Valentine’s Day is supposed to be a day to celebrate love. But showing loved ones you care needn’t mean showering them with chocolate, roses, and other pink and red items. (Not that I’d object to any of those, so long as those chocolate truffles aren’t Walgreens-quality.) And Valentine’s Day shouldn’t be the only day you tell the loved ones in your life – from family to friends to fiancées – how much you treasure them.
To me, the most meaningful way to show your appreciation is through little gestures or actions throughout each day. A kiss on the forehead of your still-sleeping significant other on your way out the door to work; a phone call to your grandmother when you know winter weather is keeping her unbearably housebound; bringing Blue Bottle coffee to a friend who is stuck at work on a gorgeous Saturday morning. And taking the time to make steel-cut oatmeal for anyone, even just yourself, for breakfast.
Jay’s uncle Andy first introduced us to steel-cut oatmeal a couple years ago when we visited Chicago for Jay’s cousin’s bar mitzvah. When Andy heated up the pan to prepare the oatmeal, I had no idea that the breakfast in store for me would be nothing like the gloppy, gluey oatmeal I had grown up with. Rather, these oats had a delightful, slightly chewy texture, and were comfortingly warm and filling on that particularly cold, gray and rainy morning. Yes, the steel-cut oats took a longer time to cook, but the wait was entirely worth it.
While I have enjoyed many bowls since then, it wasn’t until last Spring, when I purchased Kim Boyce’s incredible cookbook on whole grain baking, that I ever thought to toast the oats before submerging them in water. I can’t imagine why I never thought to try this, as I’ve toasted everything else from nuts and spices to rice and farro. But I can now say that if you’re taking the time to make steel-cut oatmeal in the first place, you absolutely must take the couple extra minutes to pre-toast the oat grains. Like many other toasted foods, it lends such a wonderfully nutty, condensed flavor to the oatmeal that you might just eat it without adornments.
On the other hand, you might stir in some chopped dried cherries and apricots for color and a punch of fruity flavor, and then top your bowl with chopped walnuts for a delightful crunch and healthy fat to keep you full. You might even arrange these toppings into a heart shape before tossing them into your steaming hot bowl of oatmeal. Hey, it’s not Valentine’s Day, but you’re showing yourself and maybe a friend or fiancée some love just because … you want them to start their day off with a healthy breakfast, you don’t mind taking 30 minutes to labor over some oats when they’ve spent much more time than that laboring over you, you want to feed them something that’s just as warm and comforting as they have been to you through the years, or maybe you just really need a heartier accompaniment to a handful of dried cherries.
Toasted Steel-Cut Oatmeal with Dried Cherries, Apricots and Walnuts (adapted from Kim Boyce)
1 1/2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 c. steel-cut oatmeal
4 c. water
1/2 c. dried cherries
1/2 c. dried apricots, halved or quartered
1/2 c. walnuts, chopped
In a medium pot over medium heat, warm the oil until it fizzes when you drop a single piece of steel-cut oatmeal into it. Add oatmeal, and stir to coat in oil. Toast oats, stirring once every 20 seconds so they don’t burn, until your kitchen smells like popcorn and oats turn about two shades darker (Kim suggested leaving one or two oat grains on the counter for comparison, but I found that the popcorn smell was a reliable indicator). Stir in 4 c. water, bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, and simmer until oats are cooked and oatmeal is thick, about 30 minutes. You don’t need to stir more than once or twice during the first 20 minutes, but stir more frequently in the last 10 minutes of cooking.
Now that your oatmeal is done, you’ve got some choices on how to handle the fruit. If you stir the cherries and apricots into the super hot oatmeal, they soften up a bit and get warm, which is delicious. Or you can sprinkle them on top. Either way, sprinkle the walnuts on top, so they don’t get soggy from sitting in the oatmeal. You could even add a little sprinkling of cinnamon, but you really don’t need it since the toasted oats themselves have such incredible flavor.
Do ahead: because this is such a labor of love, I often make oatmeal on a Sunday for the entire week, scooping the oatmeal into individual containers to reheat (adding about 2 Tbsp. water) in the microwave the next morning; yes, the steel-cut oats lose a little of their delicious chewiness, but at least I get to enjoy them every day (and they still have much better texture and flavor than the rolled oats); once the oatmeal has cooled and been scooped into individual containers, I distribute the fruit and nuts evenly between the containers, put the lids on, and count the hours until tomorrow’s breakfast.