Wednesday, January 28, 2009

SNOW AND IRISH SODA BREAD

As I write this, snow is pouring down across the southwest corner of the state, as it has been doing all morning—7-inches on the ground already and counting; by far the heaviest snowfall of the season. Here along the river, we’ve actually received less snow (so far) than folks just a few miles south. Still, the river looks like something from Currier and Ives, or maybe a work by Robert Duncan, who paints a lot of snow scenes and, better than anyone I know, does a terrific job of rendering snow to look real—light and fluffy, rounded and mounded, shadows just right. The island across from the cottage is indistinct, at times almost invisible, fuzzy behind the moving curtain of falling snow. The light is flat and dim making snow and sky blend into one. The feeling is of a murky, condensed world in which there are no horizons, just a small clarity in a misty landscape that fades to uncertain boundaries, nebulous, amorphous, so vague you think it all might end a step beyond the obscured boundaries of your sight. Downstream, at the bend, three great blue heron have decided to fish together. The big birds are standing along the far bank, equally spaced about five feet apart. Though these “blue” herons typically appear more gray than blue, today, in the light and against the backdrop of snow, they live up to their namesake. I like winter. And I like winter most of all when it’s snowing. There’s a deliciously threatening quality to a good snowfall, an impending sense of forced adventure that always makes me want to huddle inside, snug and warm, where I peer out from my refuge at a transfigured landscape—lovely, harsh, stark, menacing, breathtaking. Winter isn’t any fun unless you have at least one good snowfall sufficient to close businesses and schools, halt all but the reckless and snow-savvy from trying to drive, while pitching the TV talking heads into a blathering frenzy. As always, when I looked out and this morning and saw what was happening—the whole glorious extent of the unfolding weather drama—I immediately went into survival mode. Not that there was really much of anything to survive, of course, except another mediocre Buckeye snow which probably wouldn’t even be noticed by the folks in Minnesota or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. What can I say? Sometimes a man with deep Celtic roots has to give in to those vestigial tremors in his blood, the restless stirring of some ancient DNA. In days of yore, I might have hied myself off to the snowy woods and slain a mighty stag. Mighty stags not being in great abundance hereabouts, I instead set to making a kettle of hearty beef stew—the sort of stew which can be served on a plate and eaten with a fork; big chunks of beef roast, potatoes, carrots, and onions, in almost equal proportions. When it comes to food, I am an unabashed peasant. If you’re taking my order or serving me a meal, I’ll eat what the countryman is having—the fellow who works the land, faces weather and circumstance as it comes, knows something of the natural world around his bailiwick—sky and birds, trees, grass, water, soil. A man who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, or stain a shirt with sweat. If the countrified cook is also a hunter/gatherer, every so often supplementing the table with a taste of the wild…so much the better. My idea of good food is fresh, in season, and simply prepared with a minimum of ingredients and fuss. Nothing beats a good beef stew during a snowstorm…and you can’t have a good beef stew without good and appropriate bread; something rough, heavy, able to sop up the rich juices. Corn bread (not—OHMYGODNO!—sweet cornbread…ugh!), hoecakes (again…gag, gag, double ugh, not sweet!), cat head biscuits, bannock bread (especially if you’re making your stew while camping), or Irish soda bread. Today I decided on the latter. If you look on the Internet you’ll find about a gazillion recipes for Irish soda bread. At least half of them are nothing of the sort…not even close to the real thing. And to put it bluntly, if an Irish soda bread recipe calls anything other than four ingredients—flour, baking soda, salt, buttermilk—it isn’t Irish soda bread. It may be tasty, but it isn’t authentic. There’s a dandy site at www.sodabread.us/index.htm that delves into the history and parameters of Irish soda bread and its making. My own recipe calls for a daub more buttermilk, but is otherwise identical to the one on this site. I bake my soda bread at 425 degrees in a preheated oven, and instead of using a Dutch oven as a baking container (my Dutch oven normally resides in the attic with the rest of my camping gear), I employ a cast iron skillet, and place a second skillet, turned upside-down, on it as a lid during the initial half hour of baking. This makeshift arrangement works perfectly. Here’s my recipe: 4 cups all purpose flour 1 teaspoon baking soda 1 teaspoon salt 16 ounces buttermilk I like King Arthur’s organic unbleached flour; never use self-rising flour. I mix the dry ingredients with a whisk. Then I stick my cast iron skillet in the pre-heated oven for a minute or so to allow it to warm. While that’s happening, I measure out and add my buttermilk, stir everything together, and turn the slightly sticky dough lump onto a countertop dusted with flour. Knead the dough no more than a minute, and form it into a flattened circle, about an inch-and-a-half or slightly more, thick, and about the same diameter as the skillet’s bottom. For authenticity, slice a crosshatch in the top of the rounded dough. Remove the heated skillet, grease it lightly, bottom and sides, with butter (or I suppose, having never used the stuff, one of those sprays) and place your bread in the skillet. Put the skillet in the oven, turn the other skillet over and place it atop, lid-like, and give it 30 minutes at 425. Remove the lid (inverted skillet) and give it another 15 minutes. Your bread should sound hollow when thumped. That’s it! Real easy, real good, and the real thing. And it goes great with a pot of hearty beef stew on a snowy winter day. Yum, yum!

