Sunday, March 28, 2010

Weekend Walks

Photo credit: Lee Karney/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

I am loving my weekend walks with my husband. Today was a real highlight, since we explored a trail on Mt. Tam while our son was playing a soccer scrimmage in San Rafael. We hiked up to Phoenix Lake, around it, and up Fish Gulch almost to Lake Lagunitas. The Fish Gulch trail was quiet--so quiet that we saw a bobcat trotting up the trail ahead of us.
Picture Source: ddebold and Animal Photos!

The steep walls of the canyon were thick with redwoods and ferns. On our way down a Stellar's Jay made sure we knew he was there by flying across the trail and squawking at us. As in many wooded places, we heard many more birds than we saw, such as a hawk and the far-off knocking of a woodpecker. We saw only one other human in this canyon, on a bike, going down the other side. I felt like we had a glimpse of what Mt. Tam was like before humans logged it and built houses and roads on it.
When we came home I looked in my wildflower field guide to identify three of the wildflowers we saw. Here they are:
Checker Lily
Red Larkspur
Indian Warrior

Wildflower photos © Br. Alfred Brousseau, Saint Mary's College, from CalPhotos

(I forgot my camera so I had to find photos I could use online. It seems like there are more and more photos available now that can be used without securing permission. I always like to check because I want to respect photographers' wishes about how their photos are used.)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

St. Patrick's Day Soda Bread

I made this soda bread yesterday, for St. Patrick's Day. The recipe was from the Silver Palate Cookbook, but I made some changes like reducing the sugar and making 2/3 of the total flour whole wheat (I think this bread can take a lot of playing around with different flours). The dough is very wet like a cornbread batter, so it's the easiest of all the three I made to mix. You bake this one in a skillet so you get wedges when you cut it. My version is below. It was an excellent breakfast bread, especially with the currants. It was also a little lighter than the other two, probably because it has baking powder and baking soda and two eggs. We ate it split in half, toasted under the broiler, with lots of butter. I'm not sure which one I like best...sometimes it's nice without currants, like the first two I did. Sometimes it's nice sweet, like the first and third. Don't forget the Kerrygold butter!
Before the recipe, I wanted to mention that I discussed St. Patrick's Day in my ESL conversation group with students from an Asian country and two former Soviet republics. I tried to find out if they had anything equivalent--a holiday that celebrates another country from which many immigrated to their country--but not surprisingly, they couldn't think of any. I did hear about some other interesting holidays from their countries, and about how old holidays promoted by the USSR have given way to new holidays celebrating the now independent republics' much older holidays. There are certainly many complicated reasons that we celebrate the holidays that we do.

"Grandma Clark's Soda Bread," modified
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter
2 cups whole wheat flour (I used 1 cup graham flour and 1 cup white whole wheat)
1 cup white bread flour
1-1/2 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 cup dried currants
1-3/4 cup buttermilk
2 eggs, well beaten
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Smear 1 tablespoon of butter around in a ten-inch cast iron skillet. Melt two tablespoons of butter separately and set aside. Mix dry ingredients together. Add currants to dry ingredients and toss to coat well. Whisk together buttermilk, eggs and melted butter. Add to the dry ingredients and mix just until blended. Do not overmix. Spoon batter into prepared skillet and smooth top with a spatula. Bake until golden brown and puffed, about 1 hour. Cool for ten minutes, remove from skillet, and cool completely on a rack. Cut into wedges to serve.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

March Planting

It's a beautiful day, and the garden is calling. I have been meaning to put some more seeds in the raised bed, so today was the day.
On this side I put in more sugar snap peas (you can see the ones I planted earlier at the lower righthand corner) and a row of mixed greens. The chard, at the top, are starting to get thick and leafy.
On this side I put in a few more sugar snap peas (bottom) and two rows of carrots, orange and purple.
As I was watering it all down, a small flock of cedar waxwings came by to eat the ivy berries. They were secretive and quiet, alert for the starlings and mockingbird who own the place. Something startled them and they flew together to the rose bush and waited and watched for about a minute, then decided it wasn't worth it and flew away. My husband says he's seen them in the backyard before, but that was my first sighting. They are dramatic with their pointed crests and black eye bands, and their bodies are sleek pale brown with a tinge of green. Also keeping me company in the yard were the hummingbirds and a flock of bushtits.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Blood Orange Cake All Over the Place

