Alimentary, My Dear
Have You Had Your Oats Today?
If Not, Just Wait for Dinner!
By Tamia Nelson
February 21, 2012
A doctor's waiting room is the nearest earthly counterpart to purgatory. It's not hell, exactly, but it's a considerable distance from paradise, and the atmosphere is permeated by a collective air of anxious uncertainty. Actually, now that most waiting rooms are dominated by a quarter‑acre television blaring endless ads for sleeping pills and mobility scooters, they've moved right into hell's foyer. So perhaps my purgatory analogy isn't very apt, after all.
But I digress. As you've probably deduced, I recently found myself seated in hell … er, sorry … in a doctor's waiting room. And my mood didn't improve when I discovered I'd left my ear plugs on my desk. To make matters worse, I'd left my Kindle behind, as well. This meant I had little choice but to pick through the pile of dog‑eared magazines on the table near the hand sanitizer. There was plenty of choice, at least: magazines for hunters and magazines for anglers, magazines for golfers and magazines for gofers, magazines for new mums and magazines for old crocks. In short, there was something for everyone. There was even a misdirected magazine devoted to "medical practice management." (That was easy to recognize. It had a gold‑leaf cover.) I settled for the magazine targeting new mums — it was the wrong demographic, but at least the gender was right — and flipped through the pages to the recipe section. Then, just as I stumbled on one that looked interesting, I heard my name being called. My time in hell's foyer was over.
The consultation went well enough, I'm happy to say, but somewhere between the weigh‑in and the lie‑down on the examining table I forgot all about the recipe I'd seen. It was only when I was in the food co‑op later in the day that it came back to me, triggered by a shelf display of bagged oatmeal. I stopped in my tracks, doubled back, and found myself standing next to some steel‑cut oats. The recipe that had caught my eye in the magazine for new mums had featured steel‑cut oats. I couldn't recall any other ingredients, let alone the recipe's name, but I tossed a bag of the stuff into my cart, anyway.
Later, back in my office, I settled down to some serious research. And the first question on my mind was …
What Are Oats Good For?
Samuel Johnson knew the answer. "Oats," he wrote in his celebrated Dictionary, are "a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but which in Scotland supports the people." And while I'm pretty sure that Johnson didn't intend this as a compliment, I take it to be high praise indeed. Anything that can help hardy folks contend with waist‑high thistles, clouds of biting midges, and hurricane‑force winds has got to be good. But the benefits of steel‑cut oats go far beyond their role in nurturing the race that gave the Hudson's Bay Company some of its canniest "servants." Oats are ideal fare for modern paddlers, too — easy to pack, simple to prepare (if you can boil rice, you can cook oats), and capable of withstanding any number of hard knocks or hot days. Just be sure you keep them dry. They're also reasonably cheap. I paid no more per pound for my steel‑cut oats than I do for basmati and arborio rice.
And that doesn't exhaust the list of oats' virtues. Both horses and Scots are hard workers. So a hard‑working paddler won't go wrong in adapting a staple of their diet to her own needs. Oats are rich in soluble fiber, too, and — unlike many other grains — they're a pretty fair source of high‑quality protein. Simply put, oats are good for you. But this really isn't why steel‑cut oats now have a permanent place in my food pack. They're there because they taste great and fill me up, and because they can be used in any number of interesting ways.
Maybe you're not sure you've ever seen steel‑cut oats before. If so, here's what they look like:
The tip of my forefinger in the middle photo gives you an idea of the scale, while the right‑hand shot offers a close‑up view. Can you see the "dust" on the individual grains? It's made up of tiny bits of oat. If you want, you can rinse it off in water before cooking, in the same way you'd rinse dried legumes, but I wouldn't bother. Oats is oats. Why throw away food?
