Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Swiss Chard and Better-Late-Than-Never Scarves: A Kitchen-Sink Post

Oh, Jones Soda, how I miss thee! When the Engineer and I were living in Portland, Oregon, we didn't have the luxury of a washer and dryer in our apartment building like we do now. Every week along with all the other unluckies within a five block radius, we participated in a weekly neighborhood pilgrimage to the friendly neighborhood laundromat. For those of you who haven't had this experience or for whom that experience is but a distant memory, let me tell you that there is absolutely nothing romantic about the laundromat: the cracking faux-wood paneling on the walls, the act of inspecting your unmentionables in front of a handful of pajama-clad strangers, the brittle fly carcasses gathered at the bottom of the light fixtures, the gritty yellow lighting itself, the inevitable fight to secure neighboring washers and then again to secure neighboring dryers--and not just any washers and dryers but the 'good' washers and dryers (you come to know which ones those are). And lets not even discuss the bathroom.

Needless to say, Laundry Day was not something that the Engineer and I looked forward to. There were heated "discussions" over whether or not Laundry Day was actually necessary in a given week, complex systems of barter and trade if one or the other of us wanted to opt out of Laundry Day for whatever reason, and incredibly competitive games of rock-paper-scissors over who's turn it was to scour the apartment for spare change. But Jones Soda changed everything.

Jones Soda Co. (link HERE) is a Seattle-based juice and soft drink company famous for their wacky and unexpected flavors like Berry White, D'Peach Mode, Crushed Melon, and Pineapple Upside Down Cake. They're kind of like the Jelly Belly Jelly Beans of the beverage world. Some of their flavors are incredible and some of them really fall flat (like those I discuss below). The imaginative "family" photographs on their labels, the not-your-average-chinese-fortunes under the cap, and under-the-radar marketing campaign make this the soft drink of choice for Northwest hipsters. (I also want to note that as of January 2007, Jones Soda is switching their juice and soda lines from using high fructose corn syrup to pure cane syrup, an incredibly laudable endeavor. Read about it HERE.)

And one fine spring day, the Engineer and I discovered that the dingy convenience store next to the dingy laundromat was actually a mecca for all our favorite Jones Soda flavors. It became a ritual for us to arrive at the laundromat, stake out claims on washers, get the washers going, stake out claims on one of the folding tables, snag two folding chairs, and then send an emissary next door with our leftover pocket change. We would clink bottles, settle in with books and trashy magazines and knitting, and not speak until the spin-cycle was complete. Laundry Day was still a chore, for certain, but Jones Soda, you certainly took the edge off.

Except for a few national chains like Panera and Target, Jones Soda isn't widely distributed out of the Northwest, so I've been a bit deprived. Perhaps this is what led me to impulsively purchase the Jones Soda 2006 Holiday Pack when I spotted it with the post-Christmas sale items at Target when I was home over Christmas. Yes, I purchased it despite the fact that there were a suspicious number of 2006 Holiday Packs still available, and they were all in the back of the bottom shelf in the deepest hidden corner of the store. And I purchased it despite the fact that the 2006 Holiday Pack was on the "What Not To Buy Me For Christmas" list put out by the Restaurant Guys. I even purchased it despite my own better judgment. Like I said, I had been Jones Soda deprived for several years. And I was rilly buying it for my brother, another Jones Junkie. (Really.) And it was $5. And how awful could turkey flavored soda be, anyways?

My little bro doling out the 'tastings'

Here's the rundown of the sodas in the pack:
Turkey and Gravy Soda
Sweet Potato Soda
Dinner Roll Soda
Pea Soda
Antacid Flavored Soda

There was just something so charmingly Willy Wonka about this whole endeavor. We decided to taste the sodas in the order they are arranged in the box because it seemed to make sense in terms of taste-progression. Up first, Turkey and Gravy Soda!

Verdict: horrible. Apparently turkey and gravy flavored soda can be pretty awful. It really did taste like turkey and gravy. Except carbonated. It was gross. We soldiered through the other flavors, willing to believe that there must be ONE of them that tasted good. The sweet potato had the most potential, but again. It turns out that liquid carbonated sweet potato with a hint of marshmallow is pretty disgusting.

