Oat crumble, oatcakes and steel-cut oat pilaf
The wild oat, Avena fatua, is a common plant that is as tall as its relative the cereal oat. It is also a pernicious weed that has infested sowing fields for centuries, is difficult to remove and is absolutely useless as a grain crop. No wonder the expression “sowing one’s wild oats” came in to being – either to illustrate a person wasting their time on something absolutely useless or to refer to a young man’s prolific sexual activities.
The cereal grain Avena sativa is a great deal more useful. Samuel Johnson described it rather disparagingly in his dictionary as, “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” So while oats are indeed a common livestock food, they are also exceptionally good at the table.
The most common use of oats has to be porridge, and I am sure most people have their favourite porridge recipe, so I won’t interfere. Instead, I’ll offer some other oat classics.
First is a crumble topping using rolled oats and oat biscuits. You can substitute the oat biscuits with Digestive biscuits if that is more to your taste. The crumble topping has more than one use. Obviously it is great atop bubbling stewed fruit, especially at this time of year. Lightly stew whatever fruit takes your fancy – apples, quinces, rhubarb, berries – place in a shallow dish, cover with crumble topping and bake in a moderate oven for 10 to 15 minutes. Another delicious option, if you trawl through the archives of The Saturday Paper, is to make my baked cheesecake and then sprinkle it with some of this crumble.
The second recipe is for a traditional Scottish oatcake. Like most “traditional” foodstuffs there are so many versions that it is impossible to say this is the definitive one. Scottish soldiers were known to carry a light tin griddle pan and a small sack of oats so they could always cook themselves up an oatcake when the day’s march was over. This is an oven-baked biscuit version of an oatcake, delicious with a good cave-aged cheddar. And like its Scottish food cousin haggis, it uses both rolled oats and oat bran.
The third recipe is a revelation to me. I am a great fan of rice pilaf but I am not a fan of porridge. This is a pilaf that is made with steel-cut oats. Where porridge oats are rolled and oat bran is milled, steel-cut oats are little irregular chunks of the dehusked grain that have been cut with a blade. When they are prepared in the same way you would prepare a rice pilaf, they are delicious and have an inherent creaminess that will make vegans swoon. Steel-cut oat pilaf is a delicious accompaniment to both vegetable stews and meat dishes alike.
– 40g butter
– 3 tbsp brown sugar
– 50g jumbo rolled oats
– 150g sweet oat biscuits or Digestives, crumbed in a food processor or crushed in a paper bag
Preheat your oven to 180ºC.
Melt the butter in a shallow pan, add the sugar and then the oats and the biscuit crumbs. Stir occasionally, over a moderate heat, until the sugar and butter have started to form a caramel. Tip onto a lightly oiled piece of baking paper on a tray and bake for 10 minutes or until the oats are golden brown. Remove from oven, cool and break up a little. Store in an airtight container.
– 125g rolled oats
– 125g oat bran
– 50g brown sugar
– ¾ tsp baking powder
– good pinch salt
– 60g melted butter
– 125ml boiling water
Preheat your oven to 170ºC.
Place all dry ingredients in a bowl, then mix in melted butter and boiling water until well combined. Allow to rest for five minutes.
Roll dough between two sheets of baking paper. Cut into circles with a biscuit cutter. Place on a lined biscuit tray and bake for about 20 minutes. Oatcakes are very personal: some like them thick, some thin; some chewy, some crisp. I tend to roll mine about three millimetres thick, using a six-centimetre round cutter, and I cook them until golden brown and a little crisp (about 22 minutes).
Steel-cut oat pilaf
Serves 4-8, depending on greed factor
– 2 small shallots, chopped
– 1 tbsp olive or grapeseed oil
– 1 clove garlic, chopped
– 1 sprig thyme
– 1 cup steel-cut oats
– 3 cups chicken or vegetable stock or water
– ½ tsp salt
Preheat your oven to 180ºC.
Sauté the shallots in the oil in a heavy-based pot over medium-high heat until softened. Add the garlic and thyme and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds. Add the oats, stock or water and salt. Bring to a simmer, cover, and place in the oven for 20-25 minutes.
Remove from the oven and let stand, covered, for five minutes before fluffing with a fork.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 6, 2019 as "Whatever floats your oat". Subscribe here.