by: Chef Jim Berman
My younger daughter is, and always has been, quite taken by the color yellow. Yellow teddy bears. Yellow butterfly stickers. Yellow paper for which to make her favorite friend's birthday card. She insists on the yellow set of badly marred, well-worn plastic fork and knife set for every meal. "Is the dishwasher clean?" you can hear before any meal, "I need my stuff." Yellow is her signature color, if a five year-old is needing of a signature color. And besides, it's rather cute. So it was of no surprise that as we made our way across the just greening hills of central Pennsylvania westward towards rural Ohio, that she took notice of the pre-mowed rest stop ramp runways. More importantly, that rather large grassy fields that border the exit lane into the $3-a-cup-tepid-and-abominable coffee rest stop, that were absolutely blanketed with dandelions in all their glory. The sun was just peering over the rim of the Blue Mountain range when the sleepy-eyed, feety-pajama clad Olivia asked to pull over.
"Are you hungry? Do you need something to drink?" given that it was just after 5am when we started to head west, it was probably time for the days first sugar course.
"No," in not much more than a whisper, "there is a lot of pickin' to do" she whispered.
"All the yellow flowers out there. They would make the car pretty. They are yellow."
"Well, how about something to eat first? Then we can talk about a bouquet" hoping to distract to her, in the meantime slipping in to the pizza-coffee-gas convenience stop that conveniently never has anything other than pizza for breakfast.
One picked flower and back on the road. But, I got to thinking; I am dangerous that way. Everyday insidious, weeds that I do my best to rid from our much-trampled garden hold fascination for the Yellow Princess. How many times this spring and summer will we cross the path of some dandelion tuft, holding on to soil for all it's worth? I use the rechargeable Toro Weed Eater to eliminate the interlopers or the unleaded version by gently tugging at their roots with leathery gloves. But, for Olivia, they are much more than weeds. They are flowers. Weed or not, they are yellow, look pretty and, apparently, every one that we see between the Delaware and Ohio Rivers belong in the car. And as the mountainous, winding climb through Summerset, Pa continued, so did my mind wander. What else do I see nearly everyday that I dismiss while somebody else holds near as riches? One man's junk is another man's treasure, and all that. More importantly, how does it pertain to food?
Sure, some people relish Wonder Bread while others would not even entertain the thought of going within 6 blocks of bread unless it was created in the artisinal fashion, naturally leavened and baked no less than 45 minutes in a brick oven. What are the dandelions of my kitchen? And how do I turn that around? Can I string together an once of goodness for myself from my daughter's example? Or am I destined to a lifetime of food snobbery, roaming the aisles of Dean & Deluca, Gourmet Garage, Zagara's, Fresh Fields and farmers' markets with micro-harvests to satisfy my ravenous appetite for really excellent ingredients? Well, the trip is about 8 hours long and there is about 2 hours behind us. So, I have six hours today and the next 3 nights and four days to think about it; there are not any televised Indians home games scheduled for broadcast, so I will have plenty of time to spare. I will start with breakfast.
Innocent enough, breakfast is a grand affair for some, a requisite grab 'n go for others and a complete aversion for yet another group. I prefer grand affair, but the school bell rings promptly at 7:35, so most days it is a banana and a toasted bagel on a flimsy paper plate on my lap behind the wheel moving northbound. But, on Sunday, for instance, I prepare the breakfast that we talk about the rest of the week. Not that it is much of a production, but it is usually some culmination of whatever I was reading about earlier in the week. Either some fun scones from Molly Katzen or a tasty hash from the Jamison's Real American Breakfast. Or, if I am in a particularly well rested state, it might be thick slabs of French Toast cut from the bread that took a ridiculously long time to start, knead, ferment, proof, rise and bake the previous day or two. But, lately I have been dallying around with oats. Not the salty, mushy cook in a minute kind, but steel cut oats. Also know as Irish or Scottish Oats, they are about a third of the size of a grain of white rice and twice its width, generally with a tan stripe appearing to divide the kernel into two equal halves. They are the product of the oat grain in that the husk has been removed and the remainder has been cut.