I suppose I should say a word or two about the relationship between steel‑cut oats and that hearty breakfast staple, oatmeal. The latter is made from rolled oat groats (groats are the inner portion of the oat kernel), yielding the familiar flakes. Steel‑cut oats, on the other hand, are chopped rather than rolled. The oat groats are, in fact as well as name, steel‑cut. And where can you buy them? Good question. I bought mine at my local food co‑op, but I've found steel‑cut oats for sale in the HyperMart, too. It may take some looking, however. They seem to float between the cooked cereal section, the baking supplies, and the "speciality food" shelves. Even the store assistants aren't always sure where they're berthed. But it can't hurt to ask.
Can you have steel‑cut oats for breakfast? Sure you can. Porridge made from steel‑cut oats is standard fare in Scotland and Ireland. But while quick‑cook versions are available in some stores, I prefer the texture and flavor of the slow‑cook variety, and I don't like to dawdle over breakfast. So I save my steel‑cut oats for supper. Which brings me back to the doctor's waiting room where this column started out. I've finally remembered the recipe that I found on the pages of that magazine for young mums. It was …
Savory Oats for Dinner
And it opened my eyes to a whole range of possibilities. Of course, I shouldn't have needed a prompt from a magazine. After all, oats are a grain like rice or bulgur or barley, any one of which can be used as the basis for a main dish. Oats are no harder to prepare, either. Cooking steel‑cut oats is a lot like cooking rice. Even the proportions are similar. Plan on one part steel‑cut oats to two parts liquid. If in doubt, use more liquid rather than less, and if you like your evening meal soft and saucy, don't stint. Anyway, here's the starting point:
Steel‑Cut Oats — The Master Recipe
Ingredients (yields about 3 cups):
- 1 cup steel‑cut oats
- Pinch of salt
- 2 cups water
Pour the oats into a 2‑ or 3‑quart pot and toast the grains over a medium‑high flame for 30 seconds or a little longer, stirring constantly to avoid burning. Then add a pinch of salt (this helps bring out the oats' flavor), followed by the water. But be careful! A cloud of steam will rise from the pot as soon as the water hits it. Now give things a quick stir and let your stove rip. You want high heat to bring the oat‑and‑water mixture to a boil. Once that's been achieved, however, it's time to throttle back to a simmer and cover the pot.
It will take about 20 minutes for the oats to cook. (Now you see why steel‑cut oats don't figure in my breakfast menu in camp.) Lift the lid from time to time to check on progress, and every five minutes or so stir the oats to make sure they don't stick. If the pot ever seems to be boiling dry, add more water, though it's best to add no more than a quarter‑cup at a time. Don't forget to give a quick stir afterward.
When the oats are tender, but before they turn to mush (this point is known as al dente in chef‑speak), they're done. Remove the pot from the stove and serve right away, or — if you prefer a thick dish to a saucy one — let the oats sit in the covered pot for a few minutes to encourage them to firm up.
NB Three cups of cooked oats will make a meal for two or three hungry paddlers, though if they're only used as a side dish they'll stretch to four or even to six.
Prepared this way, steel‑cut oats have a pleasing, mildly nutty flavor, with a creamy texture not unlike risotto. But if you want something bolder, that, too, is easy to achieve with suitable embellishment. Does this sound a little like rice to you? That's because oats are very like rice, as I've already noted. You can substitute steel‑cut oats freely in many recipes that call for arborio or short‑grained rice. Want an example? Here's a basic pilaf recipe adapted for steel‑cut oats:
Steel‑Cut Oat Pilaf (yields about 3 cups)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 small onion, chopped
- A pinch of salt
- 1 cup steel‑cut oats
- 2 cups chicken or vegetable broth, preferably no‑fat and low‑salt
Heat the oil in a 2‑ or 3‑quart pot over a medium flame and then add the chopped onion. How fine should you chop your onion? It's up to you. I used a moderately coarse dice. Sprinkle a pinch of salt over the onion and stir frequently until the pieces are soft (see Photo 1a, below). Now add the oats (1b), stir, and toast for a moment. Finally, pour in the broth (1c), stir again (1d), and proceed according to the Master Recipe above (1e and 1f).
NB Use a fresh onion if at all possible (onions travel well in a pack), though you can use dried onion if you have no choice. (Skip the softening step if you do, however.) The broth can be made from a powdered mix, or you can use prepared broth from a can or aseptic pack.
