Steel Cut Oats with Asparagus and the Merits of Uncomplicated-Yet-Still-Good Meals

Simple. Healthful. Delicious.

I’m talking about sliced asparagus topped with fried pancetta, on a bed of steel cut oats.

Who needs a recipe for something as easy as that? (Some do, if only for the methods, and I will happily oblige at the end of this post.)

People underestimate the value of their taste buds and instincts in the kitchen. I know that too well having been cooking-challenged for most of my life. I didn’t even bother to cook, because I (and everyone else) knew I was incapable. I was the one family members would silently worry about because I had no interest in spending time in the kitchen. Part of the reason for that was because cooking was not only a daunting chore, I was also afraid of the judgments to be made with the way I cook and the end product of my rare culinary attempt. The thought of cooking anything that does not provoke victorious gasps among meal partakers was just too much to bear.

So what changed? As much as I cannot stand to watch Rachel Ray these days, I used to like her pre-pre-Oprah…in her $40 A Day days when extended cable was my friend. Then I caught a few episodes of 30-Minute Meals when it started, when I had Food Network on all day, like…all day. Finally in September 2006, I found the very first recipe in my twenty-something adult life that, for some crazy reason, made me try cooking. It was..drum roll…Rachel Ray’s “You Won’t Be Single For Long Vodka Cream Pasta [The name of the dish still make me cringe]. Perhaps, I didn’t have to hide under the kitchen sink when asked who wasted all the ingredients with that kind of cooking. It was actually quite good, now that I looked at my blog entry then (not here). I enjoyed it so much that I cooked it again with linguine with sliced beef sausage and ham:

Yes, this is the actual photo I took of the 2nd dish I cooked, back in October 2, 2006 (thanks to Flickr and my blog archive, I don't have to commit everything to memory). It's inspired by Rachel Ray's "You Won't Be Single For Long Vodka Cream Pasta."

I’m much more confident in my cooking these days, and can make something out of whatever is available. The kitchen and I, we’re like bread and butter now. Cooking and baking relax me, like meditative symphonies, and the outcome is something that others can enjoy–everyone’s happy.

Ms. I-Don’t-Cook, I am no more. Good-bye to the days of subsisting solely on someone else’s cooking, or making reservations for dinner so I can have my crème brulée fix. Today, I’m the one who misses cooking at home when I travel. I’m the one gently encouraging to friends and family to try recipes, because cooking good food could be so very easy AND delicious. It doesn’t take a magician or a day of labor.

And it took Rachel Ray to inspire me to get out of my (non-cooking) shell.

Recently, she and Jamie Oliver have been called out in this article as advertising and marketing “on behalf of the processed food industry.

Jamie, for one, has promoted real food for the longest time. Both their recipes can be really quick, but they are a far cry from Hungry Man and Lean Cuisine dinners. Quick and easy meals may raise the eyebrows of food snobs, but the bottomline is:

Rachael Ray and Jamie Oliver bring people to the kitchen.

Jamie’s Food Revolution has stirred interest in the school lunches of America, and the way people eat in general. People need to start somewhere, and if these two can bring people home from the takeout/drive-thru line and out with their pots in front of their stoves and to the dining tables, then so be it.

A lot of us in the online food blogging circles take the time to cook, because first and foremost, we already love to cook. I have to constantly remind myself when I write and post recipes that, not everyone is like me. It is so easy to get tunnel vision when you live a certain lifestyle, are comfortable, and have time to ruminate on the good things in life, or how you could be less busy to make meals, but…

People do get busy. And tired. And lazy on some days. I don’t have kids, I don’t have any obligation to cook for anyone or attend to anyone, I work from home, and YET, there would still be days when I am just too swamped with work, too exhausted, and too famished to cook. I speed dial the pizza place. Or I take some French bread, slice some cheese, rinse some fruits, open a bottle of wine and call it Joy’s Awesome Dinner. There would be week-long stove lulls in favor of eating out with friends and re-heating take-outs, meeting work deadlines or riding over the lazy days. I’m sure you’ve had that. I can’t imagine what it must be like for parents who both work and have kids, and no sitter.

And then, there are so many people who don’t know where or how to begin cooking. And this could be for a variety of reasons: they never cooked, they don’t like cooking, they couldn’t care less about cooking, didn’t grow up around people who cook, etc. I  grew up with good food and family and household help who cook, and I was lucky enough to have learned the basics in school, and we even had meal-planning as part of our Home Economics subject. We even had to come up with our own recipe! It was a drag then, I admit. University was a cooking write-off, limited to a one-range stove to make breakfast, boil water for ramen, re-heat take-out, and make the occasional leche flan.

