Thursday, March 24, 2011

When Irish Tummies Are Hungry

Once again, forgive the belatedness of this post. Last Thursday, as you all know, was St. Patrick's Day. Hurray! A day of validation for everybody in the country to get pissed--as in drunk. I for one usually skip the green beer and Guinness since I am not much of a drinker. My husband David, however, would probably bathe in Guinness on a daily basis if society permitted. In his opinion, it's the greatest invention since sliced bread. Speaking of bread....

The reason I look forward to March 17th year after year is for the food. Corned beef and cabbage, to be more specific. In my house growing up, my mother always made corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's Day. I vividly remember how giddy my father would become when it was brought to the table. I always ate it and enjoyed it--afterall, I can count on one hand the number of foods I don't like--but I don't think I ever truly appreciated the meal until I was a little older. Looking back, I see how special it was; the way that turkey is special on Thanksgiving Day. Technically, one could eat corned beef any day of the year, as many do. But to save it for that one special meal, served piping hot with cabbage, potatoes, and carrots on the side is the stuff that true comfort food is made of. And the extra special touch? Irish soda bread...mmmm.....but first, the meat...

I decided to cook a big batch to feed a few of my neighbors. I enjoy cooking for people whenever I can. It leaves me with a very pleased, grandmotherly feeling inside to stuff people senseless. I would've loved to have used my giant Le Crueset dutch oven to cook the corned beef in, simply because I relish any excuse to use it (it's even bright orange so it goes with the Irish flag!), but the day fell on a Thursday, so I had to leave the job to the old crockpot to handle while I was at work. Between the 5 lb. hunk of beef, the head of cabbage, six potatoes, and several carrots, there was no way it was going to all fit in my dinky crockpot. I ended up having to borrow my neighbor Becky's extra large sized crockpot and actually ended up splitting all of the ingredients in two--even the XL pot couldn't hold all the food. So, side by side, the crockpot neighbors did their thing while I brought home my share of the bacon. Just a figure of speech of course--there's no bacon in my corned beef and cabbage!

I had it all planned out. I would arrive home from work with the food cooked to completion, and I would be all ready to get my June McCleaver on and serve. I was a little distressed to discover that my crockpot seemed to outdo the XL one by quite a bit. When I removed the covers, my pot was bubbling away like a magical Irish love potion. The beef was falling-apart-tender and the cabbage, carrots, and potatoes were steamy and soft. Perfection. Clearly, my little crockpot's lid does exactly what it's supposed to do--stay tightly sealed so none of the needed steam escapes. The other lid must not have gotten the memo because, while indeed cooked, the meat was much tougher when prodded with a fork, the cabbage still in a crunchier state than the limp, wet (I know, it sounds gross) state it should've been in, and the potatoes and carrots were definitely not fork-tender soft. There was no love potion a-bubblin' here. It was more like a I guess I kinda like you potion that stood pretty still. I cranked the heat up to the high setting and put the lid back on, hoping that maybe an extra 45 minutes or so would soften them up more by the time my neighbors arrived. It didn't help much. It was absolutely edible, but it just wasn't quite as scrumdiddliumptious as the rest of the feast.

The presentation would've been a lot more attractive had I piled it all together on the platter like a true peasant would, but instead I took the opportunity to use my modern, yet retro looking serving bowls to dish out the veggies.

My other opponent--the bread! Irish Soda Bread. Have you ever tried this gem of a baked good? If you haven't, grab your keys, get in your car, and immediately head to your nearest pub, you know, because those are everywhere in America. It's a very dense, floury tasting bread that tastes equally delicious sopping up whatever juice remains of your corned beef or shepherd's pie or just toasted plain with a little butter (my personal favorite). My mother also had this baby cornered. She could bake Irish Soda Bread like it was nobody's business. My sisters and I were all unanimously greedy when it came to this bread. With it's crusty crust and sweet interior, I couldn't get enough of it. It's truly the crack of all breads. Nom, nom, nom....

