One of my earliest food memories -- when I was probably 3 or 4 -- was oatmeal at the hospital daycare where my mother would drop my sister and me on the way to her early morning nursing shift.
I remember her scratchy-crisp starched white uniform, a disoriented bleary-eyed feeling, and the warm, tummy-filling bowl of oats, a standard comfort food topped with milk and brown sugar. It gave me that feeling that things were okay, even if the morning was a little frenetic.
As an adult, oatmeal retained its comfort-food status, usually reserved for lazy weekends when I had time to boil water, or for ski trips where something hot was an absolute necessity before braving the slopes.
For gluten-avoiders, oatmeal is problematic, unless it's certified gluten-free, like the steel-cut oat risotto at the Phoenix Public Market Café. This amazing bowl of oats, nuts, seeds, and vanilla fruit compote makes my daycare memory fade to gray.
Oatmeal is one of those naturally healthy foods: low in calories, high in fiber. It lowers bad cholesterol, helps regulate blood sugars and avoid diabetes, and sticks with you all morning, so you feel virtuous and satiated.
My brother-in-law, who is laser focused on health, eats it every morning. When he visits, he gets up to make it before we stumble out of bed, and is happy to share with everyone in the house.
Here's the problem for those with celiac disease, or just trying not to consume gluten: Oats and wheat frequently are grown in the same fields, alternating year-to-year. Because of that, there can be volunteer wheat stalks that pop up in the oat crop and get harvested and mixed in. And the oats usually are processed in a plant that also processes wheat, and can't be totally segregated.
So for us, we have to buy "certified" gluten-free oats, oats that are grown in fields that only grow oats, processed in plants that only process oats, and tested to assure us they contain no gluten.
That means no grabbing a quick to-go bowl of oatmeal at McDonald's, or ordering one at your local breakfast joint, or eating the stuff your brother-in-law offers, unless you've purchased the certified gluten-free oats yourself.
So, when you see them on the menu of a place like the Phoenix Public Market Café, where they helpfully mark them GF, order up and enjoy. I did this weekend, and I got that same tummy-filling feeling.
We had strolled through the stalls of the market, my mother picking out fresh tomatoes, home-baked bread and some strange vegetable we had never seen. My husband got more tomatoes, more bread and some Cat's Claw honey. My friend and I just wandered aimlessly until we got warm enough to seek out air conditioning and headed for the Café.
The oats on the menu caught my eye. Steel-cut oats are cut-up pieces of the whole oat kernel vs. the more-traditional rolled oats like those served at the daycare, or in most restaurants and family kitchens. Steel-cut oats have a chewier texture and cooking them risotto-style produces a creamy effect.
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So what arrives at your table is a warm, chewy, creamy, naturally healthy bowl of comfort. The Public Market adds handfuls of nuts and seeds, including pecan, pumpkin and flax, and tops it with their vanilla fruit compote, that includes strawberries, blackberries, raspberries and tiny figs. And in the creamy, milky mix I found chucks of dried apricot, and I think I tasted currants.
We also shared a beautiful bowl of fresh fruit and new potatoes, "off the griddle," that were so tasty our forks were clinking into each other to get the last bites.
It gave me that feeling that things were okay, no matter how frenetic the week had been or would be.