For the past three summers I've had the honor of being a guest judge at the Spar for the Spurtle Competition, hosted by Bob's Red Mill and Bob's brilliant crew. I always return inspired in many ways, but before I get to the inspiration, you might be wondering what a spurtle spar is.
A spurtle is a unique, handy Scottish kitchen tool dating back to the 15th century. It's basically a dowel rod about a foot long and an inch or so in diameter. It looks a bit like a long-handled wooden spoon without the spoon part. Spurtles come in dozens of slight variations. Some are tapered, some have flat ends, others are rounded into a slight point. The elongated shape helps to keep oats from lumping up when making porridge, and keeps it moving smoothly while stirring all kinds of thick or sticky mixtures.
As for the spar, three finalists cook off in Portland, Ore. -- complete with bagpipes and a spurtle song -- and the winner goes on to Scotland to compete in the Golden Spurtle World Porridge Making Championship. This year, Paula Todora wowed the judges, including me, Mad Hungry's Lucinda Scala Quinn, and James Beard award-winning chef, Vitaly Paley, with a unique twist on apple pie: Coconut milk-soaked oats mixed with an apple filling, then wrapped in egg roll wrappers and deep-fried to perfection.
I am always inspired by each visit to Bob's Red Mill: I leave wanting to cook more wholesome meals and vowing to eat more whole grains. After several years, I've learned that founder Bob Moore -- a dashing gentleman who loves books, stone flour mills, and whole grains in equal measure -- can run circles around most of us any day. (He will be celebrating his 85th birthday early next year.) Bob told me his secret is whole grains in his diet every single morning. He also emphasized the importance of having passion for what he does every day.
"You have to have a cause," he told me this past August in his office outside of Portland. "My cause is to replace the sad devalued grains on the marketplace with whole grains."
With 400 products (more than 70 gluten-free), Bob's Red Mill is a one-stop whole grain shop of seven acres -- they mill, rigorously test, package, and distribute all under one roof. Bob has established personal relationships with farmers across the country, and his products are now sold in 71 countries. What more could an octogenarian want? A company based on integrity. For Bob's 81st birthday, his present was to give away his company to his employees through an employee share ownership program.
On the day of the cook-off this past August, Bob had already given an early-morning tour of the seven-acre mill before meeting the judges and then on to interviews and photos -- then a moment at the piano where Bob and my fellow judge Lucinda serenaded us, all before 1 p.m. At one point, he held up a handful of freshly-ground flaxseed, nutty and aromatic, and said, "We should all be eating this amount every day."
I came back with newfound vigor and religiously added ground flaxseed to salads and cups of morning fruit and whole grain cereal. I preached the gospel of whole grain goodness to all my neighbors and friends, but they were already converts; Bob's products are available in most supermarkets and natural food stores in Alaska. I also spent the last week experimenting with a whole grain bar that's delicious for breakfast, a pre- or post-workout pick-me-up, or for an after-school treat.
For a giveaway of ingredients to make these bars and a gift certificate for Bob's Red Mill Products, please visit kimsunee.com. And if you think you have a spurtle-worthy recipe using Bob's Red Mill Steel Cut Oats, enter next year's contest.
Whole Grain Fruit and Nut Power Bars
As is, this is vegan-friendly and can also be gluten-free if you choose gluten-free versions of some of the ingredients below. For a more cake-like texture, stir in two eggs* once the applesauce has been added. I really like the crunch of quinoa in this bar, but feel free to experiment with your favorite seeds, nuts and grains.
1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Lightly grease a non-stick, 8-by-8-inch baking pan with olive oil spray.
2. Combine the almond butter, olive oil, and honey together in a small saucepan over medium heat, and stir until just melted and combined. OR, place in a microwave-safe bowl and heat for about 20 seconds or just until the almond butter is smooth. Remove from heat and whisk to combine. Add applesauce, (eggs, if using) and vanilla; set aside.
3. In a large bowl, combine oats, sunflower seeds and remaining dry ingredients and stir to combine. Add the olive oil-almond butter mixture to the dry ingredients in the bowl and stir until well combined. Transfer the mixture into the prepared pan, spreading with a rubber spatula or pressing with your hands to create an even layer. Bake for 40 minutes or until firm and golden. Let cool completely in pan; cut into squares or rectangles and serve. Store, once completely cooled, in an airtight container or plastic re-sealable bag.
Kim Sunée is the author of the national bestseller, "Trail of Crumbs: Hunger, Love, and the Search for Home." She worked as a food editor for the magazines Southern Living and Cottage Living, and her writing has appeared in Food & Wine, The Oxford American, and Asian American Poetry and Writing. She has appeared several times as a guest judge on Food Network's "Iron Chef America" and is currently based in Anchorage, where she's working on a cookbook to be published in 2014. For more food and travel, visit www.kimsunee.com.