Feel your (steel-cut) oats.

flag-mini-Scotland flag-mini-Ireland An Englishman and a Scotsman were discussing oats. The Englishman, with his nose in the air, said, "In England we feed oats to our horses, and in Scotland you feed oats to your men." To which the Scotsman replied "That's why in England you have such fine horses ... and in Scotland we have such fine men!"

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The weather is cooling off wonderfully here in the midwest. After yet another hot, humid summer, it’s bliss sleeping through the night under a warm flannel sheet with the window open, and waking up with an appetite for hot cereal, especially a bowl of my new favorite--steel cut oats.
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Remember those gooey, comforting globs of (by the time you got to the table cold) rolled oats you had for breakfast before school? Such memories! These are different and, in some ways, better and more grownup. Steel cut oats have a nice chewy texture with some of the familiar and comforting gooeyness, but much less glueyness, of regular oatmeal. They also take longer to cook--steel cut oats are whole oat groats chopped (well, cut) into little nubs rather than steamed (essentially pre-cooked) and flattened like rolled oats, so it takes a while for boiling water to plump them up: about 30 minutes, and well worth the wait.
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The long cook time for steel-cut oats means they’re not exactly a convenient work day breakfast. They require some patience and stirring (clockwise, according to tradition), better for a slow Sunday morning while sipping your coffee or tea. To enjoy them during the week, I make a batch before bedtime by boiling water and oats together for 10 minutes, then turning off the heat, covering the pan with a lid, and letting it sit overnight. By morning the oats have absorbed the remaining water and all that’s needed is a few minutes of re-heating. Leftovers are plopped into a plastic container and stored in the fridge--they heat up nicely on the stove or in the microwave.
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Oats like cool, wet weather so they thrive in the U.K. as well as countries like Russia, Canada, Finland, Poland and the American midwest. And although Scotland grows more barley than oats, oatmeal seems to strongly characterize Scotland’s culinary culture, alongside heather honey, whisky, and salmon. Scottish and Irish cookbooks are full of recipes calling for oats--pheasant, herring and fish cakes rolled in oats, leek soup thickened with oats, an oatmeal-onion stuffing called skirlie, fruit crumbles, boiled puddings, bannocks, cranachan, oatcakes, the hearty oats-whisky-honey liqueur known as atholl brose (blog post coming soon!), haggis, stout, and of course traditional oatmeal porridge.
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For an authentic Scottish oatmeal experience, use a wooden spurtle--an approximately foot-long stick with a rounded tip used to stir the oats while they cook (that rounded tip helps you keep cooked oats from hiding in the corners of the pan). Then only salt on your cooked oats, no brown sugar or milk, and each spoonful is dipped into a separate bowl of cream before eating.
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I hope the Scots forgive me for not following those serving rules--what is oatmeal without my splash of evaporated milk and drizzle of honey or some brown sugar? Sometimes a sprinkling of toasted walnuts, and when the price is right a handful of blueberries or blackberries. That would be three "superfoods" in one bowl! Oats, blueberries and walnuts are superfoods--that is, they are not only awesome because they taste so good, but they are extra awesome because they have been proven to do super things for your health. Oats, for example, help lower cholesterol and have minimal impact on your blood sugar, while blueberries and walnuts have antioxidant and anti-imflammatory benefits to help prevent cancer and other diseases. You could just about almost live forever eating superfoods. (NOTE: This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. But it's true--forever. Almost.)
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We've been eating oatmeal throughout the summer (except when it was, like, 97 hot humid degrees out) and it is all the more satisfying now that fall is here. And this winter, when the weather turns truly frosty, I may even add a warming slug of whisky to each bowl. Although it's possible I might not wait until then.

P.S. You've seen those nice looking cans of McCann's Irish Oats on grocery store shelves, yes? The ones that go for oh, about $4.50 per pound? Well here's a secret: you can get bulk steel cut oats at Whole Foods for $1.39 a pound. Bargain! That won't take your whole paycheck. You'll live longer and have more money in the bank. Oatmeal is super, indeed.

Steel Cut Oats, Two Ways

Way 1 (30-minute method):
Serves 4, recipe can be halved

4 cups water
1 cup steel cut oats
dash of salt

Bring water to boil in medium to large saucepan. Add oats and bring to a boil again. Let mixture bubble and cook for about ten minutes, stirring occasionally (with a spurtle, if you've got one!). Reduce heat and let simmer, stirring occasionally, for another 20 minutes. Serve hot with milk, cream, yogurt, honey, sugar, bananas, berries, etc.

