Across the Cutting Board with Ris: Oatmeal
Oatmeal: The Existential Hero
The history of oatmeal is a modest and uneventful affair. It was never worth its weight in gold, like salt. It was never fabled to have mystic healing properties, like beetroot or ginger. The bible does not allude to it, as with bread and fish. In fact, in Greek and Roman times, oats were considered a diseased form of wheat. Until the late 19th century, they were nothing more than economic sustenance for northern European peasants and animal feed.
But like a man whose steady greatness slowly reveals itself in his maturity, oatmeal emerges as a sort of existential hero: hearty, decent and strong. Its status has grown over time, and today it frequents breakfast tables throughout the world, appreciated for its high fiber, iron and protein content, its ability to fight heart disease and its unrivaled wholesomeness
“It’s on the list of top five foods to fight heart disease,” says chef and restaurateur Ris Lacoste. “Oats are the definition of ‘whole food’ — there’s nothing in it but whole grain. And that’s what wholesome is: good for your heart, body and soul.”
One reason it’s so satisfying is that it keeps you full, she says. “In the crazy world that we live in, it’s important to have a meal in the morning that keeps you satisfied and steady and warms you so entirely.” For all people who lead fast-paced lives, it is very important to feed your system with something healthful and substantial each day.
“I was sent off to school every day in the winter with a bowl of warm oatmeal in me,” says Ris. “I continue that practice to this day, along with a cup or two of good coffee. It energizes me, fills me up and warms my soul."
“As a chef, I also end up tasting and consuming more fat in a given day than most people," she continues. "It just comes with the territory: I have to do a lot of tasting on the job. So the cholesterol-reducing properties in oatmeal is a huge bonus.”
Oats are a grass that gradually came under cultivation at the same time as wheat and barley. They require a good deal of moisture to grow and do best in wet climates. Once they take root, they grow like weeds. The whole grain that oatmeal comes from is called a groat, the inner portion of the oat kernel. Steel-cut oats, also known as coarse-cut oats, are made by cutting up groats into two or three pieces.
By contrast, your standard rolled oats are whole kernels of groats that are steamed to make them soft and malleable, then pressed between rollers to make them thin and quick to reabsorb water during cooking.
Ris prefers steal-cut oats for their nutty aromas, fabulous texture and earthy, well-rounded flavors. Not that there is anything wrong with rolled oats, Ris says. “But needless to say, the less you have to process a natural ingredient, the better it will taste and the more nutrition it will hold onto. That’s why steel-cut oats have more flavor, as well as more antioxidant properties — they’re just that much less processed, and that much closer to a raw, natural oat seed.”
The only deterrent of steel-cut oats might be their longer cooking time. “But it’s absolutely worth the wait,” says Ris. But if you don’t have the time, there’s an easy option. “Just make a big batch on Sunday night and reheat a little each morning, or eat them cold as a snack. Package them with blueberries and almonds to take with you. They will hold up in the refrigerator for several days. When heated up on the stovetop for a couple minutes, you’ll never know the difference.”
“But another reason to talk about oats — other than their economy and nutrition — is that they are delicious!” Ris says. “That smooth, thick consistency is so pleasantly rich and heartwarming. They are compatible with an array of flavors. You can add almost anything to them and they will taste great, leaving you with not a reason in the world to be bored with breakfast.”
In the summer months, Ris recommends adding ripe melons and berries. “The bright sweetness of melons and the juicy, sweet depth of berries both complement the nutty, earthy flavors of oatmeal wonderfully,” she says.
And in the winter, where we find ourselves now, oatmeal shines. It is perhaps the perfect dish to help face the cold world each morning. Just add cooked apples, raisins and nuts. “And don’t forget a pinch of maple syrup or dash of brown sugar,” Ris adds.
Some other unique pairings for oatmeal include:
Milk and brown sugar and buttered oatmeal toast for dipping.
Honey and figs.
Pomegranate molasses and toasted walnuts. If the pomegranate is too tart, a dash of cane sugar will balance it out.
Stirring in a bit of coconut milk and top with toasted coconut, fresh ripe mango and a sprinkle of sugar (if using unsweetened coconut milk).
