Friday, March 4, 2011

A taste of Ireland

The Beet

Express Staff Writer

Food columnists nationwide seem to feel it's their duty to foist green-tinted food and mounds of potatoes on unsuspecting readers every March. All of the green beer, shamrock cookies and heaps of shepherd's pie conspire to make St. Patrick's Day almost entirely defined by the food and drink consumed during the course of the day.

The idea of sharing a really good recipe for corned beef and cabbage seemed appealing, to be honest. A recipe for Irish Car Bomb cupcakes involving Guinness, Jameson, Baileys, chocolate and buttercream showed similar promise until the boozy cupcakes lived up to their name and exploded all over my oven.

But having actually spent a St. Patrick's Day in Ireland a few years ago, I have to confess that there was not a single pint of green beer in sight. Corned beef and cabbage were similarly scarce; the only people wearing headbands with little bouncy shamrocks on them were blatantly American.

True Irish food is not nearly as exciting as St. Patrick's Day enthusiasts would have it. Much like English food, there's a lot of starch, a lot of potatoes and a lot of things that are very bland or very strange. Possibly the most Irish-looking dish is something called "mushy peas," oddly bright green peas that are simmered with sugar and salt until they disintegrate. Normally served alongside fish and chips as sort of a dip, these peas have the color but not the taste desired of a St. Patrick's Day dish.

The Irish have one distinctly delicious native food: brown soda bread. Don't get confused; the "soda bread" that can be found in bakeries nationwide is the American version. It's delicious, with raisins bursting out of a slightly sweet white quick bread. But it's about as Irish as pizza is Italian—that is to say, not at all.

Real Irish soda bread is dark, dense and heavy. There is an insanely high proportion of whole-wheat flour to white, and the texture is closer to that of a bran muffin than bread. Steel-cut oats hide in the batter, giving the loaf an almost nutty flavor.

When making this bread, it's important to have what is known as a "light hand" with the batter, mixing the ingredients just until combined and no further. Overmixing toughens the bread, something especially easy to do when working with this much whole wheat. Mixing by hand is the best way to make sure the finished bread has the desired texture.

This bread is perfect with butter and jam for breakfast, toasted or not. If you feel like being especially Irish, sprinkle the top of the unbaked loaf with a little extra wheat germ and serve with aged Irish cheddar and a pint of well-poured Guinness. That's as Irish as it gets, I promise you.

Brown Soda Bread

Adapted from Cooking Light, March 2010

2½ cups whole-wheat flour

½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour

½ cup steel-cut oats (not rolled)

2 Tbsp brown sugar

1 Tbsp. raw wheat germ

1 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. baking powder

½ tsp. salt

2 cups buttermilk (use low-fat if desired)

1 large egg, lightly beaten

Preheat oven to 340 degrees. Coat a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan with cooking spray or lightly butter.

Lightly spoon flours into dry measuring cups and level gently with a knife. In a large mixing bowl, combine all dry ingredients and stir with a fork until blended. In a small bowl, combine buttermilk and egg. Add to flour mixture, and stir just until combined. The batter should be quite thick and lumpy, like a good muffin batter.

Scrape batter into the prepared pan. Bake for one hour and ten minutes -- but check early, as my oven runs cool. A pick inserted in the center will come out clean when the bread is done. Invert bread onto a wire rack. Cool completely and serve with butter, jam or both; try to refrain from impromptu step-dancing.

Katherine Wutz is a staff writer for the Idaho Mountain Express.

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