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TODAY

Wednesday, August 21

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Airbags

I've been really lazy about breakfast consumption lately. I've been staying up too late and stumbling into work bleary-eyed and unprepared to start my day in a healthy way. Unless there were leftover meeting bagels, or unless I was hungry enough to venture to the vending machine for a Pop Tart or oatmeal cookie, I've skipped breakfast. I can hear my mom saying, "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. How can you do that? You're sabotaging your entire day."

And as the weather is getting colder I'm finding my morning appetite returning stronger. I know I need to make this meal more of a priority than I have been. But I also know that I'm not going to wake up half an hour earlier just so I can eat breakfast before going to work. I need something I can eat at my desk.

I've thought about eating instant oatmeal my desk, but those little packets aren't very filling, they aren't cheap and the flavorings are so fake and/or bland that I discarded the idea. Then I thought I'd just buy a box of granola bars, but the excessive amounts of sugar and high price for what you get turned me off as well. I would occasionally remember to take fruit to work, but it was just enough to get me through until about 11am and then my stomach would start growling ferociously. I tried yogurt, and it was OK, but the super-sweet fruit mash turns me off.

Convinced that my high-maintenance breakfast requirements were turning me into a morning version of Meg Ryan's character in When Harry Met Sally, with the salad dressing on the side and all that business, I became disgusted with myself. I was starting to become convinced that I was going to have to either haul my hiney out of bed early or just go without. But then Andrew swooped in and saved the day. While getting ready to run some errands, he asked me to pick up some dried oats and nuts so he could make granola. I asked why, and he said, "For breakfast, of course."

Of course! We've made homemade granola before and it's been fabulous. Not only is half the cost of a box of granola, we're able to decide which nuts, dried fruits and flavorings we wish to add and we can regulate the sweetness to suit our, or my, finicky tastes. Relieved to have found an answer, I delighted in scouring the aisles for dried fruits and nuts and thinking of all the wonderful (and easy) breakfasts I had ahead of me.

And it's been great. Homemade granola sprinkled in some plain or vanilla yogurt is just enough to get me to lunch, fits my desire for an affordable breakfast and seems healthy enough since I'm controlling the sugar.

But where there is granola, there is also the possibility for granola bars. Homemade snack-bars to get me through to lunch, or to serve as an afternoon snack, or to hold me over until a late dinner. Below you'll find a recipe for crunchy granola crumbles and peanut-butter granola bars.

Crunchy Granola
1/2 cup of corn or peanut oil
4 cups of rolled oats (not instant or quick-cook)
1 cup of any variety or combination of nuts or seeds
2 or more tablespoons of honey
1/2 to 1 cup of dried fruit

Preheat your oven to 325° F. Pour the oil into a jelly roll pan or other baking dish with sides, preferably at least 9" x 13". Sprinkle the oats over the pan and toss to coat with the oil. Place this into the oven for 15 minutes, stirring every five minutes. The oil and the stirring will keep the oats from burning, so don't eliminate this step. Next, pour in your nuts, stir again and bake. You'll want to bake for another 10-15 minutes, again stirring the mixture every five minutes. The baking changes the flavors of the nuts, which I find very pleasant, however you could skip this step if you desire. While the mixture cools, drizzle with a few tablespoons of honey, add the dried fruit and stir to coat evenly. Once the mixture is completely cool, transfer to either a gallon-size zipper bag or a large resealable container and refrigerate. This will make about 6-7 cups of granola, about what you would get in a box of cereal. It will last about 5 days at room temperature or about a month in the refrigerator.

If you would like a wider variety of flavors in your granola, you could substitute some of the rolled oats with rolled rye, wheat flakes, wheat germ, quinoa or a variety of other grains you should be able to find in the bulk section of some grocery stores. As far as which nuts to use, just about anything you enjoy eating will work. I've found that the smaller, independent markets often have a better selection and better prices on nuts than the larger chains. Feel free to add sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, soybeans, dried peas, peanuts, cashews, almonds, walnuts, pecans and brazil nuts. The nuts are definitely the priciest part of the granola. Dried fruit adds a tart note to the sweet toastiness of the granola. Fruit to consider: raisins, dried cranberries, banana chips, dried apricot, coconut, apple chips, dates, figs, dried blueberries, dried cherries and prunes.

If you need just a bit more flavor, preferably something on the sweet end, then consider adding an extract. 1-2 tablespoons of vanilla extract added to the rolled oats at the beginning of the baking time will increase the flavor without increasing sugar or significant calories. If you use an extract, I would taste it before adding the honey to determine if it is sweet enough without it. You could also sprinkle on some ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace or ground anise. If you prefer a sweeter element than honey provides you can use molasses or brown sugar before the final five minutes of baking. This is one of those recipes where you can experiment easily and without too much fear that you'll screw things up. If you're not sure that something will work, try making a smaller batch.

Peanut Butter Granola Bars
1/4 cup of vegetable oil
3 cups of rolled oats
1 cup of crisp rice cereal (Rice Krispie's are fine)
1/2 cup of raisins (or other dried fruit)
1/4 cup of packed brown sugar
1/4 cup of light corn syrup or honey
1/2 cup of peanut butter (natural peanut butter works the best)
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
1/2 cup of chocolate chips or nuts (optional)

Preheat the oven to 325° F. Pour the vegetable oil evenly into a baking dish with sides (9" x 13" sized pan is preferable). Sprinkle the rolled oats over the oil and toss to coat. Cook for fifteen minutes, stirring every five minutes to prevent burning. Once this is finished, sprinkle the raisins over the top and set out to cool.

In a small saucepan, combine the sugar, honey, peanut butter and vanilla extract over medium heat. Stir it constantly to prevent sticking. Once the sugar has melted and the peanut butter is thoroughly blended, remove from the heat. Pour the mixture over the cereal and stir thoroughly. If desired, combine the chocolate chips or nuts. Using the back of a wooden spoon, or the palm of your hand, compress everything tightly in the baking dish. Once it has cooled completely, cut it into 24 (or so) pieces. These will keep about for about a week at room temperature, or up to a month in your refrigerator. You can wrap them individually in plastic wrap to carry in your pocket or bag.

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