Mouths to Feed: Big Oats

By Celia Barbour

It is as easy to make granola for 90 as it is for five. This is not true of every recipe, but with granola, you just use a gallon-measure in place of a cup-measure, and a cup-measure in place of a tablespoon, and you do a lot of estimating if you dislike math. You use a bowl the size of a bird bath and a very large oven, and you taste it before it goes in to see if the balance of flavors is right.

It usually is.

granolaGranola is forgiving. But that is not its finest trait. Not hardly. When it is fresh, warm, and crisp it is so delicious that it will surprise even someone like me, who thought she knew granola quite well, having sampled it many, many times throughout her life, never with much relish. Because it turns out that granola is one of those foods for which freshness is possibly the key ingredient; lose that and you’ve lost the whole ball game.

I think about this whenever some new brand of artisanal, small-batch granola appears on the shelves of groceries and specialty stores. I picture its maker out in Boulder or Portland being told by his customers that his granola is the most delicious granola they’ve ever eaten, and that he simply has to package it — not realizing that its deliciousness had nothing to do with the recipe and everything to do with its proximity (spatial and temporal) to the oven in which it was toasted.

Here is something else summer camp has taught me about granola: You can make it just with oats, leaving the nuts and fruits aside for later. And here is something granola has taught me about life: creative restrictions can be liberating. Artists have known this for centuries — Monet painted the same cathedral façade over and over again, and Jim Dine spent years exploring bathrobes.

Still, I’m no artist, and I’d worried back in June that being required to meet a list of dietary restrictions (no nuts; no gluten; no animal products whatsoever) would make for a dull, lackluster granola. Not so! I toss my oats with something sweet (honey is nice, but some vegans won’t eat it because it comes from animals; luckily, maple syrup is even better), plus a splash of canola oil, a few spices, and just the right amount of salt (the sweet-salty balance is key), then toast them for about 20 minutes. When I’m feeling fancy, I mix in freshly grated ginger as well.

And here is something I learned about oats, from research rather than experience: Not only are they higher in fiber than any other grain, but the particular type of fiber they contain, beta-glucan, actually sops up cholesterol and sends it out of your body.

For breakfast this morning, I made one-and-a-half gallons of granola, then put it out on a small buffet table along with bowls of toasted almonds and walnuts, shredded coconut, dried pineapple and cranberries, fresh plums, and yogurt (milk — cow, soy, coconut, rice — is stashed nearby) so each person could compose his or her own cholesterol-sopping bowlful.

Meanwhile, at each dining table, we placed a spinach-tomato-and-cheddar frittata, plus a platter of fresh home fries made with potatoes dug yesterday by campers on our farm. Neither of these dishes was even slightly easy to prepare for 90. Cutting the potatoes and onions alone had taken an hour and a half; cracking 180 eggs another 15 minutes.

So no wonder I was already worn out by the time the breakfast bell had rung. Fortunately, I’d set aside a stash of granola, which gave me strength as I sat on the cooks’ bench, nibbling, watching the dining room fill, and thinking about the fast-approaching end of summer. 

Simple Granola

4 cups rolled oats

½ cup safflower or other neutral-flavored oil

½ cup maple syrup

1 inch fresh ginger, grated

1 teaspoon cinnamon

¼ teaspoon each: nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, optional

½ teaspoon salt, or more to taste

½ to 1 cup walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, coconut, raisins, cranberries, apricots — all optional

  1. Preheat the oven to 325. Place the oats in a medium bowl. While tossing the oats, drizzle on the oil then the syrup, mixing well. Add the spices and salt and toss again. Taste and adjust the flavorings. Spread on a rimmed baking sheet and toast in the oven about 20-25 minutes, tossing the oats about halfway through. Remove from the  oven when the oats are golden-brown. They will not be crisp yet — that      happens as they cool.
  2. Meanwhile, spread one type of nut at a time, or the coconut, in smaller baking pans and toast in the oven; walnuts will need about 10 minutes; almonds and hazelnuts 12-15. The coconut should be done in 6-7. When everything is finished, combine granola with nuts and dried fruits, if desired.

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