Cereal thriller

Eating oats doesn't mean doing porridge. There are plenty of ways to enjoy this most healthy of foods, explains Mark Hix
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It looks like we're getting our oats at last. I mean, when even McDonald's is doing them, you know they're making a comeback. My gran was right all along. A bowl of porridge really is a great start to the day and does seem to keep the cold out. Although I grew up on the south coast, as far from Scotland as can be, I learned to appreciate the connection between oats and golf. As a skinny kid, I'd be out straight after breakfast playing golf in gale-force winds straight off the sea, with no weatherproof gear on. I never was one for golf fashion and I'm still not, although I wouldn't mind a vintage, Fairisle diamond Pringle sweater if I could get my hands on one.

Which leads me to Scotland, where a couple of months ago I visited the Medlock family, who produce oatmeal at Alford Mill in Aberdeenshire. Their organic stone-ground oats are far removed from your typical packet of instant porridge. Entirely run on water, it's the only existing mill of its kind in Scotland and has been operating for 180 years. There isn't a single piece of modern technology in sight. The only noise is the soothing sound of the water-driven machinery working steadily away. The oats are even dried by coal-fired kilns and stirred by hand so they dry evenly.

I took the oat route to Ireland, too, where, at Macroom in Cork, Donal Creedon has also kept family tradition going at his restored mill. His oatmeal is unique as he roasts the husks before they are milled which gives the oats a subtle toasted flavour. He eats porridge made with his Macroom oatmeal seven days a week and supplies flour to Darina and Myrtle Allen at the Ballymaloe Cooking School, and Declan Ryan's Arbutus Bread company, which you will find at farmers' markets in Cork, and at Neal's Yard Dairy shops in London.

Because it's a resilient crop, able to survive in poorer soil and cooler climates than wheat, oats are still the most important cereal in Scotland and Ireland. But it's for the health benefits that they're becoming popular again. Oatmeal, oat bran and whole oats are excellent sources of soluble fibre, which can help lower cholesterol and so reduce the risk of heart disease, and they have plenty of insoluble fibre too, which is good for digestion.

There are many ways to use them in cooking. Recently the cereal people Jordans held a press breakfast in our private room and challenged us to make more of them than porridge. We served cranachan, the Scottish dessert made with cream, honey, whisky and oats. It was a little early in the day for whisky so we left that out. We also made a stiff porridge and set it, then cut it out into fingers and pan fried it in butter like polenta and served them with Dorset blueberries and yoghurt. And of course we made flapjacks, using the recipe below. But it's not just at breakfast or tea time that you can get the benefits of oats. Here's how you can benefit from oats at any mealtime.

Flapjacks

Makes about 20

Flapjacks are handy to keep in the biscuit tin as a natural, no-preservative snack for kids and grown ups. Phil, our pastry chef, created these for the Jordans breakfast, tweaking the classic recipe slightly by adding different seeds and nuts. You can make your own variation by using other nuts, and could even toast them a little before making the mix.

100g unsalted butter
150g golden syrup
150g light brown sugar
A few drops of vanilla essence
200g oats
30g pumpkin seeds
30g sesame seeds
30g sunflower seeds
30g pistachio nuts
30g whole almonds
60g chopped dried apricots

Mix the oats, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, pistachio nuts, whole almonds and the chopped dried apricots together in a bowl. Bring the butter, golden syrup, light brown sugar and the vanilla essence to the boil in a saucepan and remove from the heat. Pour this over the seeds and nuts and stir in until well mixed. Line a 25-27cm x 15-16cm x 3-4cm deep tray with buttered greaseproof or silicone paper. Pre-heat the oven to 180C/Gas mark 5.

Spoon the mixture into the tray and press down evenly. Cook for 10-12 minutes until golden. Leave to cool then turn out and cut into fingers or squares.

Herrings in oatmeal

Serves 4

This is a classic way to cook fresh herrings, and now we know it's doubly healthy, because of the fish's oils. Although you don't see herrings around as much nowadays as you used to, as stocks have somewhat diminished due to over-fishing, there are sustainable fisheries, such as the Thames Herring Fishery (visit www.msc.org for more details), which has been approved by the Marine Stewardship Council. Ask your fishmonger to split the herrings like a kipper and remove as many of the small bones as possible, or if the herrings are large they can be filleted.