Here's a play-by-play of my mother enjoying her final liquid refreshment "antacid" in this five-course tasting menu:

Hmmm...antacid. It's pink. It's bubbly. Could be good.
She's thinking about it...
She's going for it...
Um, yeah. Again, antacid? Not a good flavor for soda.

The final verdict on these Wacky Fun Holiday Packs? Buy them only when they're on sale...as a gag gift...knowing that you really will be gagging. Fun for the whole family!

On the other hand, if you see any other flavors of Jones Soda, don't let the Holiday Pack deter you. Snap them up and give them a try! (Barry White is my hands down favorite.)

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Snow Days and Soda Bread

Since I didn't manage to extract myself from the cozy, multi-blanketed nest of my bed until well after the snow had passed from pristine prettiness into half-melty sludge, I give you this picture from Boston.com taken yesterday afternoon. Besides being yet another beautiful example of the fashion faux pas and arch-collapsing train wreck that is the Ugg boot (oh, why do I torture myself?), this photo so perfectly captures how unwilling we Bostonians were to deal with snow after a week of 55-degree weather--much less the blizzardy ice storm with sideways blowing snow pellets that we ended up getting. In my my three years in Boston, I can't help but notice that Bostonians have quite a time-honored "willing suspension of disbelief" going on here. To name a very few, we are willing to believe:Fuggedaboudit.

A good pummeling of snow seems to bring out the best and the worst in people. This morning, it's bringing out the best. Determined to make Irish soda bread
for a St. Patty's Day party later today and lacking the proper ingredients, I cinched on my snow pants, laced up my snow boots, and prepared for the worst. But then...the worst never came! When I realized that my local CVC doesn't carry buttermilk* and realized that a bus trip to the nearest Stop&Shop would be in order, I was sure my good mood was doomed. But then, miracle of miracles, a bus appeared on the horizon mere moments after I arrived at the bust stop. In attempting to board the bus, I managed to drop my shopping list, wallet, and T-pass at the same time, thus delaying the boarding of fellow passengers and departing of the bus. I apologized profusely to the bus driver, but instead of rolling her eyes or gazing disdainfully past my left ear--a normal and accepted reaction to passenger ineptitude--she actually said (get THIS!), "No problem. Welcome aboard." No problem? Welcome aboard?! Did anyone else hear that? But no, my fellow passengers were gazing placidly out the windows, not even minding that I was (continuing) to delay the bus by standing in the doorway, immobile with disbelief.

At the grocery store a group of local firefighters all dolled up in their boots and suspenders were shopping for a St. Patrick's Day dinner toge
ther--a very meaty St. Patrick's day dinner, as became increasingly obvious as I followed them around the grocery store. (Side note: I wasn't actually "following" the firefighters in the stalking sense; our shopping routes just happened to coincide is all. Though they were pretty adorable.) There was one Papa Bear Firefighter with the cart and all the other firefighters kind of orbited around him, bringing him cuts of meat for approval, adding condiments to the cart, dropping off sodas. I was especially touched when one swarthy-looking fellow added two beautiful purple rutabagas to the mix. I loves me a veggie-eatin' firefighter! And the whole time, the group was joking with each other, teasing the Stop&Shop employees (who they seemed to know quite well), and chatting with fellow customers. They even posed for a few pictures. It was all very heartwarming.

I found all my purchases, trotted back to the bus stop, and again waited mere moments for another bus to show up. The doors slid open and who should I see but my new favorite bus driver! "Good morning," she said as I climbed up (managing not to drop anything this time). "Good morning!" I chirped in reply. When I got to my stop, I actually walked all the way to the front of the bus just so that I could say, "Thank you!" as I got off. "You're welcome," she said gravely as the doors wheezed shut behind me.

And in one last feat of snowy-day good cheer, I passed the mailman on the short walk from the bus stop to my house. I always feel bad for mail carriers on the particularly gross weather days--rain or shine, they're always out there, but they always seem quite w
illing and happy to be doing what they're doing. In any case, peering at me from beneath his fur-lined, US Postal Blue hat**, my mailman said, "Hello! How are you?" "Quite well, thank you! And you?" I replied. "Oh, I'm great!" he said, and slushed past me, whistling a little tune.
*By the by, I'm not quite sure why I thought CVS would carry b
uttermilk, but I rilly wanted to believe it would--ahh...there's that suspension of disbelief! Hey, I'm a real Bostonian!

