I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to refine my diet (or maybe “un-refine” is the right word). I have been vegan for over 10 years, but I realized lately that I have been eating too many packaged foods and too many refined carbohydrates. No, this isn’t going to be an anti-carbohydrate rant. Carbohydrates are the fuel your body runs on most efficiently. This is going to be a pro-whole-foods, anti-fast-food rant.
When we hear the phrase fast food, we usually think of the drive-thru of a major burger chain, but fast food comes in many forms. Whether it’s a burger at a chain or a package of frozen vegan burgers, it’s still fast food. Fast food is anything that is pre-made, packaged, and that can be eaten without thought.
Slow food, on the other hand, is whole food prepared lovingly and eaten consciously.
While I was pondering this, two other things happened almost simultaneously. I heard a really excellent talk by George Eisman, a vegan nutritionist, in which he explained the importance of unrefined carbohydrates in the human diet, and then I read the column about whole grains on the cover of last month’s Co-options. If you missed it, go back and check it out. The information was very enlightening. In short, it explained that in addition to fiber, whole grains are loaded with antioxidants – something scientists are just starting to understand.
The question is – how do I make time in my busy life for slow food like whole grains? I hear you all out there thinking – “easy for her, she cooks for a living”. What you might not know about me is that I am the world’s greatest dilettante. I have about 10 hobbies, and cooking is only one of them. Also, after a long day baking, or gardening, or working on ceramics, I am not really in the mood to cook.
So, this year my goal is to learn how to fit slow food into my daily life, and to help you do the same. Let’s start with breakfast.
Breakfast, as you know, is called “the most important meal of the day.” Breakfast helps keep your blood sugar levels stable, and that means your brain can function at its best. Kids who eat breakfast do better in school. People who eat breakfast tend to eat fewer calories during the day, and are less prone to obesity. Actually, I should amend all the previous sentences to read “A good breakfast…” It’s hard to imagine a bowl of Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs meeting all these high expectations. So, what is a good breakfast? Let’s think outside the (pre-packaged, pre-sweetened, artificially-colored) box, shall we?
A good breakfast should be full of fiber and unrefined carbohydrates to get your day off to a good, satisfying start. During the colder months of the year, I love hot cereals. Oatmeal (rolled oats) is a great whole-grain cereal. You can also try wheat, rye, and quinoa flakes. For a change in texture, try steel-cut oats. They require longer cooking (15 minutes instead of 5), but will reward you with a chewier texture.
If you just can’t get up 10 minutes earlier (and who can when the sun is so late in coming up?), here are some ideas to let your cereal cook itself the night before. I’ve arranged them in order from least to highest tech, but the advantage of the high tech end (a Japanese-style rice cooker) is that you can cook other whole grains in it (barley, millet, Job’s tears, whole oat groats, in addition to brown rice) with no work or attention, and the machine will keep them perfectly hot and moist until you wake up. Whole grains in their whole (not steamed and flattened) state will take a little longer to eat and a little longer to digest, so they will satisfy you longer. It’s also fun to experiment with things like purple barley and red quinoa (which is actually a grass seed, not a grain, but you know what I mean). See, even whole grains can be colorful – no scary Red #40 necessary!
Here are the cooking methods. Pick one, and then check out the serving suggestions below for more variety.
“Homemade Instant” Rolled Oats
adapted from Cook’s Illustrated magazine.
No more work than instant, and far tastier and better for you!
1. Measure out the ingredients for one serving of oatmeal into a sandwich-size zipper-lock bag – about 1/2 cup quick cooking (one-minute) oats, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, 1 tablespoon Sucanat (optional), a pinch of sea salt, and 1 tablespoon of dried fruit is a good starter recipe. Repeat with as many bags as you like. Store them in a larger zipper-lock bag or in a sturdy container in the cabinet until ready to use.