10 comments:

giggles said...

Ok , well... I'm not gonna try something new, like your soda bread, tonight.... But I am inspired to make some shortbread! Thanks for the inspiration!

PS...I spied a different bird today...not exactly sure who...maybe a pine siskin or some sort of sparrow not prevalent around here... It was at the finch feeder, but no red or purple on it, so I think not a house/purple finch....and definately not a goldfinch... I know those pretty well... I'll keep my eyes open for more visits!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Giggles…

Stew and soda bread was delicious. Give the bread a try sometime—I bet you'll like it. Later in the day, I took a slice, pulled it into small chunks, put about three peach halves atop (like strawberry shortcake) poured over some of the juice, added a dollop of whipped cream…pretty good.

Had all sorts of birds here—including robins (first ever actually at the feeder area) and a few pine siskins, which aren't too common here either. And maybe a snowbird, though I got only a glimpse and can't claim it for sure.

Stay warm!

gig said...

Your ad lib sounds delish! Will definately give soda bread a whirl...!

Snowbird? I'll have to look that one up...never heard of it!

We have a sheen of ice over the remainder of snow that didn't melt...but the kids do go back to school today.... yay!

The Solitary Walker said...

Mmm... Sounds good. We made a beef stew the other day and it was absolutely delicious. Will try the soda bread recipe and let you know how I got on...

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Gig? Are we now "Gig? " A Giggles by another name?

Anyway…yes the bread variation was excellent. I intend to do it again next time I make this bread.

Hey, don't let my "snowbird" throw you. I was referring to the snow bunting. Snowbird is what a lot of folks call them, what I've heard all my life.; the bird in the title of the Anne Murray song. Peterson includes juncos as also being sometimes termed "snowbirds'" but I've never heard anyone who knew much about birds call a junco a snowbird—plus juncos are common here in Ohio and southward during the winter; snow buntings aren't. They are more common in the northern part of Ohio in winter, and of course, up the Eastern Seaboard, but here in my corner of Buckeyeland, I'm lucky if I see a flock of snow buntings annually. Snow buntings always show so much white—they just look like snowbirds.

I'll confess, too, to liking the old names for things—names common, regional, or folkloric. They'e often so much prettier, or better when it comes to actually describing some aspect or characteristic of the plant or animal.

Don't get me wrong, scientific names have their place—but for me, that red-breasted bird darting around an Ohio yard in April can just be called a robin rather than an American robin.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Solitary…

Do try the bread. It must be covered during the initial 30 minutes of baking—and if you don't have a Dutch oven with a lid or do a makeshift lid with an extra iron skillet, figure out some other way. The finished loaf will have risen to 4-5 inches, to give you an idea of the necessary headroom.

Also, this is a heavy, dense-textured bread that needs chewing—a real stick-to-your-ribs bread. Makes great toast, or fried toast. But it doesn't keep well—a few days when wrapped in plastic; it freshens back up well, though, with a zap in the microwave.

gig said...

gig...short for giggles...a nickname...a blogging buddy did it and I liked it....

Aaaaaaah...got it! Nope, I've never seen one of those...

Shortbread was good!

Enjoy todays visitors!

Hey, Were the 3 herons in your picture somewhere? I searched...but could not find....

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Gig…

Nope. Guess I should have said. The photo in the piece looks upstream from the cottage; the herons were downstream. Maybe 250 yards. Too far for my biggest lens (300mm). By contrast, the heron shot at the top was taken from 150 feet with a 200mm zoom—zoomed at whatever focal length it took to compose the scene; about 125mm I'd guess.

Gotta do some of that shortbread.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Scribe - I agree about the good hearty food in cold weather. When the farmer comes in for his dinner he doesn't want a plate of salad (although it might do my waistline a lot of good). Snow is forecast here today (see my blog) and I have just put a beef cottage pie in the oven - minced (ground) beef steak, onions, carrots and tinned tomatoes with a topping of mashed potatoe and gruyere cheese and nutmeg. Should be ready in half an hour from now and we shall eat it with stir fried red cabbage,apples, onions and cranberries. As for the Irish soda bread, we had that every morning in Southern Ireland a few years ago when we stayed on a farm. Brilliant. Yours looks delicious - wish I could row down your river and pop in for some. Your river - and your writing about it - is magical. Keep warm and enjoy looking out on the snow.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Weaver…

It's 18 degrees F. here this morning. Sun not quite up, but still light enough. About 8 inches of snow on the ground, and a layer of ice about halfway down that won't quite support Moon the dog as she makes her morning round; she breaks through about ever third step. Snow flurries forecast for the day.

I've fed the birds and they're beginning to gather at the feeders and on the ground. I have to get myself up the drive (if the Jeep will make it) to the road in a few minutes, and make a run about 20 miles north. Roads are not good where I'm going, with lots of drifting snow. Then back here to do some work and an appointment at the medical center just after noon. I'm going to try and get out a blog entry in-between.

Your cottage pie sounds delicious. I may give that a try in the next few days. Sounds much like a shepherd's pie. I also like cabbage fried with apples, and though I sometimes add bits of sausage or bacon, I've never added onions or cranberries.

Anyway, I'll drop by your blog sooner or later today. I never miss reading it—though I waited too long to get aboard the boat. That's why I fixed y'all dinner.