Moments like these are when I particularly miss my mother, because my bread this year was a complete and utter disaster, and I could have really used her expertise. I took a gamble on an ingredient that did not go my way. These were the ingredients that I used to make the bread:

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/3 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup butter, melted

Pretty simple, right? All very usual ingredients that I always have on hand. The one thing I did NOT have was buttermilk. I had forgotten this one necessity, but I improvised. I decided to try using powdered buttermilk, which I had on hand. Yes, such a thing exists in the baking aisle.

When liquid is added to a few tablespoons of this stuff, voila!, you have buttermilk. Easy-peazy-Japanezey! But I forgot one very important thing about powdered buttermilk. When using in a recipe, you're supposed to add the powder to your dry ingredients, THEN add whatever amount of water is required to equal the amount of buttermilk the recipe calls for. My brain was clearly somewhere else. I decided to make two loaves of bread so there would be plenty. Rather than mix two loaves worth of ingredients all in one bowl and divide between two baking pans, I decided to do each loaf back to back. I have a very large bowl, but I was concerned that with the amount of ingredients I was using it would be spilling over the edges and I would have flour all over my kitchen. The recipe I decided to use this year, in leau of my favorite Julia Child Irish Soda Bread Recipe, which tastes almost identical to my mother's(that was my first mistake), called for me to mix the egg and buttermilk together. Hmmm...but I was using powdered stuff. Would this still work? So I mixed the powder with my egg and added it to the dry ingredients. This was when I was supposed to add the water. Did I remember to do that? Nooooo. I couldn't understand why my dough was so abysmally dry! The water step was a million miles away from my mind, probably in Dublin getting drunk on Guinness. So I decided to soften up the dough with some milk--plain, skim milk. I probably added a cup's worth. I wasn't sure if it would work, but I figured I had a second loaf to possibly do a better job on. It was then that the water step I'd missed dawned on me. "Oh, ffffffffarfegnugen!!" I screamed. I was only halfway through and I'd already screwed this up. I'm not entirely sure I even followed through correctly on the second loaf either.

I mixed the powder with the egg once again, but for whatever reason I added the water directly to that mixture before dumping it all into the other dry ingredients. I'm not sure if that was the right or wrong thing to do, but either way, it didn't produce a fantastic result. Loaf number one spewed in the oven like a doughy volcano. It literally barfed all over itself in it's pan and onto the oven floor. Loaf number two stayed in its pan, browned nicely, but still didn't turn out how I'd hoped.

The crust was not a crispy crust and the interior had the texture of a poundcake rather than a bread. It didn't even taste like real Irish Soda Bread. It tasted more like a biscuit--still good, but NOT soda bread. I was so disappointed. It was just all wrong from start to finish. But I like to think of every single cooking/baking session as a learning experience, and what I learned is this:

1. Never cheat on Julia Child. She is the Messiah of all kitchens, and to cheat on her bread is like selling your soul to the devil.

2. If a recipe holds such importance that it could be compared to crack, just use real buttermilk and save the powdered stuff for the pancakes on Sunday!

3. Use an oven liner. They're worth their weight in gold.

Lesson learned!! I'm still slightly bitter that I didn't get to feast on real Irish Soda Bread on St. Patrick's Day, but it's not the end of the world. At least now I know if I'm ever in the mood for biscuit bread, I've got it in the bag!

What did YOU eat for St. Patrick's Day?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Better Late Than Never

Yeah, so I'm a little late for a New Years speech. I decided that my last post of 2010 was so brutally depressing (for both myself and probably the two people who read it) that I wanted to stay away for a while. There was no need to further bum anybody out during the holidays. I do, however, want to clarify one thing about my last post. I went back and reread what I wrote, and I feel as if I came off very harsh about my feelings on people around me being pregnant. I am never, ever in no way unhappy or angry for anybody who announces they are with child. Let's just get that straight. I have sisters, cousins, friends, aquaintences, etc. who have all been pregnant/had children in the last several years, and I have been genuinely happy for every single one of them. Does it sometimes remind me that I am UNpregnant? Of course. Does that sometimes lead me to indulge in such grand pity parties that chilled champagne might as well be served? Absolutely. Do I sometimes feel pressure from family members to hurry up and birth some babies which then leads to more inner-anxiety? Damn straight. Am I human? Yes, the last time I checked (despite the name of this blog). So you now know this about me. I'm a human being who is both capable of feeling happy for others while at the same time occasionally falling into the slippery slope of wallowing in self-loathing. SUE ME.

