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Archive for March, 2011

You wouldn’t know it from my name, but ethnically speaking I’m more Irish than anything.

The year that I was twenty-two, I went to Ireland with my Mom and my sister to connect with our Irish roots.

We travelled through Ireland like Canadians; which is to say, we drove ridiculously long distances that no sane Irish person would. As Northern Ontarians we’re accustomed to driving at least eight hours just to get to someplace interesting, but we hadn’t accounted for the narrowness, curviness, and overall treachery of the roads. Sure, it may be only 250 km or so from Dublin to Donegal.  That only takes a few hours on our nice, wide, Canadian roads. But in Ireland, the lanes were so narrow that I was always worried about sideswiping the lorry next to us. (And at one point we did lose our hubcap in downtown Belfast after hitting a curb. Never mind.) On the rural roads, signage was spotty and the National Roads Authority didn’t always see fit to put up protective barriers between driving lanes and cliffsides. What I’m getting at is, the distance may have been manageable, but the drive itself felt so perilous we really should have taken it slower.

So a lot of my memories of Ireland involve driving and the green, rocky, rolling landscape. But me being me, a few meals shine out too. At a pub in Galway I ate a creamy coconut vegetable curry n top of boxty, which is basically a potato pancake. I had Ploughman’s lunch for the first time. In the small town of Doolin (which was special because my mother’s maiden name is Dooling) I had a  seafood chowder that I am still trying to recreate.

And everywhere we ate, it seems, there was always a basket of dark brown bread on the table. Hearty, crusty, staff-of-life bread that I couldn’t get enough of. After I came home I tried to recreate it, but could never get it right.

The problem was that I always assumed it was a yeast bread, but I recently learned that it’s not. Basically, it’s soda bread. But not what North Americans think of as soda bread; there’s no currants and it’s whole wheat, not white.  Apparently in Ireland everyone has their own way of making it, but the main components are straightforward: whole wheat flour, baking soda, salt and buttermilk.

This recipe includes a few other ingredients, like additional bran and an egg to help bind it, but it’s a pretty simple bread to bake. It is dense and crusty and filling enough to make a meal along with a bowl of soup. It’s still not quite what I ate in Ireland, but I’m happy enough to keep making wheaten breads like this in hope of finding the elusive perfect batch.

 This week, let this be your nod to Irishness. It’s way better than green beer.

Notes: You can bake this freeform on a baking sheet, but I like using a springform cake pan to help the bread rise higher.

Irish wheaten bread
(adapted from Epicurious)

1 3/4 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup all-purpose flour, plus extra for shaping
3 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 3/4 teaspoons salt 
1 tablespoon brown sugar
3/4 cup of either: wheat bran, wheat germ or oat bran (or a combination of all three)
2 tablespoons ground flaxseed
1 large egg
About 1 3/4 cups buttermilk

1. Preheat the oven to 425 Fahrenheit, and lightly grease and flour a 10″ springform cake pan. (Alternatively, line a baking sheet with parchment paper.)

2. In a large bowl, combine the whole wheat and all-purpose flours. Using a box grater, grate the cold butter into the flour mixture and mix to combine evenly. Stir in the remaining dry ingredients.

3. Break the egg into a two-cup glass measuring cup and beat lightly with a fork. Add enough buttermilk to make two cups’ worth of liquid, and combine. Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and add the buttermilk mixture. Stir with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon until the dough comes together into a wet, shaggy mass.

4. Scrape the dough onto a floured work surface and dust with some additional flour. Shape the dough into a round roughly 7 to 8 inches across. Don’t worry about shaping it too perfectly; the beauty of this bread is that it’s crusty and nubbly. With a sharp knife, score a cross on the top of the bread. Brush the top of the dough with water, or the watered-down end of the buttermilk-egg mixture.

5. Bake the bread for 35 to 40 minutes, until it is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped. The centre should register at 195 or 200 with an instant-read thermometer. Let cool and serve warm or at room temperature.

The bread keeps well for two or three days if wrapped, and freezes well.

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Can we just take a moment and acknowledge that despite its many virtues, meatloaf is not very photogenic?

How about if I strategically place it on a nest of *Confetti Kale?  