If you’re like the author, you also want your first meal of the day to be a bit of a health bomb. My default oatmeal toppings are slivered raw almonds (get them in the baking section), flax seed for omega 3, a bit of honey and the smallest crack of black pepper, which gives it the faintest zing.
“It’s also worth noting,” says Ris, “that no matter how you make your oats, a healthy pinch of salt is a must. When you think about the salt in cereal, eggs, bread and other breakfast staples, it’s perfectly natural. Salt brings out the flavor of anything, and that goes for oatmeal, too.”
Of course, there is a lot more to do with oats than just whip up oatmeal. They are a surprisingly versatile ingredient. As an obvious example that everyone loves, there are oatmeal cookies. (By the way, if you haven’t had a Kayak Cookies Salty Oats cookie at Teaism, you don’t know what you’re missing.) Most granola bars also have an oatmeal base.
“And just as with cookie dough,” says Ris, “you can add rolled oats to waffle or pancake batter, muffins—basically any baked goods. Oats have a softening effect by nature because they absorb and hold the moisture so well. Added to bread dough, they bring a nice, soft crumble, an ethereal sweetness and a bit of chew.”
And they have the same tenderizing effects with meats and savory items when used as a filler or binder. They help retain the juices in the meat and thereby keep things moist. In Ireland and Scotland, oats were used as filler for many dishes—think haggis, for instance. And this was before its health benefits were known. It was just used to fill more mouths, multiply and extend the meal, like rice or bread. And the Scottish are certainly known for being hearty and strong — this may be a reason why.
Adding oats as a binder in meats may require different levels of cooking and doneness, which is usually only perfected through experimentation and preference. “I prefer the texture oatmeal gives to a recipe,” says Ris. “Use oatmeal to bind meatballs or veggie burgers. It’s a whole grain that works in place of processed flour, bread or crackers. They are a much smarter, healthier and tastier option. But do remember that they absorb moisture during cooking so you may need to adjust your recipes.”
Ris will state here that one of the secrets of her great Monday meatloaf special is using oatmeal as a binder. “It’s how my mother made it,” she smiles.
Oatmeal bread is also one of her favorite sandwich breads. Joan Nathan, a friend and fellow chef, makes an oatmeal loaf with fig, anise and walnuts, which is a wonderful compliment to Ris’s chicken salad. It accents the apricots and grapes in the salad perfectly. Make them both, and see how good “whole food” can be.
For more from Joan Nathan, including her cookbook "Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France," from which this recipe is excerpted, visit JoanNathan.com.
Joan Nathan’s Oatmeal Bread with Fig, Anise and Walnuts
Yields 2 loaves of bread. For a single loaf, cut ingredient proportions by half.
2 tbsp. active dry yeast
½ cup honey
2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup steel-cut oats
1 cup toasted wheat germ
1 tbsp. kosher salt
2 tsp. anise seeds
1 cup roughly chopped walnuts
1 cup diced dried figs
2 cups whole-wheat flour
4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
Dissolve the yeast in 3 cups lukewarm water in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook. Once it is dissolved, turn the mixer on low and slowly add the honey, rolled oats, steel-cut oats, wheat germ, salt, anise seeds, walnuts and dried figs. Stir in the whole-wheat flour and 3½ cups of the all-purpose flour and knead.
Place in a large greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise for 1 hour, or until it is doubled in volume. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease a baking sheet, or line it with parchment paper.
Punch down the dough and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide it in half and form two round loaves. Place them on the baking sheet and make a few long, shallow gashes across each of the loaves. Let rise another half hour.
Bake for 40 minutes, or until the loaves sound hollow when tapped. Allow to cool before slicing.
Ris's Chicken Salad Sandwich
3 cups fresh roasted chicken meat
1 cup cooked white or brown rice, I prefer Calasparra rice
½ cup red grapes, cut in half
¼ cup diced celery
¼ cup diced red onion
¼ cup diced dried apricots
¼ - ½ cup chopped toasted walnuts
A few Tbsp. dressing made with mayonnaise, sherry vinegar, a dash of walnut oil, honey and chopped fresh sage. Enough to bind the salad together.
Mix together. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve on fresh or toasted oatmeal bread, dressed with some of the mayonnaise and a healthy leaf of lettuce.