Way 2 (overnight method):
Serves 4, recipe can be halved

4 cups water
1 cup steel cut oats
dash of salt

Bring water to boil in medium to large saucepan. Add oats and bring to a boil again. Let mixture bubble and cook for about ten minutes, stirring occasionally--clockwise of course. Remove from heat, cover with lid, and allow to stand overnight on stove or in refrigerator. In the morning the oats should have fully absorbed the remaining water. Warm oats over medium heat (or in the microwave, if you must). Serve with the usual toppings.


Salmon with watercress sauce.

flag-mini-Ireland It’s no surprise that countries surrounded by ocean and streaked with freshwater rivers and streams count seafood as a culinary staple. Through poems, fairy tales, history books and movies, I have come to associate fish like cod, mackerel, haddock, herring and flounder with Merrie Olde England.
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But the fish that shows up most commonly in my British cookbooks and magazines is rosy salmon, which looks and taste delicious no matter how it's prepared. And it’s almost always draped in sauce or dolloped with mayonnaise made beautifully green from rocket/arugula, parsley, watercress, sorrel, spinach or some other green leafyness.
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According to the
Scottish Salmon Producers' Organization, salmon is the U.K's most popular fish ordered in restaurants and purchased by consumers for preparing at home. The site also emphasizes how all those Omega 3's in salmon (up to 5 grams in an 8-oz. fillet) "help to develop and maintain our eyesight ... and conditions such as schizophrenia, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and even protect against sunburn, strokes and some types of cancers, as well as positive effects on the immune system and in mitigating the symptoms of arthritis." Protect against sunburn? Count me in! They do have some tempting salmon recipes, especially that Salmon Omelette. But wait -- don't leave yet ... there's more here.
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love salmon, so recently I picked a recipe with sauce made from watercress and cream out of my favorite "The Romance of Ireland" issue of Bon Appetit from May 1996. (It will take me a good long time to experiment with all the tasty recipes in that edition.) This recipe, like so many from this issue, is not available at the Bon Appetit site so I'm including it below.
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The recipe couldn't be simpler, with a whopping
five ingredients in all: butter (yum!), shallots, watercress, whipping cream, and salmon fillets. As usual, I did some skimping: in lieu of shallots I used up half an onion from the veggie drawer, and substituted a combo of evaporated milk and half-and-half for the whipping cream.
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Butter lover that I am, I'd rather have the butter called for in the recipe than the fat and calories from whipping cream. In some cases. The recipe is meant to serve 8, but I was able to easily halve the sauce recipe and cook up just two salmon steaks. Even for 8, this wouldn't take much time or effort and requires minimal prep -- mincing shallots (or onions), a small amount of watercress trimming, then sauteeing, blending, and poaching (or broiling, grilling, I opted for frying) the salmon.
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I was craving the golden color and crispiness that frying (in a combo of butter and olive oil) lends to the salmon, but in the future I might opt for the healthier method of poaching or grilling. Salmon doesn't take long to cook, even these fat fillets. You can cook them until just done, then let them finish cooking on a plate so they'll be perfectly moist and tender. Oh my mouth is watering just thinking about it!
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The sauce was bright and fresh, both in color and flavor, and complemented the salmon beautifully. We had lots of leftover turmeric-tinted rice with peas from the
Chicken Tikka Masala prepared earlier that week, which made for a colorful and dee-licious early summer dinner with chilled white wine. Lately we've taken to gulping down glasses of Three (formerly Two) Buck Chuck from Trader Joe's. We are always on the lookout for wine bargains, but we feel like we're stealing this stuff. Our wine rack is full! And we're happily wine buzzed. Now, Evanston, when the heck are you going to open a Trader Joe's here??
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Salmon is so pretty.

Salmon with Watercress Sauce
From Bon Appetit, May 1996 "The Romance of Ireland" issue
Serves 8 (but halves nicely)

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
1/2 cup finely chopped shallots
2 large bunches watercress, tough ends trimmed
1-1/2 cups whipping cream

8 8-ounce salmon fillets with skin

Melt butter in heavy large skillet over medium-low heat. Add shallots and saute until beginning to soften, about 3 minutes. Add watercress and stir until wilted and still bright green, about 3 minutes. Add cream. Increase heat to high and bring to boil. Remove from heat. Puree hot sauce in blender until almost smooth. Transfer to heavy small saucepan. Season with salt and pepper. (Can be made 8 hours ahead. Refrigerate.)

Butter 2 steamer racks and place in 2 large saucepans over simmering water. Season salmon fillets with salt and pepper. Place salmon, skin side down, on steamer racks. Cover saucepans and steam until salmon is just opaque in center, about 10 minutes.

Whisk sauce over low heat to re-warm. Transfer salmon to platter. Spoon some of the sauce over salmon. Garnish with additional watercress. Serve, passing remaining sauce separately.


And please please feel free to leave a comment below, whether you are friend or foe. Let's talk about food!


