Burning Down the House: Breakfast for a Group with Food Allergies: Oatmeal Bar!

This month we tried something different, with Auntie Susan stepping in for J.K. as our Guest Chef. Auntie Sus, as we call her, and other family members were visiting from out of town, and Sus (read: Suess) more than stepped up to the plate by organizing meals and cooking.

Our family happens to be, shall we say, not without our quirks, of which a variety of food allergies and intolerances are perhaps merely one manifestation.

So, what to cook for a group that included people who were vegan, gluten-free, allergic to nuts, needing to avoid potassium and apples and an array of other ingredients, along with garden-variety omnivores? Whereas others might have quailed at the prospect of cooking for the likes of us, after a bit of head scratching Sus landed on the concept of “component meals” and announced we would have an “oatmeal bar.”

I’m not sure if those are widely understood terms, but by “oatmeal bar” she was thinking of something analogous to a salad bar: a big vat of gluten-free steel-cut oatmeal, with a buffet of toppings to which everyone could help themselves. This turned out to be way more appealing and enticing than it sounds, and not only because she included (vegan, allergen-free) chocolate chips and crystallized ginger among the toppings. (Note to self: next time remember to share the crystallized ginger with everyone else.)

The breakfast oatmeal bar was a big success, and afterwards Sus came up with suggestions for other component meals. Even for those without special diets, component meals seem to work well for groups that include people of varied ages, plus I think people of all ages might like to choose for themselves exactly which parts of a meal they want and don’t want.

To be successful with feeding a group, it also seems ideal to prepare all components ahead of time so that no one needs to be cooking while everyone else is eating. To this end, while cooking oatmeal tends to not be all that arduous, we found it advantageous to use a crockpot, so that zero cooking effort would be needed during breakfast itself.

Another suggestion that works well with such meals is to have some fresh fruit available in a bowl (i.e., food that potentially requires no preparation, except by the eater her/himself!)

Due to our family’s wide range of special diets, Sus made the simple basic steel cut oats recipe on the back of the Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free steel cut oats package. This was a big hit, though I believe the success was more due to the range of toppings than to the oatmeal itself, which was, after all, oatmeal.

Sus had some tussles, however, with the recipe. Though she ultimately emerged the victor, she described the cooking oatmeal as “volcanic.” While she did sleep through most of the cooking time as intended, in the morning she ended up repeatedly adding more water as the oatmeal continued to cook, and stirring what seemed to be a “skin” on top deeper into the oatmeal’s depths.

Just between you and me, the oatmeal Sus cooked was a little bland, which is part of oatmeal’s charm and to be expected since it didn’t have anything added to it except water and salt. Later, I decided to try the “oatmeal bar” for our family of four, but this time to incorporate at the outset some of the ingredients that Sus’s version had relegated to the “bar” as toppings, such as apples, brown sugar, non-dairy milk, and cinnamon (see http://www.theyummylife.com/Slow_Cooker_Apple_Cinnamon_Oatmeal).

Having been the cleaner-outer of the crockpot the first time around, I had learned a valuable lesson; this time I diligently spray-coated the inside of the ceramic crockpot liner before adding the other ingredients. Suffice it to say my expectations were high.

The apple cinnamon oatmeal smelled delicious while cooking, and I woke up eager to see our family’s reactions. We were greeted, alas, not by the anticipated creamy deliciousness but instead (cue the ominous music) by a flat oval disk studded with apple chunks. It did, however, come loose from the crockpot beautifully intact, leaving nary a fleck of residue. What our oat brick lacked in resemblance to oatmeal it made up for in its grace and lack of mess. We didn’t have the volcanic problem Sus described, and in fact experienced the opposite.

Spraying the liner beforehand had worked well, but in my enthusiasm for adding the non-dairy milk, I now realized I had forgotten to add the equal portion of water.

I don’t suggest anyone try this method deliberately, but given what we now had on our hands, we actually ate the whole brick. In the brief window before that happened, I had thought of it as a gluten-free vegan sort of apple cake that could be cut up and served as little snack bars. (Yes, a veritable oatmeal bar! Pun not premeditated.)

And so, we tried again, this time without the apples, and with the necessary liquid. Partway through the cooking process J.K. saw that this version, too, was drying out, so we added an additional cup of rice milk. And regardless of how much or what sort of liquid one adds, J.K. suggests stirring the oatmeal partway through.

Sus and a visiting friend, Deb, both mentioned liking a related dish for a group breakfast, an “oatmeal bake.” I’d never heard of this, but I checked out the one Sus remembered from Heidi Swanson’s 101 cookbooks blog, and found two versions, Coconut Baked Oatmeal, which includes bananas and grapefruit (http://www.101cookbooks.com/archives/coconut-baked-oatmeal-recipe.html), and a fun adaptation of Swanson’s Blueberry Baked Oatmeal from Nicholas Day (https://food52.com/blog/7047-low-risk-high-reward-heidi-swanson-s-blueberry-baked-oatmeal). These both sounded great, though would need to be adapted for vegans or those with food allergies.

Now that Auntie Sus has flown home, she keeps emailing us with ideas for other component meals for groups (noodle/cabbage slaw! salads! snacks for teens!), some of which we’ll hope to investigate down the road.

Steel Cut Oats in the Slow Cooker Or Auntie Sus’s Oatmeal Bar for Everyone (inspired by Bob’s Red Mill Steel Cut Oats and theyummylife.com)

  • 4 cups water (or non-dairy milk such as rice milk or almond milk)
  • 1 cup gluten-free steel cut oats
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Optional Ingredients:

  • 2 apples, peeled and cored and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 Tablespoon ground flax seed
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar (or maple syrup or other desired sweetener)

Spray the inside of a 4-6 quart ceramic slow cooker with cooking spray. Add all ingredients. Cover with lid and cook on low for approximately 7 hours (cooking times will vary.) 

Optional toppings for eaters to add themselves: dried cranberries, dried cherries, raisins, cut up crystallized ginger, gluten-free vegan chocolate chips, figs or other fruit, brown sugar or maple syrup, non-dairy milk.