For many years, granola was the lumpy woolen sweater of the food world.
You dipped your spoon into that hearty bowl of oats, nuts and dried fruit in the same way you might slip on a third layer of clothing on a cold morning. Granola has always signified back-to-the-earthiness, the whole-grains ethos that sprouted out of American counterculture in the 1960s and 70s so much so that its very name became a synonym for hippie living.
Granola could be many things, from a dorm-room staple to a parfait topping, but it was decidedly not chic.
If youre still talking about it that way, though, take a closer look at the cereal aisle in your supermarket, or the menu at that innovative gastropub around the corner. Granola has traded in the bulky sweater for a little black dress. All over the country, small-batch entrepreneurs see granola as a booming growth sector, while chefs view it as an elegant and wide-open canvas for culinary experimentation.
Born in the better-eating movement of the late 19th century and revived a half-century ago as an earnest health food, granola is suddenly sowing its wild oats in variations that are lavish, whimsical and sometimes unapologetically fattening.
Any tour of this new world should start by kicking off ones sandals at Sunny Spot, a Caribbean-island-spirited restaurant in southern California hatched in 2011 by Roy Choi, the man who introduced the world to the Korean taco. At brunch during the balmier months, Sunny Spot serves a granola dish that might have been dreamed up in a collaboration between Bob Marley and Andy Warhol.
For one thing, its not sepia-toned. Its green and orange and yellow and blue. When Choi first went to his Sunny Spot team and suggested a fresh take on granola, he told them he wanted to see color.
Its always just so brown, he said. Why cant we make it really, really festive?
He also told them to shake up expectations. I wanted it to be this bowl of twists and turns, instead of just one scoop after another, he said. I dont understand the process of eating things just to submit yourself to boredom.
While the oat-and-nut clusters woven into his dish are fairly traditional, nothing else is. Depending on the season and the whims of the kitchen, you might get a mouthful of pickled mango, green papaya or compressed pineapple. Youll probably find fresh leaves of sorrel and mint. And, floating in a luxurious pool of almond milk and creme fraiche, youll encounter nuggets of childhood nostalgia that might give Alice Waters an attack of the hives: Fruity Pebbles.
As Choi put it, Every bite, you get a new thing.
That might as well be the mantra for the American granola renaissance, especially in restaurants. There are plenty of new morning variations, like the one at Longman & Eagle, in Chicago, where the chef, Jared Wentworth, has applied his modernist technique to a question that he, too, put to his team: What would make a cool granola-and-yogurt dish?
The answer involves chewy leather made of dehydrated yogurt; house-made Corn Pops that are soaked in milk for hours and turned into a sweet puree; the snap of cranberries and walnuts that have been reduced to a nub of tartness; and a smear of dulce-de-leche-style caramel. Think of the dish as Wonderland, with granola as the innocent Alice whos ambled in.
But chefs are also whipping up granolas sweet ones, savory ones, spicy ones that bring extra layers of texture and flavor to appetizers and main courses. A rosemary-and-pistachio mix becomes a crust around a piece of elk at OAK at Fourteenth, a restaurant in Boulder, Colo. A pine-nut-and-citrus granola might accompany seared scallops or roasted sweet potatoes.
And if theres a subtle hint of hippie consciousness in that, all the better. After all, said Steve Redzikowski, the chef and an owner, were in Boulder.
Yet the same holds true at a crossroads of Manhattan power. I want people to know that the Four Seasons is actually serving hippie food, said Julian Niccolini, the man who presides over that sleek East 52nd Street dining room, where a root-vegetable salad with granola is part of the winter menu. The 60s were good times.
Granola has become a vehicle for everything, which is why a stroll through the granola section at a market like Whole Foods can feel like a marathon trip to the Museum of Modern Oats.
Theres a ton of innovation in granola, said Errol Schweizer, a Whole Foods executive who keeps a close watch on trends. You can do a lot with it.
Depending on where you shop, you might spy artisanal granola; gluten-free granola; chocolate granola that flirts with being a crumbled-up candy bar; raw granola laced and studded with superfoods like maca root, spirulina, mesquite pods, amaranth sprouts and camu camu fruit; and even kosher-for-Passover Matzolah, which contains fragments of Streits matzo. Thats the beauty of diversity, Schweizer said. Its a polyculture.
Just last month, at the annual Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco, granola proved itself a nationwide obsession, with offerings from Napa Valley (Natures Habit) and North Carolina (Millchap Bakerys version, which is made with sweet potatoes) and countless points in between. Were seeing lots of permutations and combinations, said Louise Kramer, the communications director for the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, which held the event.
Credit the growing hunger for all things local and handmade. Credit the ever-churning American obsession with health, even though granola, with its generous strafings of sugar and fat, has always been something of a sweet-toothed crasher at the spa-food party.
Theres a healthy glow around granola, Kramer said. People dont seem to be counting calories as much as they used to. Theyre looking for a nutritious punch.
Credit childhood, too. Granola, like macaroni and cheese, is something that a lot of us grew up eating, which makes it a tempting target for chefs who want to elevate and expand the essence of what a common food can be.
In fact, mixing oats and honey once played a key role in helping restaurateur Aimee Olexy, who runs Talulas Garden in Philadelphia, reach a childhood milestone. That was what we did to get our little Girl Scout badge, she recalled. Here Im 40, now, and Im doing the same thing.
To see a printable version of this recipe, click on the link below:
HEAT oven to 250 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper, and set aside.
COMBINE oats, kamut, spelt, quinoa, millet, buckwheat, teff and amaranth in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together honey, sugar, salt, oil and almonds. Add to the bowl of grains and mix until well combined.
SPREAD mixture evenly across baking sheet. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes, until golden brown; the mixture will still be soft and wet, but will become firm and crisp as it cools. Remove from heat and mix in raisins, apricots, currants and cranberries, then cool completely. If necessary, break up clumps into smaller pieces. Store in an airtight container for up week. Yield: 6 servings