Had I discovered my dandelion? What does oatmeal offer me in the form of gastronomic appeal that I previously had cast aside? I dig deeper for nutritional information, only because it would prove to be requisite should I elect to become oatmeal's ambassador to the culinary hall of fame. It does pack an awful lot of protein compared to other flaky cereals. And the fiber makes it supreme, high ruler of cholesterol lowering superheroes. So my cardiologist said on my last visit.
"Lay off the Sugar Frosted Crunch Yummies and eat oatmeal, Berman. It will keep your cholesterol down" he ordered, adding "an you could stand to loose that tire above your belt."
"Thanks, Doc. You have such a way with words."
My new cardiologist agrees, however.
But, if it does nothing for my eclectic and well-trained palate, it does not fulfill the desire for me to pull the car off the road and trounce through the field hoping to come upon some blossoming oatmeal plants. I must, somehow, parlay the nutritional case for oatmeal into my wonton desire to actually eat the stuff and, more importantly, adore it, like another yellow flower.
My case for steel cut oats uses the following recipe. Feel free to substitute rolled oats, if you must, but the rule goes that 2 parts liquid for 1 part oats, versus the steel cut variety that soaks up close to three parts liquid. You can also speed along the process by pre-soaking the steel cut variety the night prior, but what's the rush?
Sunday Morning Steel Cut Oatmeal Breakfast (serves 5):
3 ½ Cups, Water
2 Cups, Steel Cut oats
½ Cup, Buttermilk (low-fat version, if the cardiologist and/or wife is watching)
2 oz, Butter
Pinch of salt
Bring the water to a boil and stir in the oats. Allow to boil for 5 minutes then reduce heat to simmer. Stir in the buttermilk, butter and salt. Cook for a total of 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Ladle into bowls and top with any of the following:
Cinnamon apple oatmeal topper (see below), dried fruit (cranberries, apricots, dates), heavy cream, more buttermilk, pecans, honey, butter, brown sugar, cherry preserves, multi-colored sprinkles, a pinch of nutmeg, maple syrup or fresh berries. On Sunday mornings, we set out a build-your-own oatmeal bowl with little dollops of various toppings and let the kids go at it. The cooked apples can be prepared a day or two prior to eliminate a few steps on a sleepy, Sunday morning.
Cinnamon Apple Oatmeal Topper:
4 medium to large Granny Smith apples
2 Tablespoons, butter
½ Tablespoon, ground cinnamon
1 Tablespoon, granulated sugar
Core and peel the apples and cut into 1/16 wedges. In a large enough skillet, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the apples to the hot butter and toss about for 3-4 minutes, until the apples just yield to pressure. Season with the cinnamon and sugar and continue to cook another minute. The resulting cooked apples should be firm, not mushy, to contrast the soft texture of the cooked oats.
McCanns Irish Oats (www.mccanns.ie) is an old time source for the real deal. They are straight out of Ireland and legendary for their product. There are recipes on their site, as well as an informative demonstration of the milling process. And, they do not spare the tips that use their product. For instance, they offer up tossing the grains into your food processor to further reduce the size of the oatmeal to speed along cooking time. Again, I ask, though, what is the rush? Take time to smell the dandelions.
You might stumble upon steel cut oats in your better markets, but no need to get pretentious with these once ill-gotten grains. Try a health food store or the cereal aisle.
Up from humble beginnings, oatmeal has come a long way since first hitting the northeast in the 17th century. And it took well under 400 years for this cook to weave an elaborate thread between yellow, dandelion fields in their understated beauty and the often-overlooked treasure found in oatmeal. And Olivia agrees, on both. Although, she much prefers a little vase of dandelions on her windowsill rather than a lukewarm bowl of oatmeal basking in the sunlight.
 As if nearly all of Ohio isn't rural! I take along Harold McGee, Alton Brown, and Jeffrey Steingarten, in print of course, to keep me company while one hour sheepishly and uneventfully falls into the next. If I am lucky, there is a Cleveland Indians game on the black and white that is just barely discernable through the electronically charged snowfall that most TVs in these parts seem subject.
 Micro harvest, referring to road-side stands and established markets that sell whatever was in the field earlier this morning, but not large enough bounties to sell to the big guys. My term, but feel free to use it as you like
 Not really a blossoming plant. It is more the runt of the wheat growing fields and as such, is in its majority served to livestock.