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The California Cook: There's oatmeal, and then there's oatmeal

November 24, 2012|By Russ Parsons | Los Angeles Times
  • Homemade granola can be packaged for a holiday gift.
Homemade granola can be packaged for a holiday gift. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

Now that Thanksgiving is out of the way, maybe we can talk about something that is really important: oatmeal.

Let's be specific. What most Americans think of as "oatmeal" is really rolled oats. You know, the stuff that comes in the big cardboard tube with the smiling Quaker on the front. These are oat groats (the grain with the husk removed) that have been steamed to soften them and then rolled flat. This process lets you cook them more quickly at home. The difference between rolled oats that are labeled "old-fashioned" and "quick-cooking" is how thickly they're rolled.

Real oatmeal is made from raw oat groats that are chopped to a fairly uniform size. It takes longer to cook and has a firmer texture than rolled oats.

I use rolled oats for making cookies and things like that, but you can't match the real stuff for cereal. And because there is no kitchen project too minor for a kitchen geek to overthink, I have made something of a small science out of cooking my morning oatmeal. It's not hard, but I'm convinced that it makes a difference in flavor.

I use the McCann's Irish Oatmeal that comes in those cool tins. Use a dry saucepan, 1 quart is fine for two or three people. Cook the oatmeal over medium heat until it smells nice and toasty. That'll take about 3 or 4 minutes, depending on the heat. You'll hear it start to pop when it's ready.

When your cereal begins to sing, add four times the volume of oats in water (1/3 cup of oats, enough for two people, will take 1 1/3 cups water). Increase the heat to high until the water starts to boil, give the pot a good stir, then turn the flame to low to maintain a decent simmer.

Partially cover the pan with a lid, but be sure to prop it askew with a wooden spoon or a whisk. This is important: If the lid is on too tight, the oatmeal will boil over, and there is no cleanup project worse than scraping baked-on oatmeal off of stove-top burners.

Let the oatmeal simmer for a good 20 minutes or so. You don't need to pay much attention, but if you're going to walk the dog, put a flame-tamer underneath the pan to keep it from scorching. When the oatmeal is done, there will probably be some liquid on top, and there may be a thin layer of dried flour-skin. This will disappear when you stir it. The oatmeal itself will be tender but still have a bit of "pop."

Whisk in butter according to your conscience, toss in a small handful of dried fruit (I use a mix of raisins, sour cherries and cranberries), cover tightly and let stand off heat for five minutes for the fruit to soften.

You can doctor this base however you want. I like a mix of brown and white sugar (brown for molasses, white for sweetness) or maybe some maple syrup. Then some chopped toasted nuts — almonds or walnuts. Finally, I add just enough milk to make the mixture creamy. If I have leftover steamed milk from the morning coffee, I might use that. And if I'm feeling splurge-y, nothing but half-and-half; that's just how I roll.

Those quicker-cooking rolled oats are great for granola. And when I'm not eating real oatmeal (foolish consistency, etc.), my breakfast is usually fruit, yogurt and granola from Christine Moore's excellent recipe in her new "Little Flower" cookbook. I say "based on" because, after following Moore's script exactly the first time, I've thrown in a few little changes, honoring the recipe in structure if not in detail.

In the last month I've made this recipe at least once a week (depending on how quickly we go through it). And I don't think I've ever made it exactly the same way twice. I change the mix of the nuts and dried fruit depending on what appeals to me at the moment (and depending on what I have left from other cooking — this is a great way to clean out all those odds and ends of nuts you probably have in your freezer).

Start with a bunch of fruit (lately I've been using persimmons from our tree, spiked with a bit of lime juice), then add a handful of granola and top with a good dollop of yogurt sweetned with honey.

This granola mix would make a terrific gift too, packaged in Ikea storage jars. Be sure to include the recipe, because folks will definitely want to fix it again.

And, after all, there are more holidays just around the corner.

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