Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Crazy About Oats

I've been having fun with oats this week--making hot oatmeal with both rolled and steel-cut varieties; putting together overnight concoctions with raw ingredients in Mason jars; mixing up batches of granola and muesli; and finally making a couple of loaves of oatmeal bread with some leftover cooked oats. I'm still jazzed about this once humble grain that seems to have metamorphosed into a new superfood.

I started on this project courtesy of my friend Cherry, who shared a recipe for an overnight oatmeal that she said had helped reduce her levels of unhealthy cholesterol. Then another friend sent me her recipe for oatmeal with almond butter, nonfat yogurt and fresh fruit. My little (new and improved!) brain started to tick.

My ties to oatmeal go way back. One of my early food memories is of my mother stirring a pot of the thick, beige stuff with a wooden spoon. She used old-fashioned Quaker Oats from the trademark red and blue canister with the smiling, black-hatted, white-haired gent on the front. A native of Glasgow, Scotland, Mom often served oatmeal, which she called porridge, with a little milk and sugar, plus raisins if we wanted (I wanted!). I still eat it that way, though sometimes I add other dried fruits, a few roasted nuts and some maple syrup.

These days Quaker has lots of competition. Oats--particularly the steel-cut variety and those labeled gluten-free and/or organic--continue to grow in popularity, with their health benefits topping the list of why many people choose to include them in their diets, especially for breakfast. An article in Medical News Today notes that oats are particularly rich in a type of fiber known to help lower the levels of LDL cholesterol, the so-called "bad cholesterol" that collects in our arteries and leads to strokes and heart attacks. Other studies have shown that adding whole-grain foods such as oats to our diets may reduce the risks of colorectal cancer. One benefit I've found is that oats are so filling (must be all that fiber!) that I don't really get hungry again for hours after consuming a bowl of oatmeal.

For Cherry, it's oatmeal's cholesterol-fighting properties that are the attraction. She's been dealing with high cholesterol numbers for several years. Slender, fit and a longtime vegetarian, she says the issue is primarily genetic. Her father died at 57 after suffering a stroke, and her older brother contends with life-threatening cardiovascular disease.  "My life's at stake," she told me.

My friend is experiencing some success in fighting genetics and high cholesterol by changing her diet. "My labs went up and down through the years, so it isn't just oatmeal that helped," she explained in an email. "It was the combination of decreasing my intake of fried foods, desserts, and increasing my exercise routine, plus more water." Cherry, a former nurse, said her levels of the "bad" LDL cholesterol dipped from 115 in 2013 to 75 in 2015. An LDL level below 100 is desirable, she said.

One of Cherry's friends attended a cooking class at Whole Foods and gave her a recipe for an oatmeal, fruit and nut concoction that sits in a jar overnight and is ready to eat in the morning. No cooking required. Apparently overnight oatmeal is all the rage right now. I found pages and pages of recipes when I did a search on Pinterest.

Cherry's recipe requires a bit of work--and expense--to gather the ingredients. But if you shop the bulk bins, you can buy just the amount you need and cut the costs way down. I recently bought organic rolled oats at Whole Foods for $1.69 a pound (the steel-cut variety was $1.79 a pound), far less than comparable packaged products. Dried fruit and nuts can also be purchased in small quantities from the same bulk bins. The spices really add a lot of flavor to the recipe and have many reported health benefits. For instance, antioxidants in cinnamon have been linked to lower inflammation. Chia seeds, another popular superfood known for its omega-3 fats and fiber, is an optional ingredient in this recipe.

Ingredients for overnight oatmeal.

The recipe is also gluten-free (assuming you buy gluten-free oats)* and vegan--and quite delicious, especially with some added fresh fruit. Enjoy!

Overnight Oatmeal

1/2 cup raw oatmeal (rolled or quick variety)
1 tablespoon seeds, such as chia, pumpkin or hemp
1 tablespoon unsweetened, shredded coconut
1 tablespoon sliced almonds, chopped
1 tablespoon walnuts, chopped
1 tablespoon pistachio nuts, chopped
2 tablespoons dried Calimyrna figs or dates, chopped*
2 tablespoons raisins
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 cup non-dairy milk (preferably almond milk)
1 teaspoon honey or agave syrup


*Oats are naturally gluten-free but cross-contamination
 from other grains can occur, so if you have celiac
disease or are otherwise gluten-intolerant, it's better
to buy oats that are certified gluten-free.
**You can use a combination or another dried fruit.


1. Mix oatmeal, nuts, dried fruit and spices in a Mason jar or other container with a secure lid.  You can make 2 or more jars at a time.
2. Add almond milk and honey or agave to the jar and shake it vigorously. Put the jar in the refrigerator overnight.
3. The next day add a little more milk, as the mixture may be quite thick. 
4.  Options: If you're like me and prefer your morning cereal warmed up, you can zap the mixture briefly in a microwave or take the chill off it in a saucepan. You can also add fresh fruit or more nuts if you like to the finished product to perk up the flavor. I threw in a few fresh blueberries and a chopped, roasted almonds.

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