My traditions and culture are solidly Mexican. I grew up in a Mexican house with Mexican family. We spoke in Spanish, English and Spanglish. I still have fond memories of my grandfather saying, “Andale, walkale” which was a funny way of saying hurry up and walk whenever we were going somewhere. The sounds of boleros and oldies were the music of my growing up and the smells in the kitchen were spicy and sweet. There is another side of me though – the Irish side. I am half Irish. The Mexican is so steeped in me that I rarely give it a thought unless I am cursing my freckles or lighter than the average Mexican skin as it blisters in the hot Los Angeles sun. I remember I am half Irish when I think of my red-headed, freckled and blue eyed father but I certainly never remember it when I am cooking.
Irish food? Um..yeah. My Latina palate requires spices sharp and pungent, my nose needs the scents of chocolate, cinnamon, chiles roasting on a comal, a kitchen redolent with color, sensation, aroma. Irish food? Bland, boring, colorless…or so I thought.
When I read this challenge, to create a dish from another culture out of my comfort zone the first thought was oooh Indian! That thought quickly went out the window as I mentally flipped through countries. Problem was the most exotic was NOT out of my comfort zone. There was color, spice, and adventure – all the things I most equate with the food I am most comfortable cooking. Then it hit me. Why not use this challenge not only as a chance to push the envelope and challenge myself but also to learn about myself, that other side of the family tree? Explore my buried roots through the medium of food?
Once decided it felt right. All I had to do was choose the food. Beef and Guiness pie? No. Stew? Overdone. Crusty roast lamb (Uaineoil faoi chrusta)? Colcannon? Brambrak? No, no, no. It was getting late. I was getting frazzled. Then it hit me just as the idea to cook Irish did. You want a challenge, girl? Go simple, uber simple and traditional. After all, this blog is about traditions, just not Irish ones. Yet.
I settled on an ancient recipe for Brotchan Foltchep (Leek and Oatmeal Soup) with Brown Bread also known as cake. It was a challenge in many ways. First of all oatmeal for soup? Are you kidding me? That’s for breakfast! No meat in it? And, and, and OATMEAL? Wthout raisins and cinnamon and cream? Well. there is cream, but it’s not the same. Then there was the bread. Oh. My. God. Seriously? Two tablespoons of butter in about 6 cups of flour? No eggs. Stone ground wheat flour. I was dubious and kept thinking to myself, “this is going to be awful dry.” I was so tempted to sneak in yeast, sugar, more butter, eggs anything to make that pile of sticky dough a little more like bread. I swear I slapped my own hand at least three times to keep from trying to “fix it.” I ended up needing a full cup more buttermilk than the original recipe asked for and it was still very dry. Another 1/4 cup or so got it feeling right about how the recipe said it should feel.
To get in the spirit of things, I turned on some music. Believe it or not, I’m a big fan of The Saw Doctors and Juliet Turner. Turner’s Belfast Central is one of my favorites. She’s Northern Irish, not where my family is from but her voice is lovely and it helped soothe me. The Saw Doctors got me dancing and not worrying so much about the brick I was sure my bread would turn out to be. Being used to kneading dough, it was hard for me to do as little as possible with the Irish bread. The trick with that is to keep from letting the glutens form so you want to knead as little as possible or it will be tough according to my research.
I had been lucky enough to have had some left over vegetable stock I’d made the other day in the fridge so I didn’t have to make that and it saved me some time which was a relief since I’d left it to the last minute. As I got into making the soup, it started to make sense to me. The oatmeal was almost like a roux as it was cooked in butter almost masquerading as flour. The end result was a hearty, healthy and surprisingly tasty soup with a bit of bright color. It wasn’t a bit bland! The brown bread, which was rustic yet light and spread thickly with good Irish butter was a perfect accompaniment.
I think I like this Irish side and intend to explore it further. I still want to make that carrot pudding, that Apple and Bramble cake with Bushmills custard and the crusty roast lamb. I may find more surprises along my way and I think I will learn more about myself, that other I hardly know as I wend my rambling way through Southern Ireland via the route of food.
Brotchan Foltchep (Leek and Oatmeal Soup) – recipe adapted from http://www.irishcultureandcustoms.com/2kitch/rSoups.html
1//4 cup of butter
1 cup of Irish oatmeal
2 1/2 cups of vegetable stock
Salt and pepper to taste
Pinch of mace
2 tablespoons heavy cream
Wash the leeks thoroughly and chop into chunks. (Save one chunk and slice into rings as a garnish, if liked: put these aside until the soup is done.)
Melt the butter gently in a saucepan, not allowing it to brown. Add the oatmeal and fry it in the butter, stirring until golden brown. Still stirring, pour in the stock and milk.
Add the chopped leeks, salt, pepper and mace. Bring to a boil; then lower heat and simmer for about 30 minutes, until the broth is thick. Remove from heat, allow to cool slightly, and then either liquidize the soup in a blender or with a “stick mixer”, or push it through a sieve.
Reheat gently without allowing it to boil again. Stir in parsley: serve and garnish with a swirl of cream and / or the previously sliced bits of leek (or stir the cream in when the parsley is added).
Brown Bread recipe adapted from Irish Abroad
4 cups of stone ground wheat flour
2 cups of white flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
3 cups of buttermilk
2 tablespoons of butter
Mix the wheat flour throughly with the white flour. Rub the butter into the flours. Add the salt, and soda.
Make a well in the center and gradually mix in the liquid. Stir with a wooden spoon. You may need less, or more liquid – it depends on the absorbent quality of the flour. the dough should be soft but managable. Knead the dough into a ball in the mixing bowl with your floured hands. Put in on a lightly floured baking sheet and with the palm of your hand flatten out in a circle 1 1/2 inches thick. With a knife dipped in flour, make a cross through the center of the bread so that it will easily break into quarters when it is baked.
Bake at 425 degrees for 25 minutes, reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake a further 15 minutes. If the crust seems too hard, wrap the baked bread in a damp tea cloth. Leave the loaf standing upright until it is cool.
Thanks to everyone who voted for me in Challenge #1. I’m honored and appreciate it so much. Voting for Challenge #2 opens on Monday.