The oats will be ready in about 20 minutes. If you lift the lid at this stage, this is what you'll see:
Now remove the pot from the stove or fire and let it sit with the lid on for a few minutes. The grains will continue to absorb broth, but the oats will still be very saucy. This is fine if you like them that way. But I don't. So I cook the pilaf a couple of minutes longer, thereby ensuring that there's a little less broth left standing over the oats in the pot. Then, after sitting for a few minutes, this is how they look:
You can stop right now and dish up if you want. You won't be disappointed. But if you're of an adventurous turn of mind, it's worth …
Ringing the Changes
Where to begin? With any of the following:
- Herbs and spices
- Dried or fresh vegetables
- Dried or fresh fruit
- Meat (fresh, canned, or dried)
- Fish (fresh, canned, or dried)
- Broth, either liquid or reconstituted from powder (your choice of flavor)
A few cautionary words are in order here: Add extra liquid with any freeze‑dried or dehydrated ingredients, including dried meat and fish. And be sure to cook raw meat or fish before adding either one to prepared oats. Alternatively, cut up the meat or fish and sauté in oil in the pot — and only then add the oats and liquid and prepare as above.
Of course, you aren't limited to adding things to cooked oats. You can also add oats — a few tablespoons or even a whole handful — to simmering soup. (Whether the soup originated in a can or a box makes no difference. Be sure you add more water when you add the oats, though.) Or cook a measure of steel‑cut oats and stir it into piping‑hot canned stew, making an already robust meal even heartier. Steel‑cut oats make a fine side dish to accompany grilled meat, fish, or vegetable satays and kebabs, too. Do you fancy eggs today? Nothing could be simpler. Serve poached, fried, or scrambled eggs on top of a bowl of cooked oats.
And then there are the countless variations on themes established by the Master and Oat Pilaf Recipes. A few examples follow. In each instance, use whatever liquid you'd like, whether broth or water, and feel free to leave the onion out of the pilaf if you prefer.
Nutty, Fruity Pilaf Cook the pilaf as described. When it's ready to dish up, toss half a handful of nuts and dried fruit over each serving.
Oat Risotto With Cheese Grate or chop the cheese of your choice while cooking the pilaf. When the oats are cooked and off the stove, stir in the cheese and serve.
Very Veggie Oats This is an adaptation of the pasta primavera principle. Stir‑fry whatever combination of vegetables you like in a bit of oil before adding the oats and proceeding with the Master Recipe. Add more liquid as needed, and season to taste with herbs and spices.
Oats Orientale Sauté chopped fresh ginger and garlic in sesame oil in a pot. Continue on with the pilaf recipe, using whatever broth appeals. When the oats are cooked through, top with a sprinkle of sesame seeds, along with thin‑sliced bell peppers, chopped green onions, and cashews or peanuts. Serve with soy sauce, plum sauce, or sweet‑and‑sour sauce, perhaps from individual serving packets saved from your last takeout meal. You could even top the dish with Chinese noodles to lend a bit of crunch.
Hawaiian Oats Prepare steel‑cut oats according to the Master Recipe, then stir in dried pineapple, dried coconut, and macadamia nuts, adding a dash of soy sauce if you wish. The crowning touch? Cubed SPAM, of course.
Are you hungry yet? I certainly am, and you can probably guess what I'm going to be making for dinner. A final cautionary note is in order, though: Before you add steel‑cut oats to your camp menu, prepare a few dishes at home. It's always best to make mistakes when you have the contents of your freezer to fall back on. That said, I'm betting that the "grain which in England is generally given to horses" will soon rank high among your favorite dishes. Don't say neigh before you try it.
Oatmeal is a familiar sight at the breakfast table, but did you know that this old standby has another face? It does. And steel‑cut oats are much more than breakfast fare — as I discovered not long ago while sitting in a doctor's waiting room. Now my backcountry menu plan has a whole new chapter of oat main dishes. So how about it? Have you had your oats today? If you've read this far, it's likely the answer to that question will soon be yes.
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