Bread and Beans

I woke up looking for comfort today.  Comfort in the form of food, of course.  Cold and grey outside and threatening to sleet.  Snow would be nice, what with the wood stove putting out ripples of warmth.  The stove in the kitchen  is busy simmering up some dried beans for a chili later this morning and a hearty nut and grain whole wheat loaf is creeping up the side of a blue crock bowl on its way toward finishing its first rise.

Two topics this morning are wanting mention: dense, satisfying bread and cooking dried beans in a hurry.  In the second full week of my ‘Year of the Wine Ration’, I have had a fair amount of success in digging out from my overloaded refrigerator, freezer and pantry.  Fresh salad ingredients, milk and paper goods have proven to be the bulk of my purchases this week and my creativity is put to the challenge daily as I try to come up with something  that meets my snobbish expectations for dinner.  I have yet to purchase a bottle of wine; my stores are becoming quickly depleted.  I can now see the back wall of my refrigerator and can almost get the crisper and cheese drawers closed without a struggle.

The year of the wine ration began with an understanding for health and budgetary purposes, that my husband and I would limit ourselves to only one glass per day, unless we are entertaining.  Some days are better than others of course, but overall, I am respectably keeping (close to) my word.  My birthday being tomorrow, I suppose that a bit a celebration is in order and I may go over my quota for my Birthday Eve, Birthday and Day After my Birthday dinners.  Who knows?  Back to food now.

Let’s think about bread for a bit.  Last weekend, I invested a few days of reading Mark Bittman’s new book:   Food Matters.  Quite the page turner, Bittman’s book is written with an easy style.  Although the topic of how our food choices are the largest part of the planet’s poor environmental health is a fairly depressing and  not surprising one, he doesn’t make the readers feel like he’s mad at us (unless of course you work for big food or happen to be a lawmaker).  Bittman shares the responsibility of the problem (as in his personal food choices) and walks us through reasonable solutions.  He supplies us with 75 recipes, although the recipes were my least favorite part of the book.  Mostly, he advises that we eat as locally as possibly, eat more grains, veggies and fruits than we normally would,cut out convenience, fast food and processed foods, and reduce the amount of animal protein and products as comfortable in order for everyone to make a contribution to resolving and reversing the sad environmental state of the planet.  Putting into perspective that truly, we can all make this contribution with a bit of delicious, healthy effort was satisfying.  Between the lines I read a call to action.  Up to the task am I and the recipe and cooking tips offered today may help you too.

Well, that was quite a tangent, ay?  It relates to bread – I swear.  Utilizing what’s in my pantry and trying to apply the tenet that Bittman laid out in his book, I have revised a recipe for a wholesome, nutty loaf of bread.  Balanced with just  enough honey, and dense enough to satisfy the ‘earthiest’ eaters, this bread could easily fill in for breakfast with the addition of a banana or apple.  Butter is optional, but a lavish adornment.  A topical application of peach freezer jam or peanut butter would send you over the top.

Mixed Grain and Walnut Bread

2 cups whole wheat flour

1 cup bread flour

1 cup whole oats

1/4 cup wheat germ or bran

1 1/2 tsp salt

1/2 cup finely chopped toasted walnuts

1/3 cup toasted sunflower seeds

4 tsp instant yeast

1 1/2 cups hot tap water

2 Tbls honey

2 Tbls olive oil

Mix together the flours, oats, germ, salt, nuts, seeds and yeast until well combined.  Stir the water, honey and oil together and pour over the grains.  Stir with a wooden spoon until a loose batter/dough is obtained.  Cover with plastic wrap and allow the moisture to be absorbed by the oats and grains, about 20 minutes. Turn the dough out onto a pastry board or counter top that has barely 1/2 tsp of flour on it. (Too much flour is the reason many loaves turn out to be difficult to knead and dry.)   Knead the dough for about 5 minutes or until it seems resilient and smooth.  Add just enough flour to the board to keep the dough from sticking.  Pour about a tsp of olive oil in the bowl that you mixed the bread in, and turn the dough in the bowl until lightly greased all over.  Cover with plastic wrap and allow the dough to rise for 1-1 1/2 hours, or until doubled in bulk.  You’ll know when the ‘doubled’ stage has been reached when you press two fingers into the dough and the indentation remains.  If the dough springs back, the rising is not complete.  Once you determine that the first rise is complete, gently deflate the dough and allow to bench rest for about 15 minutes, keeping covered.  Deflate the dough again and shape into a loaf.  Place in a greased loaf pan, oil the top, dust the top with a handful of oats or additional sunflower seeds or walnuts and cover again with plastic wrap and a towel.  Allow to rise for about an hour (possibly longer), checking again for the ‘double’ stage.

Invert another loaf pan of the same size on top of the first pan, or tent with aluminum foil formed into a dome over the bread. (This tenting will keep the dough moist and allow for the maximum amount of ‘oven spring’, creating a higher, lighter loaf.

Bake at 360 degrees for 45-60 minutes, removing the ‘tent’ after the first 20 minutes.  Use an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the loaf to verify internal temperature is between 190 and 200 degrees.  Now the hard part.  Allow the bread to cool for at least 30 minutes.  This will help the moist, dense bread continue ‘baking’ – aka, carry-over cook, and redistribute the steam that is built up inside the loaf.  Cutting into the loaf immediately will result in collapsing the bread and it will appear still wet on the knife.  Granted, it’s good, all hot and steamy, but trust me on this – wait.

Follow the process with the pictures below:  The dough, just shy of doubled; Passing the ‘double bulk test’; Ready for the oven; Tented with a second bread pan; and finally, the finished loaf.

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Here’s the finished loaf

Dried Beans – in a hurry

I used to try to plan to cook dried beans by soaking them overnight and cooking them the next day, a process I was brought up to believe as necessary.  In culinary school, I was taught a different method during my Mexican Cooking segment.  If you cook dried beans like you would risotto, the beans are usually ready in about an hour and a half – about the same amount of time as it takes to cook them after soaking. This method really takes the pressure off when you want to use dried beans to save money, or just to empty out the pantry, but perhaps didn’t plan ahead – again.

First, rinse and drain the beans, looking for any little clods of soil or small pebbles.  Place them in a pan and just cover them with cold water.  Place another pan of water on the stove and bring them both to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.  When the water falls below the level of the beans, add a bit more of the simmering water, just enough to cover the beans.  Continue this process until the beans are  tender and a single bean mashes when pushed against the side of of the pan.  Continue with the bean as you would with canned beans, using them in any recipes you like.

Enjoy your bread, cook some beans and let me know how things go.  Mary

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