Besides the soda bread (see previous post), this month's Bon Appetit also has a recipe for and gorgeous photo of a blood orange upside down cake with polenta. My friend Nancy made it for our book club meeting this week, and served it with creme fraiche, and it was a sensation. I decided I had to bake it, too, and I did on Friday (that's mine in the photo above). We all enjoyed it, although the boys were not quite as enthusiastic as the book club had been. Then tonight, we went out to dinner at Flour + Water (hot restaurant in the Mission featured in the NY Times a few months ago with outstanding pizzas and pastas). And what was on their dessert menu? The blood orange upside-down cake with polenta. Of course we had to try it. It was the same exact cake, except made into an individual cake with one slice of carmelized blood orange on top. The cake was just a tad lighter (maybe more egg whites? cake flour?) but still with the crunch of polenta. And I believe they went for whipped cream on the side. What I want to know is, did Flour + Water see Bon Appetit and decide they had to make this cake, too? Or did some pastry chef create it elsewhere and Bon Appetit jumped in with its own version? Or is it just one of those recipes floating out there whose time is now? (Bon Appetit is growing on me, but I still miss Gourmet.) As good as it is, I think I have had enough blood orange upside down cake for a while now.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Quest for the Best Soda Bread

This March I decided I finally have to sort out the soda bread question. Maybe it's an urge to connect up with my Irish roots. Or maybe it's an excuse to use up some of the flours I keep buying.* Whatever it is, this month it's soda bread in my kitchen.
Okay, I admit it, the immediate trigger was a photo in this month's Bon Appetit of a slice of Mrs. O'Callaghan's soda bread slathered with yellow Irish butter. The loaf above is the result of Mrs. O'Callaghan's recipe. I think it's pretty gorgeous (and you should see Mrs. O'Callaghan, whose photo is also in the magazine but unfortunately not on the website), and we all liked the taste, especially slathered with Kerrygold Irish butter. The texture is slightly crumbly as opposed to the chewiness of a yeast loaf. But it's moist and hefty and rustic and the ideal vehicle for butter. Strangely, the comments on epicurious regarding this recipe all said it was too dry, many added extra buttermilk, and some people couldn't get it to come out at all. Mine was not too dry, but my only criticism is that it's a little on the sweet side, with 1/2 cup of brown sugar. Brown sugar! I suspect this is an Americanization because last time I was in the British Isles, brown sugar was not to be found. I wonder what Mrs. O'Callaghan really uses. But we ate it up in 24 hours. Four thumbs up.
Next I tried 101 Cookbooks' recipe for Irish Mum's Brown Bread. I got graham flour especially for it. Above is the result. It's a smaller loaf, with less flour and a bit wetter dough so I baked it in a loaf pan. I love the coarseness of the graham flour. The boys did not like it as much as Mrs. O'Callaghan's, probably because it has no sugar. But it has an egg, which I think makes it a bit stronger and maybe a tiny bit lighter. I can't wait to have some toasted with marmalade for breakfast tomorrow.
But I'm not done yet! There are still more recipes to try. I've been drooling over a recipe in the Silver Palate cookbook for soda bread with currants, and there's another one on epicurious with caraway seeds and another one with sunflower seeds. Sunflower seeds! Probably not too Irish but worth a try.

*I just did a flour inventory. I have unbleached white flour, unbleached white bread flour, graham flour, whole wheat pastry flour, white whole wheat pastry flour, and wheat bran. And that's just the wheat flours. I also have masa harina, cornmeal, polenta, and almond meal. Gotta use it up before it goes stale.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

An Abundance of Crochet

I'm sure those who read this post about my first crochet project are eager to know if I ever finished it. Well, as a matter of fact, I did. Here it is above, with my most recent project, granny squares to be made into some kind of quilt at some point in the future. You can see the squares are not all exactly the same size, a result of using different weights of yarn culled from SCRAP, and which I will have to deal with when I put them all together.
The hat was supposed to be a groovy crochet cap, and it's fine but not the most flattering style for me, I decided. My husband wears it around the house sometimes.
I have also crocheted four scarves. The two above were the easiest. The two-color one is for one of the FC Barcelona fans in the house. He has actually worn it a couple of times and claims he defended it to his friends at school ("Hey, I'd like to see you crochet a scarf sometime.") That's not so complimentary, is it?
Here are the two more difficult ones. The one on the right is single crochet alternating front and back loops. I kept forgetting which I had done and how long my row was. The one on the left also involved counting. It is supposed to have one more long row making it wavy on both sides but I ran out of yarn.
What I still enjoy about crochet is the same thing I enjoyed when I began: it is mostly about the process. I like the feeling of my hands in motion; I'm doing something but can be thinking about something else. I can do it while talking to my husband or sitting in front of the TV watching the Olympics or even at a boring parent meeting. Unlike sewing, it does not involve taking over the dining room table to lay out my fabric and taking over my desk to set up my sewing machine. And ultimately because I have not invested too much thought and agony into the product, I don't care if it's not perfect. I love making the granny squares because they involve lots of my favorite part: choosing the colors.
Here was my initial inspiration to start a granny square quilt. I know these quilts are on a whole different aesthetic and spiritual level, but I love to think about the Amish color choices when I'm choosing my colors. If you have not seen this show at the deYoung Museum, go now. It is very beautiful and moving to see the expressions of love, creativity, devotion, community and faith within a tightly circumscribed form chosen by the women themselves.