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Originally published Friday, March 8, 2013 at 12:00 PM

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Seared Oatmeal: Nancy Leson dishes up a different breakfast treat

Go steel-cut style and make something healthy-yummy.

Seattle Times food writer

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I love oatmeal. I buy the Trader Joes maple instant in the brown box. For morning... MORE
Also consider getting oats from the bulk centers at PCC, Central Market, Fred Meyer... MORE
My husband and I love steel-cut oats. I buy the light 14oz can of light coconut milk... MORE

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AS A KID I thought oats were worth eating in one form only — cookies. When confronted with a bowl of Old Fashioned Quaker Oats or its ilk, all I could think of was Oliver Twist sadly begging for more. (No, thanks.)

Now that I'm grown, I've got the hots for oatmeal, a filling breakfast as comforting as it is convenient. And I'm not the only one who thinks so.

Perhaps you keep a stash of instant oatmeal in your office drawer, stand in line at Starbucks for a container of Perfect Oatmeal or hit the drive-up window at McDonald's for its Undeniably Delicious version. For my quick fix I turn to Trader Joe's frozen twin-packs, made with a mix of steel-cut and rolled oats, and flavored with brown sugar and maple syrup. A trip to the microwave and — zap! — hello, hot breakfast.

But lately I've gone slow-mo, choosing to pledge allegiance to my new mush crush — homemade 100 percent steel-cut oats.

If you were wondering "What the heck are steel-cut oats?" funny you should ask. Me, too.

The folks at McCann's Irish Oatmeal, purveyors of John C. McCann's finest for more than 150 years, define steel-cut oats as whole-grain groats — the inner portion of the oat kernel — cut into two or three pieces using steel discs. Rolled oats are cut oats, too, but the nubbins are steamed and flattened into flakes, reducing cooking time and altering the flavor and texture. Compared to steel-cut oats, the flakes are "more oaty, less nutty," say McCann's, and "more gluey, less chewy," say I. Those grain-like groats, with their nutritious bran intact, offer the kind of healthy fiber five out of five doctors recommend.

You may favor McCann's in its vintage-style can, but I'm a big proponent of the Northwest's own organically grown Bob's Red Mill. Following Bob's instructions, I bring three cups of water to a boil, add ¼ teaspoon of salt and a cup of oats, reduce to a simmer, then cover and cook for 10 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. That quantity makes enough for four servings, which I can divvy up then freeze (or refrigerate) in individual containers.

Search the Web and you'll find umpteen ideas for steel-cut oatmeal quicker fixes. You might soak the groats overnight to speed cooking in the a.m. or slow-cook them in a Crock-Pot while you lie dreaming. If you have an electric rice cooker with a porridge and timer function, that's a great overnight trick, too.

But when you have time on your hands, try this treat, inspired by a recipe from Whidbey Island's fabulous Braeburn restaurant in Langley: Seared Oatmeal with Mint Butter. Here's how:

Prepare four servings of steel-cut oats until the oatmeal is on the dry side of creamy. Add 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon and a quarter cup of loosely packed brown sugar and mix well. Line an 8-inch square baking dish with plastic wrap. Lightly spray with cooking oil, pour in the oatmeal, spread evenly and refrigerate for an hour. Cut into four equal portions and, on a lightly oiled griddle, sear over medium-low heat until browned (about 5 minutes each side).

Meantime, make the garnish: In a saucepan over medium heat melt 4 tablespoons butter till bubbly and add 8 leaves of roughly chopped fresh mint. Plate cakes, garnish with mint butter — and call one of those five doctors to apologize, later.

Nancy Leson is The Seattle Times' food writer. Reach her at nleson@seattletimes.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.

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