use alone in oatmeal cookies, but you can substitute steel-cut oats for 1/3 of the rolled oats in any oatmeal cookie recipe for a wonderfully crispy-chewy result. Look for them at the IGA, on the same shelf as other whole grains like brown rice, wheat berries, and stone-ground cornmeal
Preparing steel-cut oats for breakfast is easy but takes a little bit of time. Unlike rolled oats, which can be microwaved for a minute or two and consumed immediately, steel-cut oats require a half-hour of stovetop cooking to soften up. On a weekend morning, read the paper and have your first cup of coffee while they cook. On a weekday, use the time to empty the dishwasher and make a few school lunches.
For best results, take this advice:
Toast Your Oats: Toasting your oats for a few minutes in the pan before adding water will bring out their whole grain flavor (add a tiny bit of butter and they will taste even better). Toasting will also prevent them from getting soggy and falling apart as they cook.
Don’t Stir: Cooking the oats pilaf-style will help the oats keep their shape. After you toast them, add water and bring it to a boil. Then turn the heat down to low, cover the pot, and let it stand without stirring for 30 minutes. But paying attention to the oats as they cook guarantees a perfect result.
Use a Nonstick Pot: This is especially important if you are going to follow the “don’t stir” rule, since there is a good chance that a thin layer of oats will become stubbornly bonded to the bottom of a pot without a nonstick surface.
Steel-Cut Oats with Dried Fig Compote
Serves 3 to 4
Other dried fruit may be substituted for the figs here. Apricots, prunes, and cranberries, alone or in combination, would all taste great and contribute to the nutritional value of this breakfast. Or simply drizzle your oats with maple syrup and sprinkle with raisins.
1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 cup steel-cut oats
3 1/4 cups water
1/2 cup dried figs, stemmed and coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Milk or half-and-half
1. Melt the butter in a nonstick pot over medium-high heat. Add the oats and cook, stirring, until fragrant and lightly toasted, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in 3 cups of water and a pinch of salt, turn the heat to high, and bring to a boil. Cover, turn the heat to low, and cook without stirring for 30 minutes.
2. While the oats are cooking combine the figs, brown sugar, ginger, and remaining 1/4 cup water in a small pot. Bring to a simmer and cook at a bare simmer until the liquid is thickened, about 20 minutes.
3. Stir the oatmeal, divide it among 3 or 4 bowls, and top with the figs and their liquid. Serve immediately, with milk or half-and-half if desired.