When Jody and I signed up for the cycling fund-raiser the PanMass Challenge last year we stepped up our game when it came to exercise. Speaking exclusively for my Falstaffian self, I thought it might not be a bad idea to drop a few pounds ahead of the actual 200-mile 2-day ride. That’s how we ended up making dishes like Steel-Cut Oats with Eggs, Preserved Lemon and Olives.
But it was a journey to get there.
Cyclists love oatmeal. Me, not so much, especially instant oatmeal. Instant oatmeal sits atop a plinth on whose base are chiseled the words, Convenience trumps all. As far as I can tell there is nothing else to recommend it. Despite the manic exuberance of the athletes on its packaging, instant oatmeal is thin fare, with more than a whiff of deprivation about it. I wanted something that wouldn’t feel all square peg in a round hole when I followed food writer and NY Times columnist Mark Bittman’s suggestion to eat oatmeal with leftover roasted vegetables and a splash of fish sauce.
The solution? Steel-cut oats.
Why, oh why, have I wasted so many winter mornings slurping rolled-oat oatmeal when I could have been feasting on steel-cut oats?
Remember those fifth-grade cross sections of wheat kernels with different layers labelled germ, bran and endosperm? Oats work the same way (well, not quite, the hull of wheat kernel is edible; the hull of an oat is not). Groats are the whole grain, minus the hull. Steel-cut oats are oat groats that have been cut into two or three pieces. And that’s it. To make rolled oats, the groat pieces are flattened between steel rollers. How much they’re flattened determines the cooking time. Instant or infant oatmeal requires very thinly flattened oats; slow-cooking oatmeal uses thicker rolled oats.
Instant oatmeal is to steel-cut oats as rice gruel is to risotto. Both have their virtues, but why would you eat gruel when you can have risotto? Steel-cut oats taste and feel like a chewy grain, a little like wheat, but a bit starchier like barley, definitely something with substance.
Steel-cut oats lend themselves to the same treatment as any other whole grain–they beg for savory ingredients to offset their starchiness, which means that while you can eat them for breakfast, you can also use them for lunch or dinner without feeling like you’re still in your pj’s. You can accompany an SCO dish with a glass of wine or beer. You can top them with eggs–we decided to soft-boil our eggs, but the dish would work equally well with a poached egg. And you can make a week’s worth at one go, microwave subsequent portions as needed, and feel as though you’ve eaten a real meal when you finish.
Think of steel-cut oats as Arborio rice with a Scotch accent. Wouldn’t that help roll you out of bed on Saturday morning and ride 30 miles before you’re deep into your day?
NOTES: I’m putting this stuff here because it didn’t fit anywhere else:
- We prefer Bob’s Red Mill Steel-Cut Oats over McCann’s Steel-Cut Oatmeal (the one in the tin), but both work and both are widely available. You can also order Bob’s online directly from Bob.
- If you prefer your eggs poached instead of soft-boiled, check out Cooking Lessons, where our friend and fellow food writer Sally Vargas recently posted a definitive how-to on the topic.
- Become a fan of Team Rialto-Trade and help support the Jimmy Fund. For more info about the team or to make a donation click here or on the Fight Cancer link at the top of the post. Generous supporters (that could be you!) helped us raise $65,000 for last year’s PMC. We’re shooting even higher this year.
- 3 cups water
- Kosher salt
- 1 cup steel cut oats
- 4 extra large eggs
- 1 tablespoon white or cider vinegar
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 onion, cut into ¼ inch dice
- ½ pint grape tomatoes, washed, dried and cut in half
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon coarsely chopped green olives
- 1 tablespoon chopped preserved lemon
- ¼ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes or 1 teaspoon harissa
- 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
- Bring the water to a boil in a small saucepan. Season generously with salt. Add the oatmeal and stir until the water has returned to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and cook until tender, 15 – 20 minutes. Taste after fifteen minutes – you want them cooked, but still chewy.
- While the oats are cooking, heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook 5 minutes or until tender. Increase the heat to high, push the onions to the side, add the tomatoes and char on the cut side. Reduce the heat to low, add the garlic, olives, preserved lemon and hot pepper and cook 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the cilantro.
- To boil the eggs, bring a small saucepan of water to a boil with the vinegar and a teaspoon of salt. Add the eggs and simmer 5 minutes. Scoop out the eggs and run under cold water just long enough to allow you to peel the eggs.
- Put a spoonful of oatmeal in 4 warm bowls. Top with a boiled egg and then spoon the tomato sauce over the egg. Serve immediately.
I never liked oatmeal. Growing up in my house, where both my mother and father had to be out the door by 8:00 am, there were 4 breakfasts in the family repertoire and all of them were mushy:
- 3-minute eggs in an egg cup… those really gross soft eggs with the runny whites. The only remedy was toast bits and LOTS of butter;
- Cream of Wheat with brown sugar and butter… not too bad, but no texture;
- Raisin bran or Oat flakes with milk… OK but a little cardboardy and got soggy fast;
- And finally the big L loser–rolled oats with milk and white sugar… no flavor, no texture…and no way of changing them.
But steel-cut oats are different. They actually taste like something and depending on what else you’ve got in the fridge they can be the start of pretty interesting meal. On busy mornings I can nuke a quick bowl with a handful of arugula leaves, add a drizzle of olive oil, some hot red pepper flakes, a sprinkle of grated cheese and I’m good to go.