Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easy No-Knead Homemade Bread

Easy No-Knead Homemade Bread

This is the easiest, yummiest bread recipe on the planet that yields a firm loaf with a large crumb but holds together well enough for sandwiches. We eat it slathered with sweet butter with my dad’s recipe for Shanty Beans (see previous blog). And whatever else. I got it from a special edition of Grit for their Country Skills Series Guide to Homemade Bread. Now I make it all the time. It takes 12-18 hours to rise so plan ahead.

Basic White Bread

Makes one medium sized round loaf

3 cups bread flour, packed and leveled

1-1/4 teaspoons salt

¼ teaspoon active dry yeast

1-1/2 to 1-3/4 cool water, divided

Coarse cornmeal (polenta) for dusting (I’ve used amaranth. It works fine)

3 quart cast iron pot with lid (enameled Creuset works great; I have a Martha Stewart knock-off that I switched out the plastic knob for a wooden one)

Combine all dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Mix well. Add 1-1/2 cups of water and stir with a rubber spatula. Add the remaining water as needed until you have a thoroughly mixed, wet, sticky mass of dough. (The dough will not be like any other bread you’ve made – this will be much wetter and will not form a ball.)

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature, out of direct sunlight, for 12 to 18 hours. After 12 to 18 hours have passed, your dough should be dotted with bubbles and doubled in size. (It might have an alcohol smell to it, but don’t mind that, it will burn off in baking. You actually have the very beginnings of sour dough.) Dust a wooden cutting board or counter top with bread flour and if you have plastic dough scrapers, scrape the dough loose from the sides of the bowl and turn out the mass in one piece. You can use your floured fingers, too. The dough will be loose and sticky but do not add more flour. Dust the top lightly with flour and cover with a non-terry cloth tea towel (linen, cotton or paper; terry cloth can leave lint.) Let dough rise another 1 to 2 hours. (edit. note: I have left it for longer or shorter than 12-18 hours plus 1-2 hours and it turns out fine. Just don’t deviate wildly in the time.)

About 30 minutes before the second rising is complete, place your empty cast iron pot (with out lid) on rack positioned in the lower third of your oven (not at the very bottom). Heat oven to 475 degrees. If you have a wonky oven like mine it really helps to have an oven thermometer. If you have a convection oven or reliable oven you’re in like Flynn. Once the oven has reached 475, remove the pot using oven mitts because the pot will be very hot. Sprinkle about a teaspoon of the cornmeal (polenta) evenly over the bottom. This is all you need. Trust me. The bread will not stick.

Uncover the dough and using your hands or dough scrapers, shape into a ball by folding the dough over itself a few times. Resist the urge to knead it. Lift the dough carefully in your two hands and plop it into the hot pot being careful not to burn yourself. Dust it with a bit more cornmeal. Or not. Either way it’s going to look beautiful. Cover the pot with the lid and bake it for 30 minutes. (edit. note: I’ve successfully baked it at a slightly lower temperature. I’ve done it at 450 and it turns out fine. My oven runs so unevenly that it has a tendency to burn stuff. You have to know how your oven runs.)

After 30 minutes, remove the lid and continue baking it for 15 more minutes. You’re looking for a golden brown color and a hollow sound when tapped.

Remove the pot from the oven and invert it over a rack. If it doesn’t plop out on its own wait a few minutes and take a wooden spatula and pry around the edges to loosen. It should plop out on its own then. Cool the bread before slicing. If you can keep hungry fingers off it you should cool it for an hour. Tell the hungry fingers it’s not cooked yet and they can eat doughy bread if they want but they’ll appreciate it more if they wait. A study in delaying gratification in this instant world!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Shanty Beans

Shanty Beans

My dad was French Canadian from Quebec. Even now I have to remind myself not to spell it “Canadien”. We didn’t have a big legacy from the Quebecois. Just our names and a few things like being avid and talented fisherman and cooking hearty food. My dad told a story of how he learned to fish. When he was under 10 years old he and his dad Edmund would take off in a large canoe on the Ottawa River to fish for sturgeon. His mother and grandmother would stand on the shore crying and waving. They were pretty sure he wouldn’t come back again. Canoes are tippy and the Ottawa River is big and treacherous where they put in. But he did come back again and he taught me how to make a special homespun dish. He called it “Shanty Beans”.

Shanty Beans are the soul of simplicity. To make it authentically you need a shovel and a dutch oven. You need the shovel to dig a hole just a bit bigger than your dutch oven. You’re going to get some hot coals from your campfire and you’re going to put some of the coals in the bottom of the hole. Then you’re going to put the dutch oven filled with the bean ingredients in the hole on top of the coals. You’re going to put a single layer of coals on top of that. Then you’re going to cover up the whole thing with a layer of dirt and when you come back in 3-4 hours your beans are cooked to perfection and you’re going to feast.

