There are two schools of thought about Skirlie. First, it is an example of the thrifty Scottish attitude to life – it’s cheap, basic and filling. Second, it’s an example of the poverty of the traditional Scottish imagination when it comes to cuisine. I am a fan of the former point of view rather than the latter, but actually, I don’t think of Skirlie as just a functional food. I love it. If it’s seasoned properly, and cooked properly, it is an amazing dish.
Ordinarily, I serve it on the side, with chicken or fish – I have a picky child who can grumble sometimes about oatmeal on his plate (although he likes porridge – “I know,” he says, “but it’s different.”). It’s a perfect substitute for potatoes or pasta, savoury, substantial and complementary to lots of other flavours. The closest thing I’d compare it to is cous cous but it has more flavour and texture. You can herb it up if you like. It’s gorgeous with sage, thyme or rosemary. It also makes a fabulous stuffing for chicken or turkey if you are so minded.
Traditionally, Skirlie was cooked in a skillet over the fire with animal fat to moisten it. It was a fatty filler food to stave off the cold Scottish weather. I’ve heard it called a heart attack on a plate when it’s done with maximum fattiness but I don’t do it that way. These days a dash of olive oil and a splash of water work fine, and I prefer to put mine in the oven rather than frying it. When it’s done, I add the cooking juices from the meat or fish to it and fluff it up with a fork. A knob of butter would work just as well. It’s also perfect with gravy and is unbelievably good on a leftovers sandwich the day after with mayo to hold it in place (not so healthy but seriously tasty).
Give it a try. If it isn’t something you’ve had before, it’s worth experimenting to see how you like it. Just keep it reasonably moist without turning it into sludge – that’s the key. Anything that works well with cous cous will work well with Skirlie – salads included.
Also, I’ve heard that some people try to make Skirlie with rolled porridge oats. They should be ashamed. This is heinous. The texture is all wrong and will spoil Skirlie for you for life. Skirlie needs to be made with pinhead or coarse oatmeal. If you are going to do it, do it right. (Sorry, I got a bit carried away there. Feel free to use whatever floats your boat. I like course oatmeal best. Just sayin’…)
- 200g of coarse oatmeal
- 1 medium onion finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon of olive oil
- A splash of cold water
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Combine the ingredients in a bowl and mix well.
- There should be sufficient moisture to glue the grains of oatmeal together, with no dry areas evident.
- Spread out in a ceramic or Pyrex baking dish to approximately 2cm deep.
- Cover with loose tinfoil.
- Place in a moderately hot oven for 25 minutes.
- Add the juices from your roast to the dish and combine with a fork.
- Serve and enjoy!