Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Better to be a Live, Cold Potato...

There are two things I always think of on St. Patrick's Day: first, that everyone can be Irish for that single day of the year, and second that "It's better to be a live, cold potato than a dead hot tomato". I don't know why this quote sticks out, but it does... and the funny thing is that I don't even really know who said that (until in this miraculous age of Googling I found that it was probably Studs Terkel...). I assume that it stuck with me all of these years due to its absolute truth, and that it offered me some comfort since in my own eyes at least, I'm not really that hot a tomato. As I stood over my sink this evening, doing an intentionally poor job of peeling some red skinned potatoes for dinner, it was all I could think of.

Unlike this morning, when glorious bread was on my brain. This is also the one day of the year when anyone can turn out a halfway decent loaf of soda bread, usually in minimal time and with minimal effort. Since it is a quick bread, those phobic of yeast bakery in the home can easily produce the soda bread of their dreams. The soda bread of my dreams is the recipe that we used at Gina's Pies Are Square, for serving on our busiest day of the year. I think it was from a Martha Stewart magazine, and the year I first made it for myself I had to call GOP and get the ingredients list, since when I just now quick searched the Martha Stewart website, 2022 results popped up for soda bread. This in itself is saying something. Soda bread has been done and redone, sweetened to the point of cake-dom or reduced to full whole wheat hockey pucks. But this one is the one for me.

My preferred recipe is probably not one for the record books. It's dry and crumbly and a pain to work with. The liquid is always too little, and I always end up adding more and hoping that I'm not overworking the dough. It is butter-less and dense, yet tender and tangy from buttermilk, and though boasting a fair amount of plain white flour, has a trace of whole wheat and oat bran. It was particularly difficult to mix up today, and I wet my hands down and forced it into domelike submission - a trick I learned from making biscotti.

This recipe is one of thousands you can find, but is my favorite. I feel some strange loyalty to it, and even though this one from Ina Garten was calling my name, I just could not bring myself to make it. Mine is dry and earthy, and needs something to sop up desperately. Perfect, in my book.

Irish Soda Bread - originally from Martha Stewart Magazine
makes one loaf (but I usually make two smaller loaves and give one to my In-Laws)
  • 3 c. AP flour
  • 1/2 c. whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 c. coarse oat bran
  • 1 t. salt
  • 1 t. baking soda
  • 1 t. baking powder
  • 1 2/3 c. buttermilk (you will likely need more)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Combine the dry ingredients, then add the buttermilk and form into a dome-like disk. You may need to add additional liquid, and possibly wet your hands down to get it to stay somewhat together. Cut a cross into the top of the loaf, about 3/4 inch deep, and bake for 45-60 minutes (35-45 for two smaller loaves), until the loaf is lightly browned and a toothpick comes out clean.

Ordinarily, I angelically wait for bread to cool before diving in for the first taste. Soda bread is different to me, and I let it cool just enough so that I won't burn myself slicing away at it. I love this bread, and only make it one time a year. I don't know why! It could be that it isn't really a good keeper. Two days at best, and you'll dump any remaining leftovers I'd wager. But for the one day of the year when I get to be Irish by association, I usually clobber it to the point of very little waste.

Non-Irish Swiss cheese and Spicy Guinness Mustard lunch.

I started another batch of Spicy Guinness Mustard this afternoon, and poured the rest of the bottle into a beef stew I was slow cooking. It was intentional, since I saw this recipe recently from innBrooklyn, and thought that it would be a perfect thing for today. I was going to follow her recipe, but then didn't so much, but luckily it was fantastic anyway. I used a beef rump roast from my frozen bevy, and the aforementioned Guinness, and part of another one I saved from Monday's Oatmeal Guinness Stout Pie. I didn't add any stock, since I didn't have any, and because when I tasted the liquid after it braised in the crock pot for 5 or 6 hours, I was amazed at the complexity of the flavor. That beef is so "beefy" that it hardly needs anything to help it along. I ended up salting and peppering it well, but to my base of beef and onion, only added a few tablespoons of tomato paste, a jigger of Worcestershire sauce, and a polite splash of red wine vinegar to liven it up (and towards the end thickened it a bit with tapioca flour). I am very grateful for the leftovers, and to innBrooklyn for planting the idea in my head...

Roasted cabbage and red potatoes, to go with the stew.

When we sat down to eat, I realized that I cooked that meat for close to 12 hours in the crock pot. It fell apart and was perfect. I was actually very full after this meal. I don't often cook such heavy food, and the funny thing is that it is usually such simple food that fills you up. Irish food really is simple comfort food, and the joy of it comes from the ease of preparation and the lack of odd ingredients.

I doubt the poor farmers that popularized these dishes would have any idea the impact they would have on a girl without an ounce of Irish heritage. I'm surprised myself of how inexplicably drawn to soda bread I am, even if this live, cold potato only makes it once a year. I may have to break that habit and give a few more recipes a try.


  1. This looks fabulous! I am so glad I discovered your blog!!

  2. Both the bread and the stew look delicious: and I'm very glad to have been an inspiration... cooking with beer: good from everything from main courses to condiments!!
    By the way, I walked into a bookstore yesterday with the intention of just having a browse since I had a little time to kill before an appointment. Ten minutes later I walked out with the Lahey book... I hope I can do him, and you, proud... I'm sure going to try! -Talia

  3. Oh, I can vouch for it. Both the stew and the bread were wonderful! In fact, I'm going to mark that soda bread recipe so that I can consider struggling with it next year for my St. Pat's feast.

    Looks like you're selling the lot of us on that Lahey book... he needs to give you a commission!

  4. The bread looks great. Love that whole grain mustard!

  5. I love Irish Soda Bread and did not make any this year because I seriously end up eating an entire loaf with yogurt butter! Yours looks amazingly delicious!


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