Sunday, March 18, 2012

Luck O'the Irish Soda Bread

I just started a new job. I used to work in the private sector and now I work for the federal government. Mostly, the switch has been awesome. Better hours, more responsibility, and overall, work more suited to my interests. But I'll tell you, I might have been a little spoiled by certain things from the old job . . . Previously, I had 24-hour access to a free coffee/tea machine with loads of flavors (including cappuccino!). Not anymore (good news, taxpayers, you don't pay for my daily tea). Plus, the kitchen had an endless supply of paper goods and plastic utensils. No dice on kitchenware in the new place. Seems like no big deal until you bring a salad for lunch and have to travel ten floors to pilfer a fork from the cafeteria. Who knew I would feel so sentimental about a drawer full of forks?  
The good news is that I can already tell that despite the dearth of free coffee and disposable flatware, the kitchen congeniality carries over, even to the government. Floormates will leave extra cake or cookies for communal consumption in the kitchen - a good sign about the folks that I'll be working near. On the whole, I feel extremely lucky to be in my new job, both because of the substantive work and the general atmosphere of the office. 

At my old office, just about a year ago (right after St. Patrick's Day), someone brought in a loaf of Irish soda bread and left it in the kitchen to share. The bread came from the Heidelberg Pastry Shoppe, a pretty well-known bakery in the DC area. It was addictively tasty. Specked with raisins and just barely sweet - you know, sweet enough to nearly curb a pastry craving, but not so sweet that you feel guilty for having two slices. I was so into to it, that at the end of the day, I peeled the ingredient sticker off the plastic bag that the bread came in so that I could try to recreate it. Then I promptly forgot about it until this year when I saw soda bread advertisements leading up to St. Patty's Day.

So I pulled out the old ingredient sticker and Googled some soda bread recipes. It turns out that there are basically two types of Irish soda bread - the traditional Irish style, which is not sweet and does not have caraway seeds or raisins, and the American version, which I described above. I definitely wanted to make the sweetened American version, the recipe for which is pretty standard. 
Making this bread is super simple, you just need to take care not to overwork the flour. Because the dough is very dry, it is tempting to overly work it. Gently work the dough bits together until it forms a ball - nothing further. There will still be some dry flour bits in the ball and probably a little leftover flour on your work surface. Refer to the photos for reference. 

Irish Soda Bread (American style)

3 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 cup cake flour
1/4 cup sugar, plus sugar for sprinkling
1.5 tsp salt
1.5 tsp baking soda
1.5 tsp cream of tartar
1 tbs caraway seeds
4 tbs butter cold, plus 1 tbs for melting
1 cup raisins
1.5 cups buttermilk
1 egg

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Sift or mix together all-purpose flour, cake flour, sugar, salt, baking soda, cream of tartar and caraway seeds. 

Add 4 tbs. butter with a pastry cutter or your fingers. Break up butter until all of the butter pieces are smaller than pea-sized. Once the butter is worked in, the mix will still be completely dry (so don't worry if you don't have "dough"). Add raisins. 

Whisk buttermilk and egg together in a separate bowl and then add to dry mix and stir very gently - just enough to incorporate the liquids. Dough will be lumpy pieces. Dump dough bits onto a clean, flat work surface. Using a bit of extra flour, gently roll and press the dough bits together until you have a ball. Again, do not heavily knead the dough. Just enough to get a ball. See the photos above for dough phases.

Once you have a ball, place the dough either on a flat pan or any oven-safe skillet at least 10" in diameter. Using a serrated knife, score the dough by cutting a shallow "X" across the top of the dough (see picture). Make sure cuts are no more than 1/2 inch deep (if you cut too deep, don't worry, you'll just have a big split in the top of the bread - mine was a little too deep).

Melt 1 tbs. of butter and brush across top of dough. Sprinkle buttered dough with sugar (for sprinkling, I like using turbinado or demarrara sugar, but plain sugar is fine). 

Bake dough at 425 degrees for 40-45 minutes. Top of bread likely will be fully browned after 30 or 35 minutes so place a piece of aluminum foil loosely over the top of the bread at that time. Test center of bread with a butter knife or your finger to make sure it is fully cooked. Center of the bread should be firm, and not mushy at all. 

Bread stores well in an airtight container at room temperature for several days (or freeze). 

