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Dining with Dara: Oatmeal for dinner? Twin Cities chefs say yes

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Different oatmeals
From left to right: oat groats, which is the whole grain; steel cut oats, which are oat groats cut into smaller pieces; and old fashioned rolled oats. Chefs tend to prefer steel cut oats for their nutty flavor and good texture.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

What's for dinner?  It's an age-old question, and one that an increasing number of local chefs are answering with an unexpected reply: Oatmeal.

 Tom Crann:  Oatmeal for dinner?  Yes, but there's no cinnamon and maple syrup involved. Our regular food and dining correspondent Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, senior editor of Minneapolis St. Paul magazine, is here to tell us all about it.

Oatmeal for dinner. Why? 

 Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl:   Why indeed!  There seem to be two main answers. One, nutrition.  Nutritionists have given a lot of conflicting information over the past 30 years — eggs are bad and now they're good. Pasta is good and now it's bad. But through it all, a body of evidence has been amassing that certain things are really, truly good for you —  broccoli, apples, and, yes, oatmeal.  It's a high-fiber whole grain that the body digests slowly. It's full of vitamins and is associated with improvements in blood cholesterol levels.

 Crann:   Nutrition, you're saying is the first part. 

 DMG:   And the second part seems to be a big old: Why not? Wheat is served in the morning and at night. So is corn. Why not oats? There's nothing inherently breakfast-like about oats aside from the fact that for the last hundred years we've been used to having oatmeal in the morning.  

In olden times, really olden times, say, a thousand years ago, it wasn't unusual for people to eat oats as often as people in Japan eat rice, that is, with every meal. In the British Isles, for instance, it was the basic food from about the 9th to 17th century, as far as culinary historians can tell. You'd make a big pot of oat porridge over a wood fire, maybe once or twice a week, you'd let it cool. There was actually a special drawer in a lot of cottages called a 'porridge drawer', you'd pour your porridge in there to set, I've read that you'd put any babies you had above the drawer so they'd be warmed by the rising heat. 

 Crann:   I'll ignore the bit about the baby. But why put porridge in a drawer at all?

 DMG:   So you could slice off an inch like it was a meatloaf, and later fry it in a pan. If you're interested, you can find all sorts of savory versions of oat-and-meat traditional dishes based on this idea, like scrapple, haggis, goetta, and knipp.

In any event, there's ample historical basis for oats at dinner, and Twin Cities chefs and food luminaries are running with it.  I'm going to tell you how they do it, but first I need to do a little explaining about oats. They're a cereal grain. The whole, right-off-the-plant version are called groats, oat groats. If you cut the groats into smaller pieces, they're called steel cut oats. If you take those steel-cut oats and smash them with a steel rolling pin, they're called rolled oats.  Chefs tend to like the steel-cut oats, they're nutty, and retain a good texture. Whole oat groats take a very long time to cook, and rolled oats get mushy.

Crann:   Okay, steel-cut oats are the ones chefs are using.  And what are they doing with them?

 DMG:   So much.  At Cafe Levain in south Minneapolis, chef Adam Vickerman toasts his steel-cut oats in a skillet with olive oil and onions, and then adds mushroom stock, what results is a very earthy, nutty tasting and, I think, delicious base that works the same way polenta does: as a great base for sauces or add-ins.

He grills ramps, which are wild onions, or asparagus, puts them on the savory oatmeal, and grates truffled pecorino cheese over the top.

At Heartland, in St. Paul, chef Lenny Russo makes oatmeal pancakes, and tops them with creme fraiche and smoked trout. Stewart Woodman, the chef at Heidi's and the upcoming vegetarian-friendly restaurant Birdhouse, combines oat groats with purple rice as a sort of whole-grain risotto.

The whole foods cookbook author Robin Asbell recommends that you make toasted oatmeal with onions and garlic and stock, pour it into a loaf or pie pan, chill it, and then fry or grill it the way you would a polenta cake.

 Crann:   Grilled oatmeal? Are you sure this isn't a late April Fool's joke?

 DMG:   I'm sure!  But you're not the only one who reacts that way. Adam Vickerman at Cafe Levain told me he mainly does his savory oatmeal as a special, because people will not order it if they see the words printed on a menu card, but they love it when they taste it. I've actually made savory oatmeal a few times at home myself, it's cheap, it's easy, it's local —  it's good! I wouldn't bet money on it, but I really can envision a world where Starbucks and McDonald's have their morning oatmeal cups with fruit, and their evening ones with onions and parmesan.

 Crann:   If it happens, we'll have to have you back to talk about it.  

Oat Groat Porridge
By Stewart Woodman of Heidi's and (the forthcoming) Birdhouse

Oat Groats — the whole, uncut, essentially untouched grain — are gaining in popularity.

"I think of them like boiling peanuts," said Stewart Woodman, chef of Heidi's.  "They have this crunchy exterior, and creamy inside.  I like to soak them for a day or two, you can really push this step. After they're soaked, the key is rinsing them because they can get a slimy film.

"Then, cook for an hour, or an hour-and-a-half, with a little bit of salt in the water. This can be added to sweated onions and purple rice as a sort of whole grain risotto, or served for breakfast with almond milk, toasted hazelnuts, and some shaved chocolate over the top. It's so good it makes your toes curl."   

Savory Oatmeal
By Adam Vickerman of Cafe Levain

Steel-cut oats are the best for risotto-like applications. Steel-cut oats are the whole oat groat, cut into bits; they retain the bran, germ, and endosperm. (Endosperm is the inside of the grain, the part that is most tender. It can be removed and milled into pale flour.)

For Vickerman's savory oatmeal, he starts with steel-cut oats, and toasts them in a skillet with onions.

"I start some onion first in olive oil, and saute it 'til it is golden. Then, add in the steel-cut oats and toast until it starts to get some color. I deglaze the pan with a little white wine, then add mushroom stock, or another stock.  I usually pair that with things that make sense with mushrooms — asparagus, pea tendrils, ramps, or grilled scallions.

"To serve, grate a little truffled pecorino cheese, or another hard cheese like parmesan, over the top."

Oat 'Polenta'
By Robin Asbell, Minneapolis-based cookbook author of "Big Vegan," "Sweet and Easy Vegan Treats Made with Whole Grains and Natural Sweeteners," "New Vegetarian," and "The New Whole Grains Cookbook."

"You can simply cook steel-cut oats in stock instead of water, and season as you would a corn polenta.  You can then chill your oat mixture in a pan until it's set, then slice to grill or saute. The underlying flavors of whole oats are wonderfully sweet and mild, and pair just as well with savory dishes as with sweet."  

Oat Blini with Freshwater Caviar or Smoked Trout
By Lenny Russo of Heartland

Chef Lenny Russo recommends making a standard oat-pancake recipe.

Omit the sweet spices of cinnamon and nutmeg for savory applications. Make small, silver-dollar-sized pancakes, and top each with a dollop of creme fraiche, a bit of smoked trout or freshwater caviar, and a garnish of freshly snipped chives or scallions.