If I had to have a love affair with a food it would hands down be with oats. They are everything I could ever want in a love – sometimes tender and smooth and other times strong with a touch of bite. They nourish not only the body but the mind and soul, and are innately calming when the nervous system feels frazzled. They swing both sweet and savoury to keep things interesting, and they are reliable but completely versatile, so boredom is never an issue. The best thing is that at their heart they are so damn good for you that you get a sort of glow whenever they’re around.
There are many wild and sub species of oats – mostly considered weeds – that have grown for millennia, making oats’ true origin difficult for historians to pin down. Ancestral forms of oats were grown near the Fertile Crescent (what is now Egypt and parts of the Middle East), but oats as we know them are thought to have originated from the wild oats of western Europe around 2500 BC. It is more than likely that merchants, raiders and invaders carried oats across Europe as food for their horses, and in Scotland and Britain, where oats were one of the few grains that would grow, oats became a staple of the majority of the population, especially in Scotland.
types of oats
- Oat groats – are the whole oat kernel
- Steel cut oats – are whole oat kernals that have been cut into two or three pieces with a sharp metal blade. They are sometimes called pinhead oats or Irish oatmeal. These should be soaked before cooking
- Scottish oatmeal – are oat kernels that have been stoneground into various sizes, and are often finer than steel cut oats. It reportedly makes a creamier porridge
- Rolled oats – oat groats are steamed and then rolled into flakes. Sometimes called traditional oats
- Quick oats – oat groats that are steamed longer and rolled finer than traditional oats, making them cook in only a few minutes
- Instant oats – have been processed like quick oats but are steamed and ground finer (and sometimes precooked). They can be ‘cooked’ by just adding boiling water. Often they are sold in ‘convenient’ single serves with lots of sweeteners and additives so are best avoided
- Oatmeal – I’ve always understood oatmeal to be crushed oat groats – with varying degrees of fineness until it makes flour. But it is also used as a general term for an oat porridge using any of the above forms. I’m not sure if this is American terminology or just something I’ve missed over the years.
There is varying opinion to whether the nutritional value of oats is reduced as it goes down the processing chain. The Wholefood Council of America says that the process to make rolled oats stabilises the healthy oils in oats, though I’m not so convinced of this as exposing oils to the air/steam doesn’t stabilise any other oil that I know about. That said, I am a fan of traditional rolled oats (preferably organic or biodynamic) but wouldn’t eat anything more processed than this.
I wasn’t joking when I said oats were damn good for you. In herbal medicine, oats (Avena sativa) are used as a nerve restorative, antidepressant, brain and heart tonic and to improve stamina.
As a food, oats also have all these properties and are one of the best foods to eat if you have a tendency to stress, anxiety and/or depression. Oats are also rich in silica, which helps renew bone and connective tissue, and are great for people who are recovering from illness, as they are calming to the digestive system and restore vigour (when soaked or cooked). Oats help calm inflamed skin, having been found to be beneficial in those who have eczema or psoriasis, and are known to lower cholesterol due to their soluble fibre content.
Just to be a bit trickster, oats do contain a gluten called avenin, but it’s different to the gluten found in wheat (gliadin), rye (secalin) and barley (hordein). It is said that around four out of five people with coeliac disease can tolerate them. But as oats are often grown, transported and processed with gluten grains like wheat, they can get contaminated. Freedom foods do sell gluten-free oats (they have been tested to see whether there is wheat’s gliadin, barley’s hordein and rye’s secalin protein in them) but I haven’t seen them in Melbourne as of yet.
The outer bran layer of whole oats contains phytic acid, which binds to minerals like calcium preventing their absorption. This is why it’s best to not eat raw oats, but to soak and then sprout or cook them. This releases enzymes to help break down and neutralise the phytic acid (and also makes them more digestable). Because of this, cooked groats, Bircher muesli and porridge are the ideal way to eat oats.
a word on muesli
Muesli is one of the simplest things to make in the world – and cheaper than those gourmet ones in the shops at $10/$15 a pop. It gives you much more freedom to be creative – or put in whatever you have on hand – and buying your ingredients from your health food store in bulk is much better value than packets.
