Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Return of the College Diet

I must admit, that there was a plus side to not finding a job this summer. I had a lot of time to think about food, experiment with food, and cook some pretty sweet meals and treats for my family. Every night we sat down at the dinner table my dad would always exclaim, “Man! What are we gonna eat when Katie’s gone.”

Sadly, being gone doesn’t mean they’ll be the only ones missing out on gourmet meals every night. I know as a fact that once the classes and the internship start up, the college diet will return and I plan to stick to quick-fix meals, during the weekdays at least. There will be sandwiches (thought now I have my experiences with Pret for inspiration), there will be LOTs of omelets, enough carrots and hummus to turn my skin orange, and above all, there will be yogurt and granola.

I think I eat this wonderful combo about 4 times a week for lunch and usually have some seasonal fruit to mix in. But up until just 3 weeks ago I never knew how good it could be. I used to stick to the simple store-bought granola, something like Bear Naked or Udi’s. Then one day, when there was absolutely nothing in the house but a lonely yogurt and no topping options, I realized that although our premade granola was gone, the comprising ingredients were all together in our house. So I made a teeny tiny batch, out of about ¼ cup of oats. I tossed in the few strands of coconut from the cupboard, a few mutilated almond slivers, a couple Craisins. I mixed it with a little oil and brown sugar and toasted it up. After taking it out of the oven and letting it cool to crispness, I took a bite and was blown away.

This granola was just so…fresh. It was crispy, fragrant, and chewy. It had none of that staleness and cardboard-like flavor I always kind of hated about the store-bought varieties. It first gave this awesome crunch, coated with caramelized sweetness, before turning chewy and releasing the intense nutty flavors from the roasted oats. I used to think granola must always be this bland, whole-mealy sort of snack that you only get because it seems like the “in” and trendy thing to do. Most times it was a sea of these semi-toasted oats and every now and then, if I was lucky, I’d be the recipient of half an almond. Yippee!! Now I know the truth.

And then I suddenly felt so stupid that I had never made my own before. It was so easy, one of those wing-it recipes that you can’t really ever screw up. And it can be made from just about anything lying around. And so the granola continued. I experimented and tested with different ingredients and ratios and finally found one I really love. It’s an even balance of fruit and nuts and oats that makes it so great. It makes for a granola that is really chunky and full of texture. For nuts, I like a combination of walnuts and pecans because they’re so soft and chewy. The fruits I chose were coconut, dried cherries, and banana chips for a little tropical flair. I’d imagine that dried papaya or pineapple would be an even more exciting replacement for the cherries. And finally, I used a combination of brown sugar and brown rice syrup for the nutty flavor that the syrup imparts. Just yesterday, I made a huge batch of it and took bagfuls to school with me to toss in my backpack, lunchbox, whatever. A filling snack and SO EASY snack with a flavor that can’t ever be matched by the grocery store stuff.

My Granola

The trick to the best granola is to toast is at a low temperature for a really long time. This really lets the flavors deepen and makes the toasting nice and even. The second secret is to let it cool in the pan completely before breaking it up. This will ensure that you get those big oat chunks. Feel free to experiment and replace the ingredients with any that you have around or like better. Just try and make sure to keep the nut-fruit-oat ration the same.

3 cups of rolled oats (I used a 5-grain blend of oatmeal that included oats, rye, barley, tricticale, and golden flax but plain oats are fine)
¾ cup chopped pecans
¾ cup chopped walnuts
½ cup unsalted sunflower seeds
¾ cup shredded sweetened coconut
¾ cup chopped banana chips
¼ cup brown sugar
½ tsp. cinnamon
¼ cup plus 2 Tbs. brown rice syrup
¼ cup plus 2 Tbs. sunflower or other vegetable oil
¾ tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla extract
¾ cup dried cherries

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. In a large bowl, mix together the oats, pecans, walnuts, seeds, coconut, banana chips, brown sugar, and cinnamon until well combined. In another bowl mix together the brown rice syrup, oil, salt, and vanilla. Microwave for 15 seconds, give it a stir to mix the syrup and oil, a pour into the granola mixture. Mix well with a wooden spoon until the syrup coats everything evenly.

Spread the mixture evenly onto a sheet pan and bake in the oven for 1 hour and 15 minutes. Evey 15 minutes, stir the granola so it cooks evenly. Add in the cherries for the last 15 minute cooking interval. When time is up, remove from the oven and let sit until cool. Once cool, use your wooden spoon to break the granola into chunks. Store in an airtight container.

1 comment:

  1. I am in almost the exact same state as you-- I leave for school in three days (after spending the summer without a job and spending the days in the kitchen) and I'm afraid my cooking/baking days are going to be reduced to salads, yogurt and granola, and oatmeal. Sigh... good luck to you!

    And your granola looks awesome. I love the tropical flavors you took on with it and how much nuts you added in.