Your clothes will be scented with wood smoke and the air is going to be crisp and clear and you’re going to have a big appetite because you’ve been up since before dawn to catch fish and clean them. This is if you’re Canadian and you’re a backwoodsman.

Even if you’re not you can still have an authentic (enough) pot full of beans. Here’s my dad’s recipe. Once you’ve assembled it and it’s cooking you should go out and chop some wood so when you come back to eat you’ll have earned all the calories you’re going to consume.

Shanty Beans

2 cups great northern beans

9 x 12 baking dish with lid

4 dollops of lard (roughly 2 tablespoons each)

½ cup of sliced salt pork rendered in a cast iron skillet

½ medium onion diced

Salt and pepper to taste

Water sufficient to cover the beans

Soak your beans overnight in twice as much water as the volume of beans. (You can omit this step and put the dry beans and ingredients in a bean pot big enough to cover the beans with water. If you do it this way you’ll have to keep an eye on the beans and add water as they absorb it during cooking.) Otherwise in the morning pour off the water and put the beans aside while you prepare everything else. Dice the onions. Set aside. Dice the salt pork and render it in an iron skillet over medium heat. Grease your baking dish with lard and put everything in it. Dot the beans with lard. Sprinkle the beans with onions. Scatter salt pork over beans. Salt and pepper to taste. Add water to almost cover the beans. Bake in 325 degree oven for a couple of hours to your tenderness satisfaction. (if you’ve started with dry beans it will take all day). Goes really well with homemade bread and butter. Makes 4 good size servings.

We ate half of them before I remembered I needed to take a picture of them. When you see food like this you eat it!

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Difference Between Men and Women Shows Up Again

I wish I had a picture. There’s my handsome mate gesturing frantically. He’s trying to get me to do something. He’s too far away. I can’t hear a word and we didn’t talk beforehand what the gestures are supposed to mean. Sound familiar, ladies? Wouldn’t any man have known exactly what he meant?

Here’s the scenario. We have to move a herd of 120 cows: mamas, babies, heifers and a few steers. There are only two of us. The general plan is to entice them with a truck full of hay and with said mate on horseback push them from behind. I’m driving the truck. The mate is horseback. The horse is a young and somewhat amenable gelding. The weather is good. The cows are hungry. Mate says it should be OK. So without further ado or discussion I mount my mechanical steed and he mounts his biological one. Off we go.

It goes well at first. The cows hear the familiar rumble of the diesel engine, get a whiff of food and they come a’chargin’!  I floor the pick-up and make it to the gate well ahead of them. I have the gate wide open with enough time to actually drive back towards the running herd. They catch up fast but I stay ahead of them so they can’t pull hay off the back which would cause them to stop and eat.

Then the predictable happens. As soon as they’re through the first gate the heads go down. There’s nice grass here and as I said before they’re hungry. The mate is behind them whoopin’ and hollerin’ and they’re half heartedly following me and the hay. It’s a fairly long distance between the gate and the pasture we’re taking them to. We’re about half way there and we have yet to go through the “pass” and over the creek to our destination. The cows aren’t into it. What’s the rush? We’ve got grass here and it tastes GOOD!

Now we’ve reached the part where we have the communication breakdown. Here’s where the difference between men and women roars to the foreground. This plucky team has not talked about what to do in the event the cows don’t act according to plan. Back there on his horse the mate is gesticulating for me to come back. Huh? I see the classic wave of hand and arm sweeping out to the front and then sweeping back. OK. I know what that means. I turn the truck around and go back. All of a sudden he’s gesticulating for me to go away. Wha’? Now I’m seeing the classic wave of the hand and arm of sweeping from back to front in a pushing manner. You want me to go away now? I just barely started coming back. I’m thoroughly confused.

So I go back to where I had been. Again, with the hand waving to come back. I comply. Again, with the hand waving to go away. Now I’m getting frustrated. What IS it that you want? You can’t have it both ways. So when I turn around this time I get out of the truck and walk towards him. If it wasn’t grass you could have heard me stomping.  The cows aren’t going anywhere anyway so I may as well get clear on whatever concept he’s trying to get across to me.

He says I wanted you to come back and stay close but out of reach. Oh, really? You could have fooled me. For thousands of years the men went out to hunt the wild game. They could not talk or they’d scare the game away. They had a general plan for when they got near the game. The game never did what was expected of them. The hunters had to execute on the fly and they developed a non-verbal type of communication. Over on the other side of the hill the women are going out to gather. The quarry is stationary. Lowanna, you go over there and Eiderdown, you go over there. Meet back here when your basket is full. While they are filling their baskets they discuss when Umlaut and Ucka Mucka are tying the knot. Talking makes it safer because the bears will run away when they hear humans in their vicinity. Fast forward to the present and you get the picture.