Happy belated St. Patty's Day and here's hoping you have your own bit of good luck this week. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Corn & Chile Soup Made with Salsa Verde

In January of 2007, I took my first out-of-town trip with my now-husband, Travis. He was racing a Rock and Roll Marathon in Phoenix that conveniently fell during my law school winter break. I'd always wanted to visit Arizona, so I decided to tag along. A friend told us that while we were there we HAD to eat at a place called Richardson's, so on our last day we set out to have breakfast there. Because Travis was racing, we had been sticking to known quantities for most of our meals (understandably, you don't want to risk any stomach problems when you're about to run the length of a city). So I was really looking forward to getting an authentic Southwestern meal. 

As luck would have it, when we got to the restaurant, we discovered that Richardson's was closed during breakfast hours - briefly, my hopes of legit heuvos rancheros were dashed. (Though this was less disappointing than the time my parents and sister traveled from London to Paris for one day only, a Tuesday, to visit the Louvre. Painful news: the Louvre is closed on Tuesdays. That smarts.) 

But wait, hold the phone, right around the side of Richardson's was a promising place called Dick's Hideaway. The latter part of the name is no joke - we were unsure whether we were even entering a restaurant. I can't really remember how we found it, because there certainly wasn't a big sign (if any sign at all). It might have been that a staff member in Richardson's directed us over there (as you might have guessed from the names, the two establishments are related). What I do remember is indulging in a deliciously saucy egg dish loaded with green chiles and salsa verde. Mexican-style salsa verde is made from tomatillos, chiles, lime, onion and cilantro. I freaking love it. I could drink the stuff.  
If it were up to me, I would order in food from Arizona or New Mexico every day. And every day it would include loads of chiles and salsa verde. But that's not an option. So instead I try to incorporate these ingredients in my cooking when I can. Exhibit A: this corn & chile soup made with salsa verde. Ideally, I would have used a fresh, homemade salsa verde, but I couldn't find tomatillos, so I used a pre-made salsa from a jar. Make do with your resources; you should be able to find jarred salsa verde in any grocery store.

Be aware that this soup is pretty spicy. One jalapeno may not seem like much, but it goes a long way when it has time to stew in a soup. If you have a low tolerance for heat in your food, use half a jalapeno. Also (forgive me if this is obvious), ground chili powder is not the same as ground cayenne pepper. This recipe calls for chili powder, which is cayenne pepper blended with other spices to reduce the heat. If you only have ground cayenne pepper available, it's okay to substitute, but cut the amount in half. 

Corn & Chile Soup w/Salsa Verde

Makes 6 large servings

2 tbs olive oil
1 small onion, diced
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
1 jalapeno, diced as small as possible
4 cloves garlic, chopped or minced
2 tbs flour
2 14 oz cans corn (drained) or 28 oz frozen corn, 1 cup reserved
2 cans diced green chiles
2-3 roma tomatoes (or 1 beefsteak)
1/2 cup salsa verde
3 cups vegetable stock
1 cup milk
2 tsp cumin
2 tsp chili powder
salt & pepper

*Recommended: immersion blender.

Cook olive oil, diced onion, diced bell pepper and diced jalapeno in a large pot over medium heat for 10-15 minutes or until the onion and pepper start to soften. Add garlic and cook for another few minutes, stirring often. Feel free to add more olive oil if the veggies start to stick or the garlic is browning too quickly.

Add flour and stir. Add corn (remember to leave 1 cup reserved), tomatoes, green chiles, salsa verde, vegetable stock, milk, cumin, chili powder, salt and pepper. 

Increase heat and bring soup to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. 

Using an immersion blender, slowly blend soup to the desired consistency. Add reserved corn and heat for another 5 to 10 minutes. Soup will keep well in the refrigerator for 4-5 days. Enjoy! And if you're ever in Phoenix, hit up Dick's Hideaway (or if you go to Richardson's, let me know what I missed).

Note: If you do not have an immersion blender, you can use a regular blender, but be sure to: a) let the soup cool down awhile (just make sure it's not steamy); and b) be prepared to blend the soup in batches since a normal blender won't hold this entire recipe. Another option is to not blend the soup. This soup was looking pretty darn delicious in advance of blending and I'm sure would be terrific served as such.
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