Thursday, July 24, 2008

Desperately Seeking Rolled Oats (photos and video)

Oats have been an important part of our diets for years. We all just love a bowl of thick, uncooked oats with milk or yogurt and nuts or fruit for breakfast, especially Neva. We use oats in our pancakes, our muffins, our breads, and many of our desserts - and that’s just the rolled form, I also grind oats for flour (and of course we cook them in winter for a hot breakfast as well). We knew all along that we would want to find local oats.

Back in March, we were returning by bus from O’Hare when we met another couple and struck up a conversation about our respective trips. Small talk with strangers inevitably leads to the “so where do you live?” and “what do you do?” questions. We learned that they own a farm outside of Paw Paw and grow, among other things, oats and wheat. Although we were still a few months away from beginning our year of eating locally, we were already trying to source the things we knew we would need. So we were excited to learn about the oats.

Then at the end of June, we were going to central Illinois for a wedding and would be driving right past Paw Paw. Of course, Paw Paw is within 100 miles of our home but we wanted to be efficient. So I talked with the farmer, Johnnie, about picking up some oats. I learned that a bushel of oats weighs 32 pounds, and that he charges 50 cents extra to gather them from the top of the grain bin. All-told, we paid $3.50 a bushel for four bushels and also bought some bails of straw to use a garden mulch. Johnnie was friendly and helpful and his kindness was extended further when he insisted on giving us a bouquet of wheat for our table and a bucket of lime to amend the soil in our garden (which I haven’t tested the ph of yet so I don’t know if it needs to be amended for next year!).

Neva enjoyed looking at the freshly-washed combine and walking up to the edge of the wheat and oat fields. I loved standing at the edge of that field of almost-ripe grains and listening to the wind whip it around and watching the waves work their way back and forth across the expanse.

If you watch the video below of the windy wheat field, turn the volume down... the wind makes a terrible racket against the microphone of our little camera.

We brought back our oats and then set about figuring out how to process them. We decided that even if it didn’t work, we were out less than $15 and we could give the oats to someone we know who boards horses. But, if we were successful… we would happily have oats all year!

We had a small hand-operated mill that we could use to grind oats into flour and Kevin’s parents have another one with two metal rollers that would allow us to roll the oats. The first thing we tried was to run the oats through the mill as they were. This created rolled oats with flattened hulls pressed firmly into the groats… not so appetizing. So we needed a method to remove hull from groat. Kevin began researching methods and found that it’s not as easy as removing wheat chaff. Apparently, the process is best done with a spinning stone wheel and the oats dropped from a height or with two stone wheels rotating at a distance from each other. To further complicate matters, oats contain more fat than other grains and so are not shelf stable unless they’ve been heated in a kiln (or steamed in the process of hull removal). If left untreated by heat, the oat groats will turn rancid within four days once the hulls are removed. Here is a link to Wikipedia that describes how it works:

Then a few weeks ago I met someone at Angelic Organics who was picking up her vegetable share and she told me that she once had oats in hulls and had had some success with soaking the grains overnight and then having her kids agitate them underwater. She said the hulls just floated up to the top of the water. I tried that too, even soaking and agitating in turns for 48 hours and far fewer than 50% of the hulls came off, making this method less-than-successful for me.

Now Kevin is looking into mills in the area to try to learn if any process oats. Some, like Graue Mill in Oakbrook, IL, used to process oats back when you couldn’t buy Bob’s Red Mill or Quaker off the shelf but don’t seem to do so anymore. Incidentally, Graue Mill does still grind corn and they make the freshest, finest (in coarse or fine grind) corn meal I’ve ever tasted. I haven’t talked with them yet to determine if the corn they use is local but I intend to do so. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and fondly remember a class field trip to the mill when I was in the fifth grade… my mom has been buying their corn meal ever since.

Back to the oats… we’re still seeking a good way to process them as we look forlornly upon the four large bags in the corner of our kitchen. We haven’t given up yet but I guess we can always do what our friend did when she came to visit last weekend, she just snacked on the grains, hulls and all, and spit out the hull like a sunflower kernel hull. It’s just not the same.

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