Wednesday, July 15, 2009


In the last few days I have learned a lot about oats. For example: whole oats are called groats. Not impressed? Fine. Here are the main "styles" of processed oats:

  • Rolled oats: steam-rolled flat. I think the most popular style.
  • Steel-cut oats: each groat is cut (by steel, I guess) into a few pieces. Sometimes called Irish oats.
  • Quick Oats: the oats are steel cut and then steam rolled, even flatter than rolled oats, reducing cooking time (hence the name).
Why have I become a scholar of oats? This week Judy brought us a 20kg bag of rolled oats and a 20kg bag of quick oats, both from the Can-Oat mill in Manola, and each costing about $25. While Lisa and I are pushing shopping carts through organic grocery stores and reading labels to try and find local food, Judy is hitting the highway and visiting industrial milling operations and talking to farmers.

As dry goods, our oats will keep for months, as long as we store them in a cool, dry place. Regardless of how well they keep, the simple fact that there is almost a hundred pounds of oats in my house has made me anxious to start figuring out how I can use them. Hence the oat research.

The first information I came across was historical. Several sources that I consulted had a quote from Samuel Johnson's dictionary, which defines oats as a grain "which in England is generally given to horses, but which in Scotland supports the people." Apparently the common Scottish reply went something like, "That's why England produces such fine horses, and Scotland such fine men."

Eventually I found some practical information on consuming large amounts of oats. Here are the down and dirty, super-simple recipes in which I plan to eat my bounty.

Homemade granolaBasic Granola Recipe

  • 2 cups rolled oats
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/8 cup cold-pressed canola oil
  • pinch of salt
Combine all the ingredients and mix with a spatula. Spread evenly on a parchment-lined tray and bake at 325F. Watch the oats around the very edges of the pan. When they are just starting to brown (about eight minutes), remove the tray from the oven. Flip and redistribute the oats as best you can, then return the tray to the oven until, once again, the oats on the perimeter start to brown (roughly another four minutes). Watch carefully: they'll burn quickly. At this point the oats will feel soft and moist, but as they cool they will become crisp. That's just the base. Add dried fruit, nuts, spices, and dairy products as you see fit. I like mine in yoghurt, with dried saskatoons.

Basic Porridge Recipe
  • 1/2 cup quick oats
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 tbsp honey
Combine ingredients in bowl and cook in microwave until milk as been absorbed by oats. Stir to distribute honey. If you're feeling wild you can throw some rolled oats in for more texture.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Ever since Lisa’s mom showed me the chickweed and lamb’s quarters in my driveway, I have been walking the streets of Edmonton with a downward gaze, trying to identify sidewalk creepers and back-alley flowers.

I recently stooped over a new find. A short plant with fingerling leaves similar to anise or dill. Developing flower-heads promised a yellow bloom. I uprooted the plant and smelled the leaves, hoping for the licorice of anise. Instead I was completely overwhelmed by a thick, impossibly sweet and floral odour. It was a familiar smell, both from rural Ontario and Calgary. It was a smell I had often wondered about as a child.

I described the appearance and perfume of the plant to many an “elder.” My mother guessed sweetclover. Judy finally posited chamomile. Sure enough, a Google Images search returned pictures of plants with the same foliage, and flowers that looked just like daisies.

Now that I recognize the plant, I see it on almost every sidewalk, unkempt yard, and alleyway crack. Now, in the second week of July, most of the small plants in driveways have not flowered, but a few choice plants in yards and fields have blossomed into smiling yellow faces wreathed by white petals.

A city website says that scentless chamomile (Matricaria perforata) is a common weed in Edmonton, so I'm inclined to think that this is the variety I keep seeing (even though, as I said, the leaves have a very pronounced scent). The type usually used for tea is German chamomile (Matricaria recutita). I decided to test the tea-worthiness of our local problem-plant.

Most internet sources that I consulted said to use the flowers to make tea. A foraging compendium suggested the leaves. I tried both. The flower makes a passable tea for sure. The leaf brew has a distinct fennel aftertaste.

Part of our local-eating regime has been the denial of certain “exotic items”. These include, predictably, citrus fruit, wine, and chocolate, but the luxury whose absence has caused the most grief has been coffee.

I drink coffee for three reasons: the taste, the caffeine, and the ritual. A number of substitutes can stand in for any one of these traits, but few can replace all three. With chamomile, I thought I was getting closer with a hot drink that would give me a good-morning buzz. Lisa gently corrected me: chamomile is a relaxant, and the principle ingredient in “sleepy time” teas. So it’s the opposite of coffee. At least it will provide ritual: the slow sipping of a hot, floral drink. I’ll settle for that.

The whole experiment has me thinking more about foraging, generally: wondering if I would be able to safely identify edible mushrooms, or perhaps find some wild berry patches. Worth investigating, I think.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Weed-Eater (A Whole New Meaning)

Lisa’s mother, Judy, shared a distant memory from childhood. One spring evening, unexpected visitors came knocking just before dinner, and her mother was in a panic to find food for them. The children were therefore sent out to pick lamb’s quarters, a weed that grew in the yard. Chickweed, too, was occasionally brought to their table.

I listened to this tale with skepticism of two kinds. Firstly that any weed would be pleasant to eat, and secondly that I would find these weeds in my yard. Judy took me to my own alleyway and within ten seconds had identified both lamb’s quarters and chickweed. Thus began the sidewalk sample platter.

The lamb’s quarters had the same creamy texture as spinach. When we took it inside and heated it on the stove it wilted just like spinach, too. The chickweed was a bit tougher, and the slight woody flavour was a constant reminder that I was eating a weed.

When trying to find more edible weeds that grow in Edmonton, I happened upon this rarely-to-almost-never updated website.