However, I always pick up my chin and grin and say....Woops! Got off track! Anyways...

Winter is already at an end here in Florida, which I'm kind of sad about. I was really enjoying all the windows in the house being open constantly. Already I'm beginning to feel that heaviness in the air that starts to linger when the heat returns--my hair is very afraid. I haven't made the move yet to actually turn the A/C on yet, but I know it's coming. Sadly, with winter, our poor grass hasn't made it. My husband and father-in-law bravely installed a sprinkler system themselves in the early summer--a fete that one would think would keep our lawn looking crispy green! But when a project that supposedly will only only take a weekend to complete snowballs into a three week long fiasco, the lawn undoubtedly suffers for it. Needless to say, by the time the system was a go, our green, velvety grass took on the appearance of a burned cornfield--brown, dry, and crunchy. (sigh) Next project? Start from scratch, re-sod the yard, and make good use of the fancy-schmancy sprinkler system. Hopefully by early summer we'll be rocking more green velvet than Scarlet O'Hara.

On a pretty ecstatic note, I am delighted to report that my weight loss is moving along swimmingly. As of my last weigh in, I've lost a total of 42.8 lbs since the first week of September. Weight Watchers introduced their new program in late November, and I have to say, I really love it. I've been making so many changes in the way I eat, look at food, think about food, everything. I've also started to really pay attention to trigger foods, which are the foods that might as well have a DANGER sign attached to them. For me, these are things like chips and chocolate. Once I have one, it's very hard to stop, so it's better to try and avoid them as much as possible. I've also been cooking a lot of great meals. Why on earth did I think that eating healthier meant no yummy foods?? I have been so wrong about that way of thinking that's it's actually pretty scary. I'll have to post some colorful dishes very soon...

Some of the best parts of losing weight? I forgot how darn GOOD it feels. I forgot how good it feels to get into that pair of Old Navy jeans that I've had forever--my favorite pair from when Old Navy actually still made decent jeans with the correct inseams--that I hadn't been able to squeeze into in several years. I forgot how good it feels to look in the mirror and actually start to see your face again; to see YOU. Just this past week I actually looked at myself and said the words, "Oh there you are." I forgot how good it feels to open the box of "skinny clothes" that's been buried in the back of my guestroom closet and see all the beautiful items that I can't fit into yet, but almost can, and will. I forgot how good it feels to walk and jog (or some semi-pathetic version of jogging) and not feel like I'm standing at death's door afterwards. Best of all, it just feels great knowing that I'm eating healthier, behaving healthier, and getting healthier. It's simply mah-vell-uss!!

Some of the downfalls to losing weight? Are there any? Sort of. With weight loss comes its share of battles and trepidation. Most of the time I feel like I am on high-alert. I have to be aware at all times of what I'm eating and how much. During the week when I'm at work it isn't so bad. It's more routine than anything. The weekends are trickier because I don't always know where I'm going to be, and what food will be served. It's about CONTROL. If the control isn't in my hands, I tend to feel overwhelmed and as if I'm screwing my whole week's effort up. It can be a little exhausting sometimes.

There's also the fear that I'm being annoying. Annoying? Why would your losing weight be annoying? Well, in a perfect world it wouldn't be, but I know that having someone around who is constantly asking things like What did you cook that with? What kind of oil is that? Are those canned vegetables or fresh? Can we possibly eat at this restaurant instead of that one because that one isn't very point-friendly? can wear down on people. It's MY thing, MY issue, and I know it has to drive people a little crazy sometimes. It's hard trying to completely alter your lifestyle when no one else around you is. It's very HARD. Ultimately, I try and keep my Weight Watchers talk to a limit when around certain people. I'm proud of my accomplishments so far, but this journey is really for myself and myself only. I figure, why turn myself into a pariah while on the journey? Does anyone have any thoughts on that?

So far, 2011 is shaping up to be a more positive year than 2010 was by far. Hopefully I will be a little more diligent about posting. In the meantime, take care everyone!