If you told me 5 years ago that I have to learn cooking for my own good, I would have brushed you off (and something worse that’s for your imagination). I wouldn’t see you eye to eye. Someone who loves to cook take joy in even talking about food, while someone who doesn’t would think the food lover needs to shut up about the juicy, garden fresh tomatoes already. Try to feed someone some good, simple, home-cooked meals and at one point or another you could get a conversation going about how easy it is to make and they could make it, too. It’s a process. You can’t push it, but you’ll just have to try and it’s not a chore for you because it’s something you love to do.

I used to avoid cooking at all costs. I progressed from a kitchen miser because of an inspiration. Oh, love! My approach to food is romantic at its very core. I’m not trying to make people cook or bake if they really don’t want to. I would love for people to appreciate good food, if not love it. Food is not only physical nourishment, but a body of more than the sum of all its ingredients–with it comes conversation, momentous occasions, a time to pause and relax, a wink, a smile…memories!

Of course, not every meal could bring butterflies in your stomach or be imprinted on your mind, but it can be enjoyed…alone, with company, to celebrate something, to banish a bad day, or seal a good one. Food can be that good. And it doesn’t have to be complicated, such as Asparagus with Steel Cut Oats.

Here’s the “Un-Recipe” for 2 vegetarian loving eaters, or 3 to 4 people enjoying this as a side dish:

For the asparagus: Wash about 450 grams of medium asparagus spears to make 2 cups, sliced. Slice diagonally, about a third to a quarter of a centimeter in thickness. In medium heat, melt a tablespoon of unsalted butter in a large frying pan until froth starts to turn brown. Saute asparagus for a few minutes until the bottom of the pan is almost dry. Add a tablespoon of water and allow to steam. Add 3 more, evaporating in between additions. Add salt and pepper to taste. Eat as is, with rice, quinoa, or with cooked steel cut oats and top with some fried-till-crisp pancetta or bacon for flavor.

Cooking steel cut oats (also called Irish or coarse-cut oats) as a stand-in for rice: Place 1/2 cup of steel cut oats with 1 cup of water in a small pot and cook in med-high heat. Once it boils, lower the heat to medium-low and cook for about 10 minutes or more, until you reach the doneness you prefer (I like it really chewy). Add water by the tablespoons if needed. I typically cook it like this when I am going to eat it for something savory. For breakfast, I go with the 1:3 oats to water ratio.

Do you have any favorite dishes that require no recipes? I’d love to know, so please share them in the comments!

7 Responses to “Steel Cut Oats with Asparagus and the Merits of Uncomplicated-Yet-Still-Good Meals”

  1. Wendy says:

    I never think of using steel-cut oats for savory dishes–great thinking!! My new favorite quick springtime dish is very similar: two eggs (poached or fried) with a generous serving of either roasted asparagus or wilted spinach with a good dose of garlic, all served up on a bed of quinoa. Depending on how I cook the eggs and on the vegetable, I grate some parmesan on top or melt a little sharp cheddar into the eggs or onto the quinoa. The quinoa serves the same purpose as the steel cut oats, I suppose, with a similar texture.

    Sounds more complicated when I write it all out! What goes through my head, though, is: veg, eggs, quinoa, flavor. EAT.

    • joy says:

      Oh my, I love it!!! You just gave me an idea for Monday brunch: poached egg with steamed spinach (I didn’t buy asparagus this week) and quinoa. Mmm…I can’t wait to sleep and wake up and cook. Haha…I really need to get to bed soon.

      The first time I cooked steel cut oats, the first thing I thought was I could use it for risotto. :)

  2. robyn says:

    Oh wow! That last picture is perfection. I would have never thought of pairing asparagus with oatmeal. But it sure looks good!

    • joy says:

      Thanks, Robyn! One of my extended grandmas (my grandmother’s sister) fully replaced her rice with oatmeal, according to doctor’s orders. I tried it, and loved it (except for the mush of oatmeal. I experimented with steel cut oats, since I like its texture better, and voila! It’s great to try new things. :)

  3. snacksgiving says:

    Never thought of pairing asparagus and oats..It looks great!
    .-= snacksgiving´s last blog ..Life after coffee =-.

  4. msj says:

    Hi Joy, the 1st picture (steel-cut oats with asparagus) is excellent: you almost want to pry it out and eat it :-)
    Absolutely delightful reading and eating! Keep up the nice blogs flowing.

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