Leek and Potato Soup.

flag-mini-Ireland Our springtime weather has been a bit erratic -- spells of rainy, shivery days broken by a day or two so unseasonably hot it feels like July, then back to March-like cold and wet. It's probably not unusual for the midwest, but it gets a mite tiresome.
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Cooking is a cozy antidote for crummy weather, and potato leek soup makes sense in spring when it's chilly enough for warm comfort food that is satisfying but not heavy. This soup recipe comes from my well-thumbed May 1996 "The Romance of Ireland" edition of Bon Appetit magazine. It doesn't appear at Bon Appetit's site so I'm including it at the bottom of this post.
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I'm usually hesitant to buy leeks -- they are fairly expensive when you do the math. Not too bad at $2.49 a pound, but considering you chuck exactly half of what you've purchased into the trash (or compost heap), to my penny-pinching mind that doubles the cost. Leeks must have been cheap and plentiful at some point in history, and they seem to be universally paired with potatoes. The Scottish put them into Cock-a-Leekie (chicken and leek) or Tattie-and-Leekie (potato and leek) soup, and the Irish in Leek-and-Potato. The Welsh regard leeks so highly that they have become a national symbol of Wales. On the feast day of Wales' patron saint, St. David (who was poor and pious and thought to eat not much more than leeks and water), leeks (very small ones!) or daffodils are worn in the lapel to demonstrate national pride, and leek soup, called "Cawl Cymreig" (Welsh Cawl) is traditionally served.
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It sure sounds like they consume a lot of leeks across the Atlantic, so I couldn't help but wonder what they're paying for them. A
quick online check of Superquinn, an Irish grocery store chain, shows they’re in no better shape (by my budgetary sensibilities) over there -- $2.70 per pound, if I’m converting my Euros to Dollars and kilograms to pounds correctly.
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Unlike leeks, potatoes as a pantry staple make good food sense -- abundant (except for that tragic time in Ireland in the mid-1800s), filling and inexpensive, it's small wonder they are added to so many dishes around the world. Their cost notwithstanding, leeks -- and the humble potato -- live strong in the native cuisine of my overseas brethren, and I stand with them. So on with the soup!
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Like many creamed soups, this one is easy but a bit labor intensive. First, there's cleaning the ubiquitous grit and dirt out of the leeks. Then there's peeling, chopping, more chopping (and a little weeping, if you’re sensitive to onions -- I am) ...
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... sauteeing, boiling, blending, scraping, pouring, more blending ...
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... and wrangling batches of blended soup with bowls, rubber spatulas and such. Creamed soups sound so easy, but in my kitchen they generate a bit more mess.
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However, may I say the result is silky smooth and delicious, with no cream -- high-fat or otherwise -- to give it creaminess. Seasoned only with salt, pepper and a sprinkling of chopped chives fresh from our spring garden, it tastes both simple and indulgent. I imagine pre-blender versions were chunkier and more rustic, but no less delectable. The recipe calls for butter and chicken stock, but canola oil and vegetable stock can be substituted for a completely meat-free version.

Luckily we had leftover
Irish brown bread (so cinchy to make, from the same issue of Bon Appetit) in the freezer, which I toasted and served with a simple green salad and Smithwick's. Beer might be too sturdy a libation alongside this light creamy soup, but is that reason enough forego? If you have no Smithwick's, white wine will complement the meal nicely.
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Leek and Potato soup is also good chilled, so don't let rising temperatures keep you from enjoying this lush and lovely soup. It's nice to have options when the darned weather can't make up it's mind. Slainte!*

Leek and Potato Soup
From Bon Appetit, May 1996 "The Romance of Ireland" issue

4 servings

3 tablespoons butter
3 large leeks (white and pale green parts only), halved lengthwise, thingly sliced (about 4-1/2 cups)
2 large russet (baking) potatoes (about 18 ounces total), peeled, diced
4-1/2 cups (or more) chicken stock or canned low-salt broth

Melt butter in large heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add leeks; stir to coat with butter. Cover saucepan; cook until leeks are tender, stirring often, about 10 minutes. Add potatoes. Cover and cook until potatoes begin to soften but do not brown, stirring often, about 10 minutes. Add 4-1/2 cups stock. Bring to boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until vegetables are very tender, about 30 minutes.

Puree soup in batches in blender or food processor until smooth. Return to saucepan. Thin with additional stock if soup is too thick. Season with salt and pepper. Ladle into bowls, garnish with chives and serve.

*A common toast in Ireland and Scotland meaning "Health!" Pronounced SLAWN-cha.

As always, please feel free to leave a comment below. I love hearing from everyone!

Irish Brown Soda Bread.

