Spring is the time of year when my cooking enthusiasm gets a shot in the arm from the wonderful fresh products that begin to appear in the local markets. I am just back from a bike trip in Italy, where baby radicchio, the famed white asparagus of Bassano del Grappa, and fresh peas were just making their first appearances. Asparagus season is right around the corner here as well. I was looking forward to working some of these ingredients into my dishes back home.
The spring weather is finally warm enough to move my bike off of my indoor trainer and being enjoying rides in the great outdoors. The next few months bring a lot of time on the road, as I train for the Pan Mass Challenge, a two day, 200 mile ride to raise money for cancer research. Fueling the body for the long hours in the saddle training, and during the ride itself, is a huge part of the preparation. Carbohydrate intake is very important, and I prefer to avoid the highly processed white breads and starches in favor of whole grains. A little more time consuming to cook, harder to find in the grocery story, but certainly worth the time when you consider all the health benefits, and of course the wonderful dishes you can create with these.
Whole grains are not a key part of the cuisine in Italy. You will find barley, rice and farro. But I am discovering that many of these grains can be prepared easily using a classic Italian technique – a risotto. I’ve included several recipes in past posts for rice risottos, as well as a barley risotto (orzotto) traditionally prepared in Friuli, and a farro risotto. Here’s a new one, using steel-cut oatmeal as the grain.
Oats are not used often in Italian cooking or baking; I think most Italians would consider this animal fodder, although it is commonly found in the muesli that is part of almost every hotel breakfast buffet in Italy. Steel-cut oats are the whole grain version of your morning instant oatmeal. Called groats, they are the inner portion of the oat kernal, which have been cut into 3 to 4 pieces. They are commonly used in Scotland or Ireland to make a breakfast porridge, and take longer to cook than either instant or rolled oats, typically 15-20 minutes. You can reduce the cooking time by a presoak. They have a nuttier flavor and a chewier texture than the more processed versions, both an improvement in my mind.
The health benefits of oats are fairly well publicized, thanks to Quaker. LDL “bad” cholesterol levels are reduced, and the high amount of soluble fiber in oats slows digestion of starch, helping to control blood sugar levels and so can aid diabetics.
Oats are also a good source of insoluble fiber, which can lower the risk of cancer, as well as vitamin E, zinc, selenium, copper, iron, manganese, and magnesium. Steel cut oats, as they are less processed, may hold even greater nutritional value than rolled oats.
So here is my latest recipe – a spring vegetable “risotto”, using steel-cut oats instead of rice. Asparagus, radicchio, spring onion, peas and pistachios, and a bit of pecorino cheese. A great side dish for dinner to accompany a roast chicken or grilled fish, and a wonderful lunch the next day topped with a fresh poached egg! Asparagus and eggs are a very traditional combination in Italy.
Spring Oat Risotto with Peas, Radicchio, Asparagus & Pecorino
4 cups unsalted chicken stock
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 spring onion, halved, sliced thin
12 ounces asparagus, peeled, thick end snapped off, and cut into 1 inch pieces
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups steel-cut oats
1 cup white wine
1 cup baby peas, fresh or frozen
1/2 head radicchio, thinly sliced
1 cup grated Pecorino Romano
1/2 cup pistachios, chopped
Kosher salt, to taste
Bring the stock to a boil in a large pot. Reduce heat to a very low simmer
Heat the butter and olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the onion and asparagus, and cook until slightly soft, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic; cook for 1 minute, just until aromatic.
Add the oats to the pan, and stir for about 1 minute, allowing them to toast a bit. Add the wine, and simmer until it has evaporated.
Stir in a ladelful of the stock. Cook, stirring frequently. When almost all of the stock has been absorbed, add another ladelful. Continue adding the stock a ladelful at a time, and allowing it to be absorbed by the oats before adding more. Cook until the oats are just tender to the bite. You may not use all of the stock; but that is all right. Stop cooking before the oats get mushy.
Stir in the peas, radicchio, and cheese. Cook until the peas are heated through and the radicchio begins to soften, about 2 minutes. Season with salt.
Divide between 6 serving plates, garnish with the pistachios, drizzle with a bit of olive oil (or truffle oil) and and serve.
For breakfast, check out Ken Rivard and Jody Adams recipe for Steel-Cut Oats with Eggs, Preserved Lemons and Olives.