If there's one thing Texas will teach you fast, it's that you should never trust the weather. A searing hot summer might be followed by a smooth and temperate winter, or it could be followed by polar vortex that lasts for months on end. The swings are even more disorientating from one day to the next. I'm writing this post about piping hot oatmeal to soothe your cold, weathered soul because it's 29 degrees outside, but by the time my work gets published it could be 77. That's OK, though. We'll have another cold snap or two before this winter comes to and end and when it does, you'll be ready with some of the best oatmeal you have ever tasted.
There is no better way to start a chilly morning than with a hot bowl of oatmeal cradled in your palms, but it's not hard to understand why the breakfast eaters don't enjoy it more often. According to the countless breakfasts our parents conjured from cardboard tubes and paper packets, oatmeal is consistently slimy, paste-like, flavorless substance. It's dull, heavy and unsatisfying. It eats like prison food.
You should know, however, that what you were eating wasn't real oatmeal at all. The instant cereal you so often saw resurrected with water and a microwave oven was the product of a lengthy process that started with real oats but ends in processed goop. Oats destined for instant breakfasts are rolled, steamed, cut, cooked and then dried until almost no oatmeal flavor remains. They cook in just a few minutes, but the results are so bland most of us wouldn't touch without loads of brown sugar, maple syrup dried fruits and even more sugar.
Steel cut oatmeal (the real stuff, often called Irish oatmeal) is only dried and cut by comparison, and sometimes lightly toasted to enrich its natural flavor. It takes longer to cook and you'll have to watch and stir it, but the nutty flavor and the substantial, chewy texture you get out of carefully cooked steel cut oats is worth the trouble. Get used to steel cut oatmeal, and you'll have a hard time going back to the porridge of your youth.
Once you master the cooking process, (it only takes a try or two) you can start taking your breakfasts into the stratosphere with creative additions. These are a few classics, but don't stop here.
Butter toasting Place your measure of oats in a saucepan and add enough butter to lightly coat. Stir over low heat until warm and toasted notes a bit like popcorn waft up from the pan. Proceed with your usual recipe.
Honey One of the best and most simple sweeteners for a bowl of oatmeal is a simple drizzle of honey. The flavor marries perfectly with the toasted grains and if you purchase the liquid gold in a squeeze bottle it's easy to add on the quick.
Maple syrup You had to know this one was coming. Maple and brown sugar was the first flavor to disappear from the variety pack of instant oatmeal that plagued your childhood. Get some real maple syrup -- the stuff from Vermont -- pour a little of that over your oatmeal and watch those memories come flooding back, now updated for your inner gourmand.
Brown sugar Hide a little brown sugar on the bottom of your bowl and then sprinkle a little more on top. As you eat your way down you'll uncover pockets of sugar that have melted and turned syrupy and sweet.
Raisins Toss raisins into your oatmeal the stove a few minutes before it's done for a chewy pop of sweetness in every bite. Or flambé the raisins with a good measure of bourbon and toss them into the pot just before serving. Plump, sweet raisins are good; raisins laced with caramel, wood and booze are better.
Dates Dice up dates and only add them once your oatmeal has finished cooking. They're soft and pack a lot of sugar, and with too much heat and stirring, they'll quickly melt away.
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Pan-roasted walnuts Toss walnuts in a pan with butter and constantly stir them over low heat so they don't burn. Add more salt than you think you'll need because not much of it will cling to the nuts. When they've darkened and become aromatic, chop the nuts and sprinkle them over your bowl of oatmeal. Do this with a bowl of oatmeal containing dates or bourbon soaked raisins and the salty, crunchy sweet combination will take your breakfast off the charts.
Don't stop here. Take your oatmeal anywhere you want with fresh fruits and heavy cream, dried fruits and other nuts. You can even take your oatmeal in a savory direction, just like grits pair so well with cheese.
Look at you now. You're practically rooting for a blizzard big enough to keep you locked inside for days. It's true: Oatmeal this good changes everything.