Mackerel are still plentiful and cheap and you could use them instead.

4 herrings weighing about 250-300g
60-80g fine oatmeal
50g butter
Lemon wedges for serving
Salt and freshly ground white pepper

Season the herrings and press them into the oatmeal on the skin and flesh side brushing off any excess. Heat the butter in a heavy frying pan and cook the herrings for 3-4 minutes on each side until golden.

Serve with lemon wedges. With plain boiled potatoes and spinach you have a simple, healthy and delicious meal.

Roast guinea fowl with haggis and oat stuffing

Serves 4-6

Of all the haggis I've tasted on my travels, two were streets ahead. One is Simon Howie's (Findony, Muckhart Road, Dunning, Perthshire, 01764 684332, www.simonhowiefoods.co.uk), which is also sold under the Scottish Haggis Company name, and the other is Stuart Houston's (JB Houston, Greenbrae Loaning, Dumfries, 01387 255528, www.jbhouston.co.uk) made in Dumfries with Scottish blackface lamb. Haggis, mixed with more oats instead of breadcrumbs, makes a really good stuffing for game, poultry and pork. The idea for this came to me from Higginson's butchers in Grange-over-Sands in Cumbria. Stuart Higginson had chicken breasts stuffed with haggis in the shop window, called something like chicken McHaggis or something corny like that.

2 guinea fowl weighing about a kilo each
500g good quality haggis
1tbsp oatmeal
2tbsp chopped parsley
A couple of knobs of butter, softened
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 onion, peeled and quartered
1 leek, cut into chunks and washed
2 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
1/2tbsp flour
1tbsp whisky
500ml chicken stock

Pre-heat the oven to 230C/gas mark 8. Mix the haggis, oats and parsley together and push the stuffing into the cavity of the guinea fowl. Put the vegetables into a roasting tray, rub the guinea fowl with butter and season. Place the guinea fowl on the vegetables, breasts facing up and cook for 15 minutes. Turn the oven down to 200C/Gas mark 6 and continue cooking for 40 minutes, basting occasionally. Transfer the guinea fowl to a plate then put the roasting tray on a low heat on the stove top. Stir the flour into the vegetables and gradually add the whisky and stock, stirring well. Simmer for about 10 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened and strain through a fine meshed sieve.

Serve the guinea fowl, either chopped in half with the stuffing and sauce spooned on to serving plates, or you could remove the legs and breasts. I prefer the messy chopped in half version myself. Serve with bashed neeps, autumn greens and roast potatoes

Root vegetable crumble

Serves 4-6

This savoury crumble makes a great midweek supper or you could have it with the Sunday roast. Now's the time to be making the most of root vegetables, and you can use any seasonal roots in the recipe. Or add a little Caribbean influence by using sweet potatoes and plantain and even more spices.

1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1tsp thyme leaves
1tsp cumin seeds
50g butter
1tbsp flour
1 litre vegetable stock
1 medium parsnip, peeled and cut into rough 2cm chunks
1 small swede, peeled and cut into rough 2cm chunks
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into rough 2cm chunks
2 medium turnips, peeled and cut into rough 2cm chunks
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

for the crust

1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
60g butter
50-60g fresh white breadcrumbs
2tbsp finely grated mature Cheddar, or Lancashire cheese
40g flaked oats
2tbsp chopped parsley

Gently cook the onion, garlic, thyme and cumin in the butter for 2-3 minutes until soft. Add the flour and stir well then gradually stir in the vegetable stock a little at a time to prevent lumps forming. Add the vegetables, season and simmer for 20-25 minutes until the vegetables are tender. There should be just enough sauce left to bind the vegetables, if not turn the heat up and reduce the sauce a little.

Meanwhile make the crust: gently cook the onion and garlic in the butter for 2-3 minutes until soft. Transfer to a food processor, add the breadcrumbs, cheese and parsley, season and blend for 5-6 seconds. Remove from the machine and mix in the oats. Pre-heat the oven to 200C/Gas mark 6. Transfer the vegetables to an oven-proof dish or gratin dish and spoon on the topping to cover the vegetables. Bake for 30-40 minutes until golden.

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