Saturday, March 1, 2008

St. David's Day Fare

St. David's Day is the Welsh equivalent of the better-known St. Patrick's day, which occurs later on this month. It's celebrated by Welsh around the world on March 1st. Having a spattering of Welsh in my blood as well, I often take the day, or the weekend nearest to it, to connect with some of my heritage and cook a bit of Welsh fare. It's always a pleasure since two of my favourite foods, leeks and cheese, feature prominently in many traditional Welsh recipes. This one is no exception.

Anglesey Eggs is a traditional supper dish of mashed potatoes and leeks topped with hard boiled eggs and cheese sauce. Probably not entirely healthy, but definitely tasty. In some ways it could be the Welsh equivalent to Quebecois poutine. While usually served for supper with peas, I think this makes a great brunch or hearty breakfast dish as well.

Anglesey Eggs (Wyau Ynys Môn)
Serves 4

2 oz butter, divided
1 Tbs flour
1 cup hot milk
4 oz cheddar cheese, grated
8 hard boiled eggs, just hard, halved
4 leeks, chopped and cooked
2 cups hot mashed potatoes
2 Tbs fresh breadcrumbs
Grated nutmeg
Salt and black pepper

Heat over to 350F and butter/oil an oven dish.

Make a cheese sauce by melting half the butter in a saucepan and then adding the flour, stirring it for about a minute over low heat before adding the hot milk with a whisk. Then add the cheese and stir some more, simmering until the sauce thickens.

As the sauce thickens, in a bowl, mix together the leeks, mashed potatoes, half the butter, and some salt and pepper. Put the mixture into the buttered dish. Arrange the hard boiled egg halves on top, and then pour most of the cheese mixture on top of that. Keep some of the cheese sauce back and mix it with the breadcrumbs and nutmeg. Sprinkle this crumb mixture on top of the whole thing.

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until the top is browned. Don't leave it too long, otherwise the eggs go rubbery.

While leeks may be one of the national plants of Wales (the other being daffodils), they are not always available. If you can't find them, you can use onions instead. It's definitely not the same, but passable.

I sometimes add cooked chard, kale or spinach to the mashed potato mixture. I think once I even layered kale on the bottom, beneath the mashed potatoes.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Shredded Wheat-Molasses Sandwich Bread

Bread: the Staff of Life.

Well, it used to be.

Todays commercial breads are far from being the nutritional cornerstone of a healthy diet. Bread in ancient times was quite fibrous and coarse being comprised of the whole wheat including the germ- the nutritious part of the grain- not to mention bits of straw and stone that passed the milling (grinding) process. Modern milling, combined with newer strains of high gluten content processed wheat allow manufacturers to present us with the airy, glue-like loaves that stock the grocery shelves.

Specialty bakeries are now allowing us to have a greater variety of better breads and thanks be to them! But to understand why the bread of the ancients truly was the “Staff of Life”, try something like Mestemacher rye bread or one of the rival brands which are usually to be found in the deli area of larger grocery stores. Best yet is organic integral rye bread made by Boulangerie D. Dufeu available locally in Montreal in many health food stores.

The following recipe is nothing like that and nowhere near as healthy.

This is more akin to commercial sandwich bread but oh, what an improvement! I have been making this now for 20 years, having learned how from my aunt Patsy who made bread regularly. I assume she got the recipe off the side of a box of cereal.

I have written the instructions out for bread-making newbies. If this is your first attempt at bread baking, be aware that bread is as much an art as a science. Trial and error are the best teachers but don’t worry: this recipe is (almost) never-fail.

The recipe makes three loaves. “But I don’t need three loaves”, I hear you sigh.

Yes; yes, you do. It’s so decadent, I have often given this bread as much appreciated gifts.

Shredded Wheat Sandwich Bread

3 Shredded Wheat Cereal bisquits
3 cups boiling water
2 Tbsp salt
1/3 cup vegetable shortening
1/2 cup cool water
3/4 cup molasses

2 tbsp yeast in granules (not quick-rise)
1 cup lukewarm water
1 tsp sugar

6- 8 cups unbleached flour or more
extra shortening

Have a large portion of your counter or table top cleared and cleaned in preparation for the kneading.

Combine the ingredients from the shredded wheat bisquits through to the molasses, stir together well and leave to cool until lukewarmish; about 20- 30 minutes. Stirring the mixture often will hasten the cooling.

Ten minutes or so before the bisquit mixture is cooled, set the yeast to rise by stirring the sugar into the water in a cereal bowl until it has fully dissolved. Be sure that the water is just slightly warm; too hot and it kills the yeast, too cool and the yeast will not be activated. Sprinkle the yeast over the top of the water. Using a fork, mix it very gently into the water for only 5 seconds or so. The yeast is ready when it creates a large foamy mushroom on top of the water in about ten minutes.

Turn your radio on or whatever- it really helps at this point.

Place 7 cups of flour in a very large bowl- personally, I use my Dutch oven. Make a well or hole in the middle of the flour and pour the risen yeast into it. Use a spatula and blend the yeast into the flour as much as possible. Add the cooled bisquit mixture and with the spatula, start to mix the flour into that mess. At some point, you will have to abandon the spatula and take the dough into your hands, mixing and rolling it around the bowl to incorporate as much of the flour as possible.

