Well, here it is again — autumn! Fall officially begun a few days ago, and this is one of those years when the weather reasonably matches the change of seasons. Sure, we’ll have some fits and starts, as the transition between warm and cold is always a bit unpredictable. Even so, there is an unmistakable crispness in the evening air, the days are rapidly becoming shorter and sunlight takes on a golden hue because of the lower angle at which we view the sun this time of year.
At least two rites of seasonal passage have already occurred for me this year that typically wait for just a bit longer. Not only has the blanket stayed up on the bed overnight, but I’ve worn a sweatshirt for the day outside. More significantly, that first fire in the woodstove in the woodshop happened a few nights ago. Lighting that fire, and enjoying the aroma of hardwood is like welcoming a dear friend back after a trip away. I don’t even mind a bit of the scent of wood smoke on my clothes when I go back inside after a session of crafting the latest project.
It’s also this time of year that we tend to change dietary preferences and lean in a bit heavier onto comfort foods like soups, stews, hot cereals, and those decadent cinnamon rolls my neighbor Theresa makes and shares with us from time to time (there might be a hint in there somewhere!).
While there are a variety of hot cereals available, oatmeal is by far the most popular. Yep, I’m a fan of “Cream of Wheat” as well, especially after learning how one Amish family serves it — hot cereal with a scoop of cold vanilla ice cream on top. I’m not kidding! And why not? You’ve already got the cereal, and the ice cream provides milk, sweetness and flavoring as it melts. Try it!
Where was I? Oh, yes. Oatmeal is the most well-known and popular hot breakfast choice. This is a bit of a mystery in light of the fact that we, especially us Americans, tend to not make the best dietary choices. In this case, oatmeal is a surprisingly good thing to eat. Oats, oat bran and oatmeal contain beta-glucan, a highly desirable food fiber. There is no shortage of studies, conducted over many years, to demonstrate eating the equivalent of one bowl of oatmeal daily (three grams of soluble fiber) will significantly lower cholesterol. This isn’t a medical column, so we’ll not go further into that. Suffice it to say, lower total counts are a good thing.
Many so-called super foods are not readily accessible or enjoy a long-term appeal. Oats are a widely-raised crop that are harvested in the fall and the storage and distribution system is such that oats and oat products are readily available year-round. For something this is so beneficial, it is nice to know that it’s within the reach of just about anyone.
Oats are a commonplace item, but many people don’t know much about them. Commonplace doesn’t equate with uninteresting! Once you finish reading this article, you’ll have a stronger appreciation for the contribution that oats make to our diet. That box of oatmeal will wave “hi!” to you each time you walk down the cereal aisle at your favorite grocery spot!
If you ask most people what comes to mind first when you say “oats,” most will say “oatmeal.” That’s not a bad thing, but oats are also used in agriculture, both for animal feeds and for the straw that the stalks are made into. Oats are nutritious and provide a good energy source. It’s no mistake when you hear an old cowpuncher say, when a horse is full of energy, that he or she is, “feeling their oats.”
This important grain is also used in the cosmetics and soap industry as well. Oats are valued, because of their coarse texture and bit of sharpness, as a skin exfoliator. It also doesn’t take much of an online search to find all sorts of uses for home health remedies and folk medicine.
As far as our diet, oatmeal shows up in energy bars, as an additive to ground meat dishes (think meat loaf), cookies, muffins, hot or cold cereal, and even prepared in a savory fashion as a type of rice substitute.
Oat gets its nutty flavor from the low-temperature toasting that is usually done to it during processing. Because the most common form we see oats in is oatmeal, many think that oats are flakes. Nope. They are a grain, shaped much like wheat kernels. However, when “old-fashioned” oatmeal is made, it is put through a roller system where the kernels are flattened out after being steamed to soften them. Hence, their most common name, “rolled oats.”
It’s oats’ toasted flavor, along with a substantial texture, that allows oatmeal to be so well utilized for two of my favorite cookies — oatmeal raisin and no-bake chocolate-peanut butter oatmeal cookies. Properly prepared, these cookies are substantial and flavorful. However, knowing my propensity to go into “auto-feed mode” when eating them, we either do small batches, or meter them out a bit a time. They’re pretty good keepers as well! Heck, I have a batch of the no-bake cookies that I made yesterday, and I’ll enjoy them over the next week — if Maggie doesn’t find my stash!
Oatmeal cereal comes in one of three forms, ranging from lightly to heavily processed. The steel-cut variety are the least processed. They are made by cutting oat groats — the whole oat grain with the outer hull removed — with steel cutters, with each oat groat being cut into about three or four pieces. Rolled oats start out the same as an oat grain, but then are steamed and flattened with a roller. “One-Minute” oatmeal has been partially cooked and dried to shorten the cooking time on the stovetop or in the microwave. Instant oats are steel cut oats, but that have had a longer steaming and flattening process than the rolled oats. They are the most processed and fastest-cooking form of oatmeal. They are very convenient, but are likely to have additional ingredients such as flavorings and oat flour.
What about nutritional value and overall health value? In addition to having the aforementioned cholesterol reducing abilities, oatmeal, without added sugars, has a low glycemic index number. This means that eating it will not greatly “spike” blood sugar, and digesting it is slower process than many other foods.
All the different versions of oatmeal have very similar nutrient numbers. A quarter-cup of dry, unsweetened oatmeal, no matter what form it is, will contain about 150 calories, five grams of protein, 2.5 grams of fat, 27 grams of carbohydrate and three or four grams of fiber. Different oatmeal companies will typically add their own special blend of vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin A, iron and calcium. It almost goes without saying that sweetened versions of instant oatmeal will have added sugar, so the numbers show just above can be significantly different for these type of sweetened or flavored oatmeal.
So, as the weather cools down, and our desire to “cocoon” is a bit more prevalent, undoubtedly there will be a lot more hot oatmeal eating going on! However, oatmeal is a great choice year round. In fact, I eat them pretty regularly, both hot and cold. Hot does seem to fit better with the cooler weather, but I enjoy them ongoing as a cold cereal — with the oats out of the container with no further cooking. My favorite combination is raw oatmeal, cold milk, brown sugar, and a generous dose of homemade raisins. I’ll do this with either the “old fashioned” or “one minute” version. Either way, it is good eating, and filling. Simple, fast, economical, and few enough ingredients so you can taste them all.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.