 

Yeah, still not that great. So let me say that despite its humble appearance, this meatloaf is pretty spectacular.

I’m a big fan of meatloaf. I have never understood why it has a reputation for being dull and loathsome. Probably TV, wherein broccoli and brussels sprouts are also reviled, is to blame. But seriously, what could be wrong with a dish that’s economical and receptive to so many different types of seasoning? I love the traditional beef-and-pork meatloaf with the sweet ketchupy glaze, but there’s so much room to play. Moroccan lamb. Tex-Mex chipotle. And in this case, made with lean ground turkey, spiked with fennel and topped with bacon to make it seem decadent.

And let’s face it, this time of year, we still need a bit of decadence. Here in Central Canada we still have a bit of winter left to go. While you, my west coast friends, can go enjoy your asparagus and fiddleheads, we still need some comfort food to give us the strength to carry on.

I’m a bit surprised that I haven’t written much (if anything) about fennel here yet. Fennel is one of my favourite winter flavours. I eat it sliced very thinly in salads at least once a week these days, and when I cook with it, I usually try to bump up its presence in the dish with ground fennel seeds, but in this recipe I go one step further and add ouzo to deglaze the pan when you saute the onion. A quarter-cup sounds like a lot, but it mellows in the cooking. You could ease off and just use white wine or even stock, but it’s worth the use of an unconventional cooking ingredient.  

Despite its down-home virtues I don’t really think of meatloaf as a weeknight dinner unless I’ve done most of the work in advance.  There’s a fair amount of chopping, plus the baking time is a bit long. To get a better return for your time investment, you can mix up a double batch and freeze one batch for later. Or, if you are a two-eater household like mine, (well technically three, but she’s not really into meatloaf yet), you can split the recipe below into two smaller meatloaves. One half-recipe will yield two dinner servings plus two brown-bag lunches.

*At my house, Confetti Kale is what we call a simple saute of diced red pepper and carrot, corn and kale. Onion or garlic if we feel like it. Nothing fancy, just tasty and colourful.

Turkey Fennel Meatloaf
serves 8

Do-ahead: Take the recipe through to the end of step 4 and cover the meat mixture in plastic wrap. It will keep a day or two in the fridge before baking.

2 tsp. olive or veg oil
1 medium-sized onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup finely diced fennel (about 1 cup)
generous pinch chili flakes
2 tsp. fennel seeds, lightly ground
1/4 cup ouzo or white wine
4 thick slices of bread, crusts removed
3/4 cup milk
2 lbs ground turkey
4 slices of bacon, finely chopped
1 tbsp. worcestershire sauce
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 egg, lightly beaten

Optional: about 8-10 slices of bacon
Or: 2 tbsp. honey mustard as a glaze

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and position a rack in the centre of the oven.

2. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook the onion, garlic and fennel until softened and just beginning to brown, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add the chili flakes and fennel seeds, and cook one minute more. Add the ouzo or wine to deglaze the pan and cook 2 to 3 minutes to reduce the liquid, until the mixture is almost dry. Remove from the pan and set aside in a large mixing bowl.

3. In a shallow dish, soak the bread in the milk for about 5 to 10 minutes, mixing once or twice so that the bread is evenly soggy but not falling apart. Lightly squeeze the bread one handful at a time to get rid of some of the milk, and finely chop it. Add the chopped bread to the cooked onion-fennel mixture.

4. To the large mixing bowl, add the ground turkey, chopped bacon, worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper and egg. Mix just until combined – overmixing will make the meat loaf tough.

5. Do a taste test. Heat a teaspoon of oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Shape about a tablespoon’s worth of mixture into a patty and fry it on both sides until cooked through. Taste it and adjust the seasonings as needed.

6. To bake the meatloaf, line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Transfer the meat mixture to the baking sheet and shape it into a rectangular block about 10″x4″. It will become more loaf-shaped as it cooks. If you’re using an optional topping, now is the time to drape it seductively with bacon or brush the top with honey mustard. Bake the meatloaf for approximately 45 to 50 minutes (35 to 40 if you’re baking a half-batch), until the middle registers at 165 F on a meat thermometer. Allow it to rest for 5-10 minutes before serving.

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