Samantha Stephens didn’t even particularly like oatmeal when she was a child. “I was more a cold cereal type of kid,” she recalls. It wasn’t until she was studying at Baruch College in Manhattan that “I got serious about eating healthy and trying to lose some weight. That’s when I also got serious about oatmeal.”She’s not kidding: She amazed her roommates by eating oatmeal morning, noon, and night. And now, more than 10 years later, she’s perhaps even more serious about oatmeal than the Quaker Oats man. (Luckily, she’s much more attractive than he is, too.)In 2012, Stephens opened OatMeals, arguably the world’s first oatmeal bar. In this colorful, 400-square-foot space in Greenwich Village, she doles out three sizes of steel-cut oats along with more than 80 different toppings. How’s business, we asked? “I’ve been busier than I ever imagined,” she says.Oatmeal is surely enjoying its day in the sun. While the many health benefits of oats — from reducing cholesterol to lowering blood pressure — have long been known, oatmeal was for years considered to be poor man’s gruel. In fact, the ancient Romans regarded oats as a weed that was only suitable for animals or barbarians. Times have changed. The soaring popularity of oatmeal — restaurants from Starbucks to Dunkin’ Donuts are serving it — can be attributed to several factors, including consumer hyper-focus on health and whole foods. And better preparation has helped, too.“Something simple like olive oil and Parmesan cheese with some salt and pepper, that could be a meal”While many of us grew up eating traditional old-fashioned rolled oats, these days “steel-cut oats are all the buzz,” says Stephens. This different style refers to the way the oats are processed. Rolled oats are created when the groats (or kernels) are steamed and then rolled into flakes; steel-cut oats, on the other hand, use groats that are cut into chunks. The steel-cut variety is considered more nutritious than rolled oats, “mainly because it takes longer to digest, so you are absorbing more nutrients over time,” says Stephens. “But really all the varieties — even instant — are pretty good for you.”But it’s the texture of steel-cut oats that make them so appealing to new converts. “It’s a little hardier, like a risotto,” says Stephens. “I think that some people who grew up eating rolled oats found it to be a mushy slop, so they just weren’t interested. But once they try steel-cut, they see that it has more texture.”When Stephens first opened her business, she was using yet another kind of oat — Scottish style — which she procured from Wild Hive Farm in Clinton Corners. Scottish oats are similar to steel-cut oats (which are also called Irish oats), but are just a little bit coarser. “He was super great,” Stephens says about farmer Don Lewis, who is known as a leader in the sustainable farming community. Currently, Lewis produces several organic grains and wheats, which are all ground weekly at his micro-mill. This way, you get the full nutritional value from the germ, and Stephens insists you can taste the difference. “It’s just bursting with freshness,” she says.In addition to all the toppings, Stephens also sells her signature oatmeal bowls — which include sweet classics like peaches and cream, as well as savory options like pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, and Parmesan. That’s why she has had success serving oatmeal for breakfast, lunch — and dinner. “We are best known for the Canadian,” she says, citing a concoction that includes cinnamon roasted apples, cheddar cheese, maple syrup, and sea salt.But how did Stephens come up with all of her unique flavor combinations? “When I see an ingredient being used in an interesting way, I always try to translate that to oatmeal. The whole thing about oatmeal is that it is a flat kind of palette; it’s like rice or pasta, you can do a lot with it because it absorbs the flavor of anything you are using.” Here, Stephens offers some tips to those of you who want to spice up your oatmeal at home. “Something simple like olive oil and Parmesan cheese with some salt and pepper — that could be a meal. Certain things like almond butter and peanut butter work really well, too. You only need about a teaspoon. Almond butter is particularly good mixed with dried cranberries,” she says. “Or use real maple syrup — maybe just two tablespoons. That’s delicious.”Stephens concedes that many of these exotic flavor combinations can start to creep up in calories. “So I really like a dollop of Greek yogurt on oatmeal, with maybe raspberries and chia seeds,” she says. “That’s super-healthy and something you can eat every day.”
OatMeals. 120 Third St., New York. 646-360- 3570; www.oatmealsny.comView the gallery below for some of our favorite local toppings and how we used them.
Photograph by Jennifer May
Photograph courtesy of OatMeals