When you have most of the flour worked into the dough, turn the whole bowl over and dump the whole thing onto your cleaned counter top. You may want to wash your hands at this point just to clear off all the dough chunks holding your fingers together. Start kneading the dough and crumbly remainders from the bowl together.

Kneading is done by pushing the dough down into the counter top and away from you with the palms of your hands and then pulling it back towards you with your fingers. You should count on kneading the dough a good 10-15 minutes. You will want to give the dough a quarter turn from time to time and fold it over onto itself. Working from your shoulders and center of gravity in your belly will make the effort less tiring and actually feel good.

As the flour becomes incorporated, you will see that the dough ball will start to become tacky and pull up from the counter in a rather ragged way. This is a sign that you should add more flour- usually in small increments; from 2 Tbsps to 1/4 cup. Dust it over the ball and around it on the counter and knead some more. Continue this process until the dough exhibits the following characteristics:

• It is heavy and fairly stiff.
• There is no dry flour showing anywhere.
• The ball holds together well and the surface has a smooth texture. If you see what appear to be stretched out holes, add a couple of tablespoons of flour and continue kneading. That said, this bread dough is not that fussy, so don’t drive yourself crazy if there are just a couple very shallow ones to be found.

If these conditions are met, pat the ball into a nice round ball. Get a very big, clean bowl. (I scrub out my Dutch oven, dry it well and use that.) Grab a scant tablespoon or so of shortening with your fingers and rub it evenly over the dough ball in a thin layer. Place the ball in the bowl and roll it around to coat the sides of the ball with the shortening. Cover the top of the bowl with plastic wrap or alternatively use a slightly damp, clean cloth. If you choose the latter, you may want to gently peel the cloth off the dough every 1/2 hour or so, remoisten and wring it out before replacing it.

Leave the dough to rise in a warm place for 45 minutes to an hour or maybe more until it has doubled in bulk.

When ready, punch down the dough to deflate it. Put it back on the counter top and knead it gently a minute or two, only to press all the gas out of it. Try not to let the dough fold onto itself as the folds at this point will appear in your finished loaves and may make your slices fall apart. Don’t panic if it happens though. All is OK.

At this point, you can make loaves or rolls or portion the dough out for freezing..

For loaves:

Have three 5 x 9 inch loaf pans lightly greased with shortening and at the ready.
Divide the dough into three equal parts by cutting through with a knife. Gently roll each portion into smooth, oblong shapes, trying not to create any folds. Grease your hands with some shortening and rub over the loaves then place them in the pans. Place the smoothest sides up. Cover as before and set aside to rise until doubled again. The dough should have expanded into the corners of the pans and be peeking above the sides by an inch or so.

For rolls:

You can use any size pan you like, (probably not bigger than a 9 x 9 though) lightly greased. With well greased hands, tear off a piece of dough about the size of a small apple or lemon. Roll it out smooth in your hands and then fold it over pushing your thumbs up into its center. This should make a mushroom cap looking ball. Push it together firmly at the sides and place it in one corner of the pan. Continue with the rest of the dough, greasing your hands with each ball and placing them side by side in your pans.

Cover and leave to rise until doubled. The rolls should be all squashed together when ready.

To freeze:

Divide dough into desired portions, grease and wrap in plastic wrap. When fully frozen, wrap again in tin foil.

To bake:

Place the oven rack in the middle of the oven and preheat oven to 350°F.

Place risen loaves or rolls in the oven and bake for 1/2 hour, turning the pans around once at about the half-way mark. The tops of the loaves should be nicely brown when ready. Remove from oven and place the pans on wire racks. Rub the tops immediately with shortening on wax paper to make them soft. Leave to cool in pans about ten minutes then turn out and let cool on the racks. Baked loaves can be frozen.

If using frozen dough, allow to thaw completely at room temperature then place in greased pans and let rise until double in a warm place. This may take longer than with fresh dough. Bake as above.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Red Beans and Rice

This recipe has become one of my standards over the last few years. It’s cheap, easy, tasty as left-overs and I am always sure to have the ingredients on hand. I have never really measured anything when I make this but I have written down fairly closely the proportions I use.

Red Beans and Rice

1-2 Tbsps olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, pressed
1 Tbsp organic Mexican chili powder*
2 tsps cumin seed, ground
1 28oz can tomatoes
2 tsps dried oregano
1 can kidney or black beans, drained and rinsed or 2 cups cooked
1 small zucchini, diced
salt to taste
hot chilis to taste, optional

Heat the oil in a large frying pan on a low flame. Add the onion and fry until slightly softened then add the garlic and stir fry for about a minute. Sprinkle in the ground cumin and stir fry 15 seconds or so then add the Mexican chili powder and fry a few seconds more. Add the tomatoes with the juice, breaking them up with your spoon. Add the oregano and hot chilies if desired then leave on low heat to simmer for a good hour or so, stirring now and then. When the sauce is beginning to thicken nicely, add the drained beans and diced zucchini. Continue to simmer for another 30 minutes or so until quite thick. Season with salt to taste (1/4-1/2 tsp should be plenty.)

Serve on brown rice.
Sprinkle with cheddar cheese, (optional).

Makes 4 servings.

* Organic Mexican chili powder -found in many health food stores- is a radically different product than the commercial type you find in regular grocery stores. Commercial brands often have anti-caking agents, sugar, fillers and dyes added. The taste is quite different as well. Go for the good stuff!