It didn’t seem right. To do an entire Year of Whole Grains  series and leave out the humble oat just because it’s not as fancy as farro or as trendy as teff. Cooked into steamy bowls of hot cereal, oats have sustained us through too many tough mornings to count. They’ve been there for scraped knees and broken hearts in the form of comforting homemade cookies. No, they may not be today’s “it” girl in the way of quinoa or freekeh, but oats remain nourishing and immensely useful in the kitchen.

Let’s start with a few fun facts about oats:

  • They’ve long been shown to have a positive impact on blood cholesterol levels.
  • They’re an excellent source of fiber, which supports healthy digestion.
  • They fill you up longer than more processed cereals.
  • They have a low glycemic index, which means they absorb into the blood stream at a gentle pace rather than a steep spike

Once harvested, oats start off as groats, hearty little kernels that are most often steamed and rolled into the flakes (what you’ll find inside a box of Quaker Oats).  It’s best to opt for “old-fashioned” or “whole” oats here, since they have a lower glycemic index than “quick” oats, and in my opinion, taste better, too.

Steel cut, or Irish oats, are cut rather than rolled, so they look like tiny nuggets and make a filling hot breakfast cereal. You’ll find my favorite shortcut method for cooking them here. Scottish oats, on the other hand, are stone ground rather than cut and cook up into a creamy porridge.

Pay attention to what goes into your oats. Those single serving microwave packets are awfully handy in a pinch, but they’re often loaded with sugar and sometimes artificial ingredients. It’s easy to do your own DIY Microwave Oatmeal by  following this simple method here.

Other favorite uses for oats?  Tossed into smoothies to add fiber and heft, added to meatloaf in lieu of breadcrumbs, stirred into chocolate chip cookie batter for texture, ground and used as flour in both sweet and savory cooking, and let’s not forget,  made into a terrific homespun face mask (oats + yogurt + honey = skin nirvana).

homemade yogurt, honey & oat mask

As for todays recipe? It’s pulled from the “Tide Me Overs” chapter of my cookbook. Of all the recipes, it’s the one, hands down that I’ve made the most. I can bake a batch with my eyes closed. With my eyes closed and one hand tied behind my back. With my eyes closed, one hand behind my back, and three kids yelling, “when are the granola bars are going to be ready?”

Make these Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Granola Bars. And don’t leave out the oats just because newer sexier grains are stealing your attention.

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"Out of the Box" Granola Bars

I often make a double batch of these using a 9X13-inch pan. I cut the bars and wrap at least half the batch in parchment paper and then store them in a resealable bag in the freezer. The kids grab them on their way to school and they defrost by lunch time. You can vary the recipe by using unsweetened shredded coconut in place of the flax meal or experimenting with different types of dried fruit. Any type of nut, seed, or soy nut butter will work in place of peanut butter.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup rolled oats (not quick oats)
  • 2/3 cup crispy brown rice cereal (or Rice Krispies)
  • 1/3 cup flax meal
  • 1/3 cup bittersweet chocolate chips
  • 1/3 cup dried cherries or dried cranberries
  • 1/4 cup organic brown rice syrup (see Notes)
  • 1 tablespoon pure maple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1/4 cup natural unsweetened peanut butter or other nut or seed butter

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line an 8-inch square baking pan with parch­ment paper so that it drapes a couple of inches over two sides.
  2. In a medium bowl, mix together the oats, cereal, flax meal, chocolate chips, and dried cherries.
  3. In a small bowl, stir together the brown rice syrup, maple syrup, canola oil, water, and peanut butter until smooth.
  4. Drizzle the syrup mixture over the oats mixture and stir until combined. The batter will be thick, sticky, and a little stubborn.
  5. Dump the mixture into the prepared baking pan. With your hands, press the mixture firmly and evenly into the bottom of the prepared baking pan. (If the mixture sticks to your hands, cover it with a piece of parch­ment paper as you work.)
  6. Bake until the granola is golden brown on the top and darker brown around the edges, 30 to 35 minutes.
  7. Let cool in the pan for 30 minutes. Cut into 18 bars.
  8. Store in an airtight container for up to 5 days in the pantry or 2 weeks in the freezer.

Recipe Notes

Organic brown rice syrup is available in organic markets, specialty markets, and the "health food" section of many supermarkets. Honey works as a substitute, but makes for a slightly more crumbly bar.

Reprinted from Best Lunch Box Ever, Katie Sullivan Morford, Chronicle Books (2013)