Every time I see a mail carrier now, I totally think of the Project Runway episode where they have to redesign the US Postal Service uniform. I saw a mail woman a few days ago wearing a particularly fashionable uniform (I thought) and I almost stopped and asked her about it. That was on a day when snow was making Bostonians grumpy, though, so I decided not to.

Irish Soda Bread

I've shied away from soda bread for a long time. My memories of it are of dense, dry, crumbly bricks with little taste or satisfaction, which are left in the bread basket long after the hunks of airy baguette and elegant slices of sourdough have been claimed. In the build up to St. Patty's day, a number of recipes for soda bread--both sweet and savory--came my way and I decided to give it a whirl in my own kitchen.

I decided on a sweet bread with raisins and nutmeg and held my breath as the rocky, unappetizing balls of dough baked into golden loaves twinkling with granulated sugar. In both taste and consistency, this bread reminds me of scones. The crust is both crunchy and crumbly, with a satisfying chew. The interior was cakey and moist, rich with a light sweetness and chewy little nuggets of raisin. This cake was the perfect finish to the corned beef stew cooked by our St. Patrick's Day hostess, and was wonderful on its own, smeared with butter, or paired with the traditional sharp cheddar cheese.

In my research for this recipe, I found that soda bread is traditionally baked in a cast-iron skillet so that the top and bottom get crunchy and brown evenly while the middle stays cakey. I don't have a cast iron skillet (yet--I know, I know, it's sin that I don't have one yet), but I thought I could replicate the effect in my dutch oven. This recipe makes two loaves, so I baked one in the dutch oven and one on a regular baking sheet. (In the picture of the two loaves above, the one on the left was done in the dutch oven.)

Both loaves rose about the same amount, but the dutch oven loaf had a rounder shape and more even surface; where the loaf backed on the sheet was craggier and less uniform in shape. Additionally, the loaf baked in the dutch oven did indeed have a more even brown color and crunchier crust while the inside was noticeably more moist. The verdict? If you have a dutch oven or cast-iron skillet, I definitely recommend baking the loaf in it--just add about fifteen minutes to the baking time and remove the lid in the last five minutes. However, if you don't have a dutch oven, never fear--your bread will disappear just as fast.

Sweet Irish Soda Bread

Makes 2 loaves

4 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
6 Tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon nutmeg (1 1/4 tsp if using freshly ground)
4 Tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1 1/2 cups thick buttermilk
2 egg yolks
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 cups raisins (purple or golden)

Set oven to 375-degrees. If using a dutch oven or skillet, put it into the oven to warm as the oven heats.

In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, sugar, and nutmeg. Add the butter and use the tips of your fingers or a pastry cutter to work the butter into the flour until it reduces to pea-sized bits. Add the raisins and toss to coat with flour (this helps the raisins stay suspended in the batter).

In another bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, th egg yolks, and the vanilla. Create a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour in the liquids. Use a wooden spoon to stir the mixture until all the ingredients are combined and the dough easily comes together into a ball. It will be very moist and shaggy.

Divide the dough in half and form each half into a ball. Use a sharp paring knife to slash a cross into the top of each loaf about 1/2 inch deep, a traditional feature of soda bread that also allows the dough to expand while baking without cracking the surface. Sprinkle each loaf with a few pinches of granulated sugar.

If using a dutch oven or skillet, drop the dough (cross-side up) into the bowl and cover. If using a baking sheet, cover a baking sheet with parchment paper and set the dough in the middle. Bake loaves for 40 minutes or so until the surface is evenly golden, the center is set, and a cake tester (or toothpick) inserted into the center comes out clean. (Loaves baked in a dutch oven may need another 15 minutes to bake. Leave the oven uncovered for the last 5-10 minutes of baking.)

Allow the loaves to rest at least 1/2 hour before serving.

Weight Watcher's Points: Each loaf is about 34.5 points total. If you slice it into 12 wedges, each wedge is about 3 points a piece.