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"... each boy had one porringer, and no more—except on occasions of great public rejoicing, when he had two ounces and a quarter of bread besides."
—Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist's porringer—that is his bowl for porridge—was filled three times a day with a thin oatmeal gruel. This was the porridge I always thought of when I had it occasionally as a child. Not that mine was thinned with water, but that it was a tasteless poor food desperately needing lots of sugar and milk to give it flavour.

I knew oatmeal was supposed to be wholesome but this was like hot glue, as appetizing as medicine. It's only recently that I realized oatmeal has its own subtly mild taste, not quite as rich as rice or as nutty as wheat, but still delicious on its own.

Like wheat and rice, oats are a cereal crop. Oats lack gluten so they make poor bread. However, they are high in protein and good sources of iron and phosphorus. Oat bran, which is added to other dishes, has plenty of fiber.

There are several ways that oats are processed for food. The most basic form is as groats. These are the oats separated from their bran which makes the kernels more edible and easier to digest.

Groats can be cooked on their own but they need at least an hour and they are similar in consistency to brown rice. Steel cut oats are groats cut into small pieces. A half cup needs about two cups of water and takes a half hour to cook. 

Rolled oats are partially cooked and then flattened with large rollers. They take from 5 to 10 minutes. Instant rolled oats have been precooked longer.

Each stage of processing removes more of the flavour and texture of the oats. By the time the instant variety gets served, it is a tasteless mush. This is why it is usually packaged with maple syrup flavour or dried fruit or whatever. You won't taste the cereal, you might as well enjoy something.

Steel cut oats, however, have a remarkable taste and texture that bears no resemblance to the quick cooked version. This is stick to the ribs food that gets me to the bus stop feeling well-fed and comfortable on the coldest days.

Even better, steel cut oats stand up to repeated cooking. I've been adding cold breakfast porridge to thicken soup broth. We have also used left over steel cut oatmeal as a rice substitute in the evening, mixing it with cheese and broth like a risotto or even frying a wedge with some chopped garlic. 

Steel cut oats are often sold as John McCann's Irish Oatmeal in a large metal tin. However, many health food and bulk food stores also have them in bins where you can buy the amount you want.

Steel cut oats take longer to make than rolled oats. However, at least once a winter it is worthwhile to get up a little earlier and cook them, if only to remind ourselves of how delicious a simple cereal can be.

© Barry Lazar 2001 Email Flavourguy

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