We’re back at our episode of “Rawhide” with Gil and Rowdy. Finally I have a clear idea of what he wants because we actually communicated! We are now able to push the cows through the “pass’ and over the creek. We only have one more incident of vague yelling and meaningless (to me) gesticulation. I am not suckered this time. All is going well and the hand gestures I now interpret are counter-productive. So guess what I do? I shamelessly ignore him. Gals, ya gotta take matters into your own hands sometimes and make that executive decision. Hopefully, you’ve got a mate with a sense of humor who can laugh at himself and look at it positively when the job is successfully completed even without endless prep for potential what-if’s or a single mysterious hand gesture!
Our cows safely installed in their new pasture

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

We Went to a Casino Today

We Went to a Casino Today

Sometimes you have to take a break from the routine of the ranch. On a ranch there’s constant maintenance to be done. It’s not very glamorous work but it needs to be done and it does give a person a very nice feeling of satisfaction to make things work again. Sometimes, however, it’s just fun to do something completely different. Today it’s not exactly the best weather for doing chores and fix-up on the ranch. It’s been raining since early morning. We use this as an excuse to go into town for much needed supplies. The chickens are almost out of feed and so are the cats. We’re almost out of “feed” for ourselves, too. We’re such consumers! How do we eat so much? Seems like we just bought a bunch of food.

Anyway, somehow we did and now we need to go get more. So after all the supplies are loaded up we’re off to lunch at Nancy’s Airport CafĂ© on Interstate 5 out of Willows and we’re looking at each other. He’s eating his normal cheeseburger “dry plain with nothing on it”, oh yeah, and fries. I’m eating albondigas soup which is this delicious Mexican concoction of meatballs and vegetables. I look at him and say well what are we doing this afternoon and he says well I’m not that motivated for much so I say ya wanna do something different and he says what. I’m temporarily stumped. Then I say do you want to go to the Rolling Hills Casino up by Corning? We’re hatching a plan.

Before I go on let me tell you something about me and casinos. I hate them. I hate them almost as bad as anything you can think of. They are the opposite of me. They’re closed in. You can’t tell what time of day it is. There’s nothing natural about a casino. Everything is permeated with cigarette smoke and there’s honest-to-god zombies sitting staring blankly at one arm bandits everywhere you look. I am totally out of my element in a casino. All the lights going off and on make me feel like I’m going to have an epileptic seizure. I’m not a prude. The atmosphere is just simply foreign to me.

Yet today I can tolerate it for the sake of doing something Completely Different. Fortunately, Marty is well-versed in casinos. He’s been to that town I call Las Vegas. He’s so familiar he calls it “Vay-gus”. He’s gone to the National Finals Rodeo in Vay-gus ever since it left Oklahoma City. He says ranch people and cowboys go to Vay-gus because it’s so different from their lives when they want a change. You can say that again!

So Marty can protect me from whatever things I can imagine might be in the nasty casino and it will be Completely Different! I’m also kind of intrigued what freebies the casino may bestow upon us because we’ve never been there and they want to sucker us in. Maybe the food buffet will be sumptuous. I can’t be suckered so I feel safe. I have willpower.

I was right. The first thing that hits me when the automatic doors open is the overpowering stench of cigarette smoke. At least it’s not raucously loud. There’s no carnival barker kind of person shrieking out contestants names and winnings or some such thing. Just the ding, ding, ding of the slot machines and the vacant stares of the zombies operating them. Marty says the only game in the casino that has decent odds is craps. He says the odds are even if you know how to play. Here in California craps are not played. Marty says the casinos don’t like even odds. Only big casinos in Vay-gus have craps because they have the deep pockets to absorb the less than stellar returns. So the next best thing he says is poker or blackjack.

We navigate around the slots looking for what other games they have and discover that there is a non-smoking section. Wow, will wonders ever cease? Yet there’s nothing special about it. Just more of the same except with less smoke smell so we wend our way over to the buffet. Might it be sumptuous? No, not really. It reminds us of Hometown Buffet. The hostess tells us that on Tuesdays and Thursdays seniors can get in for half price. OK, that’s OK. Not bad for average food. She says we have to be a member but she also says membership is free so we wend our way back out to the front desk to sign up.

Then I get my wish for something free. The person behind the counter says for joining the club we get $10 free play. Cool. If I don’t win anything at least I’ve not lost anything. If I stay in my $10 budget. Which I can. The miser in me is pleased. But not brave enough to play so I follow Marty over to a poker machine. It takes a little bit to figure out how the machine will work for us but we do and then he’s playing and I’m watching and trying to comprehend what he’s doing. It looks pretty much like poker you play with cards but it’s played a lot faster (if you want) and there’s no opponent. He quickly wins $5 so we cash out and beat a hasty retreat to the exit. Mission accomplished! Something totally different!

Now I’m back home and sitting at the computer while typing this story. I’m watching the young ewes from the window. We bought them at auction last week to train the dog on. They gambol and play with each other butting heads. There’s been a break in the rain and they’re taking advantage of it. It’s nice to do something different but it’s also nice to be back home. Actually nicer if you ask me.