Rye bread will do you good,
Barley bread will do you no harm,
Wheaten bread will sweeten your blood,
Oaten bread will strengthen your arm.

flag-mini-Ireland The festive indulgences -- and, one hopes, the ensuing hangovers -- of St. Patrick’s Day are long past as we approach April Fool’s Day. We like to celebrate the day of Ireland’s patron saint at home, away from noisy revelers drunk on too many green beers. Here at O’Smithigans, we enjoyed a simple meal of lamb stew, champ (potatoes mashed with cream, butter, green onions) and scrumptious homemade brown soda bread accompanied by bottles of Guinness and Smithwick’s while celtic tunes jigged their way out of the iHome. Oh, and Irish Coffee Meringues for dessert. Slainte!
Irish Coffee Meringue
Coffee flavored meringues with Irish whiskey-spiked whipped cream. (hiccup)

I used to bring Irish soda bread, Kerry Gold butter, and strawberry jam to work on St. Patrick’s day, in a vain effort to elevate the day above whatever green frosted cupcakes and cookies had also been brought in. My co-workers could not be enlightened and clearly preferred the green stuff. That’s about when I started wondering what St. Patrick’s day is really about. Why it never occurred to me that it’s a religious holiday (a saint’s day!) is possibly because in this country it seems to be largely about the color green: green food, beer, clothing, face paint, rivers, shamrocks and leprechauns.
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St. Patrick was an actual guy, born around 387 in Roman Britain -- by some accounts present day Scotland, by others present-day Wales. At 16 he was captured by the Irish and sold into slavery. During his 6-year captivity, while he herded sheep for a Druid, he learned the local Celtic language, essentially converted himself to Christianity, escaped back to his homeland, and returned to Ireland as a bishop who was eventually sainted for Christianizing multitudes of pagan Irishfolk.
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Paddy is credited with using the three leaves of a shamrock to demonstrate the Holy Trinity (that's the father, son, holy spirit for you heathens who escaped St. Patrick's campaign), and the snakes he banished from Ireland are likely a metaphor for the pagan religions he “drove out” as Christianity took root. Although, according to Franklin Habit, a popular knitter and blogger from Chicago, St. P was actually purging novelty yarns from the Emerald Isle.
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Christian country though it might be, Ireland is not immune to excessive drink and merrymaking on St. Patrick’s Day, and it sounds like they tried -- and ultimately failed -- to close pubs on March 17. Now they’ve turned the day into an Irish cultural festival in an effort to “bring the piety and the fun together,” so you can have your Jamieson’s and drink it too! The Irish Americans I’ve informally polled over the years celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a family dinner, often the traditionally American meal of corned beef and cabbage.
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St. Patrick’s Day shouldn’t pass without a few hearty slices of brown bread. We occasionally buy McNamees wheaten bread from the Celtic Knot Pub in Evanston. The loaves are tasty, but wee small and quite pricey. I have experimented with several recipes, trying to replicate the McNamees experience, and landed on a "Brown Soda Bread" recipe I’ve had since May 1996, from the special Romance of Ireland issue of Bon Appetit magazine. So that’s 15 years I’ve had the perfect brown bread recipe in my possession and never realized it!
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It’s a quick bread with no fancy ingredients, and cooks up in 40 minutes flat. If you can stand to wait an extra 15 minutes for it to cool, you will be rewarded with a nutty, delicious bread that is not too dense or heavy. It's scrumptious with butter, or mustard, ham and cheese. No more McNamees for us, sorry Celtic Knot. But we’ll still dine there on Tuesday nights to catch your rousing live Celtic Music Seisiuns.
Brown bread 6My holy trinity ... brown bread, butter, and hot tea.

Bon Appetit doesn’t have this particular brown bread recipe online, so here is my adaptation of it. I reduced slightly the amount of whole wheat flour and increased the white flour because I dislike how wheat flour weighs things down. Although the bran and wheat germ say "toasted" I didn't actually toast either -- just scooped them directly out of their bags and jars. And do use real buttermilk -- 1 quart (the smallest I can find at local groceries) is enough for two loaves.

Brown Soda Bread
Adapted from Bon Appetit, May 1996

Yield: 1 loaf

2 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/2 cups whole wheat flour
3 Tablespoons toasted wheat bran
3 Tablespoons toasted wheat germ
2 Tablespoons old-fashioned oats
2 Tablespoons (packed) dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons (1/4 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 cups (about) buttermilk

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter 9x5x3-inch loaf pan. Combine first 8 ingredients in large bowl; mix well. Add butter; rub in with fingertips or pastry blender until mixture resembles fine meal. Stir in enough buttermilk to form a soft sticky dough. Transfer dough to prepared loaf pan. Bake until bread is deep golden brown and tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Turn bread out onto rack. Turn right side up and cool on rack.

Once cooled, it slices easily and freezes well.

Enjoy! And as always, feel free to leave a comment.