2. To cook, empty a bag into a heat-proof bowl and add 2/3 cup boiling water. Stir, cover with plastic wrap, and let sit for 5 minutes while you shower or dress or feed the dogs and cats. Uncover, stir again, and breakfast is ready. (Recycling tip – put the “used” bags back in the container for re-use. There’s no need to clean them.)
Note: quick cooking oats are just rolled oats that have been broken up a bit more. If you have regular (5-minute) oats, you can just whir them in a blender or food processor briefly to break them up a little and use them like quick oats.
Thermos Bottle Hot Cereal
Cooking cereal in a wide-mouthed thermos is a great way to take your breakfast to go or to let your breakfast “make itself” with very little energy or attention on your part. Back when I was in grad school, I often made something like this to eat after my morning trip to the gym. On cold mornings it was a comfort to know that hot food was waiting on me in the car. This is adapted from Realhealth.com.
Fill your wide mouth thermos with very hot tap water, cover and let sit while you:
1) Measure out your whole grain cereal and cold water into a small saucepan.
For one serving, use:
1/4 cup steel cut oats or 1/3 cup of rolled oats or other “flakes”.
1 cup water
A small pinch of salt
(Optional – 1/4 cup dried fruit and 1/2 cup extra water)
2) Bring the water with the cereal in it to a boil, and then turn down the heat while you:
3) Empty your thermos of its hot tap water and then pour the contents of the small saucepan into it.
4) Cover tightly and let sit for as little as 30 minutes (for flakes– steel cut oats take longer), or as long as overnight.
The cereal generally just ‘slides’ right out of the thermos. If not, take a rubber scraper or a long handled serving spoon and empty out the rest.
Fill the thermos right away with hot sudsy water and wash it out (now or after you eat) with the help of a long-handled sponge, or a bottle brush. Most of the time the whole thing is quite effortless.
Slow Cooker Hot Cereal
This recipe is adapted from the Bob’s Red Mill Whole Grains website (www.bobsredmill.com). The same technique will work for any whole grain cereal.
1 cup whole grain cereal (see notes)
4 cups water
1/2 teaspoon – 2 teaspoons sea salt
2 tablespoons Earth Balance margarine (optional)
Spray a 3-4 quart slow cooker with non-stick spray, especially if you have a non-removable crock. Place all ingredients in the slow cooker, cover and set on low. Cook for at least 4 hours or overnight.
Lisa’s notes: “Whole grain cereal” means any flaked or chopped or ground whole grain – either an individual grain like oatmeal, or rye flakes, or whole-grain corn grits; or a commercial mixture like 7-Grain, 10-Grain, or Bear Mush.
Rice Cooker Whole Grains
Wash and rinse your choice of whole grains. My favorite is whole oat groats. For every cup of grain, add one and a half cups of water. Add a pinch of salt, close the lid, and hit the “cook” button. Your grains will be ready in about an hour, or they will stay hot all night and will be ready for your breakfast.
Serving idea # 1: Eat with a perfectly ripe banana, cut into the whole grains a little at a time as you eat. The cool banana makes a nice contrast with the warm grain.
Serving idea #2: Add 1/2 cup of your favorite dried fruit(s) and an additional 1/2 cup of water to the grain before cooking. The fruits will stew with the grains for a softer texture.
Serving idea #3: Let each person at the table add his or her own favorite dried fruit and/or chopped toasted nuts to their grains at the table. This will add a chewy texture to the cereal.
Serving idea #4: Whole grain cold cereal. Cook your choice of whole grains and refrigerate them. Instead of re-heating the pre-cooked grains, simply serve them cold with your choice of dried or chopped fresh fruits and/or chopped toasted nuts, and top with your favorite non-dairy milk. (For example – oat groats with chopped fresh pear, dried tart cherries, and chopped walnuts, topped with almond milk and a sprinkle of cinnamon, is pure heaven.)
Serving idea #5: Serve your cooked grains with cooked beans and/or your choice of cooked greens. Breakfast doesn’t have to be sweet, and morning is an excellent time to eat slow-digesting beans. They are delicious and give you slow-burning fuel to get you through the day. But more about beans next month!