Natural (for Bircher/soaked muesli). Mix together 2 cups organic rolled oats; 1/2 cup nuts, 1/4 cup sunflower seeds, 1/4 cup pepitas, 2 tbsp sesame seeds – all lightly toasted; ½ a teaspoon of cinnamon or mixed spice; and 1/3 cup dried fruit (optional) and store in a large container. In a bowl, I soak 1/3 cup of muesli the night before in milk (I use rice, cashew or almond) – just enough to cover it – with half a grated apple and blueberries (or any topping you like).
Toasted. Without toasting the nuts and seeds – mix all the ingredients for the natural muesli together – except for the dried fruit – then just wet the mix with apple juice and a sprinkling of sesame oil. Spread out on a baking tray and bake for 15-20 minutes or until golden. After around 10 minutes, you will need to turn and break up the muesli so it’s evenly toasted. If you add more oil – around a 1/4 cup of almond or macadamia – then you will get a crispier muesli, though it won’t be as toasted as you can buy in the shops, but these are often deep fried so…
my version of porridge/oatmeal (single serving)
Rolled oats – put 1/3 cup of rolled oats in a heavy-based saucepan with a sprinkle of cinnamon and 1 cup of rice milk (or a mix of water and rice or almond milk). Using a diffuser to cook the oats more slowly, slowly bring to the boil and cook until soft or all the liquid has been absorbed. I often slice up a small banana and cook it with the oats also. Cooked with rice, cashew or almond milk and banana means you won’t need additional sweeteners.
Steel cut oats – The night before, put 1/3 cup steel cut oats with 1 cup of water (or rice milk or a combo of both). Bring to the boil and simmer for 3 minutes. Cover with a lid or put in a food thermos and leave until the next morning. Reheat on the stove, adding any additional milk/water if necessary. Adding dried or fresh fruit, chopped walnuts and cinnamon makes a lovely sweet porridge, and finely cut up roasted veg makes for a great savoury porridge.
Anzac biscuits – with a twist
Anzac biscuits have always been my favourite. My audacious ex even declared an Anzac Biscuit Day – and managed to convince a handful of Australians there actually was said day – just to honour these delightful creations (well, mainly to be a sh*t stirrer). I’m never shy about going back for thirds or fourths, especially when accompanied by a hefty mug of tea used for the mandatory dunk.
Now that I am avoiding dairy products, I was wondering whether Anzac biscuits could still be as droolingly delicious if they were vegan. Yes, I was quick to discover, yes they can be.
1 cup spelt flour
1 cup rolled oats
¾ cup desiccated coconut
½ cup rapadura sugar
½ tsp bicarbonate soda (baking soda)
½ cup walnuts, finely chopped (optional)
2 tbsp sesame seeds (optional)
2 tbsp brown rice syrup
140 ml refined coconut oil (or unrefined should be fine also- it will just have a stronger coconut taste)
- preheat the oven to 180° C/350° F
- combine oats, flour, coconut, sugar, nuts and sesame seeds in a bowl, then sieve the bicarb of soda in and mix in well
- if the coconut oil is solid, put the jar in a bowl with boiling water up to its sides to make it melt. Do the same with the brown rice syrup, as it makes it easier to stir through. Add both and mix well
- this is the messy bit – using a spoon or your hands, form rough balls on a tray lined with baking paper and flatten slightly. You’ll need to press them together as they are quite crumbly – don’t worry if they don’t seem to hold a shape, they spread together while cooking (leave space around them so they don’t join up)
- cook for around 10-15 minutes, or until golden
- leave on the tray to cool for around 10 minutes then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container – if they last that long.
Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine – Thomas Bartram
Healing with Wholefoods – Paul Pitchford