Soda bread has its roots in Ireland and is basically a quick bread that's made using ‘bread soda’ or bicarbonate of soda as the raising agent rather than the traditional yeast.
It dates back to the 1800s when bread soda was first introduced and it was originally cooked in big cast-iron pots over open peat fires because most people didn’t have ovens. Some recipes have been passed down from one generation to the next, and soda farls (or rolls) are an important part of the traditional fried breakfast in some parts of Ireland. Apparently: “There is no bread to be had equal to it for invigorating the body, promoting digestion, strengthening the stomach, and improving the state of the bowels.” That comes from an Irish farmers’ magazine of 1836!
Now the science bit: it’s traditionally made with buttermilk, not yogurt, but it’s the lactic acid that counts: that reacts with the baking soda to form bubbles of gas (carbon dioxide), which cause the bread to rise. It’s also why you use cake flour (薄力粉) rather than bread flour (強力粉), because cake flour contains less gluten and so rises more easily.
Soda bread is a bit like scones: it’s best eaten straight out of the oven and won’t last more than a couple of days. I made a warm salad with avocado, salad spinach, bacon and cannellini beans with a dressing of olive oil and balsamic vinegar for the first round, and we spread cream cheese on the bread. Any leftovers can be used the next day split, toasted, buttered and served topped with grilled bacon and oven-roasted cherry tomatoes.
For roasted tomatoes, place one or two packs of cherry tomatoes on a baking sheet and sprinkle with a little chopped fresh rosemary, some coarse sea salt and a drizzle of olive oil. Roast at 220℃ for 20 minutes until tender. Add a splash of balsamic vinegar and serve warm.
For some reason, shumai dumplings remind me of train journeys, and specifically of eki-ben. The Yokohama version is kind of ubiquitous – it's always on sale irrespective of where in the country you are, though I suspect I only ever buy it for the little ceramic soy sauce holders, which are adorable.
Anyway, the best thing about shumai is that they're a whole lot easier to make than gyoza, which makes them perfect for sweltering summer nights. I've put in the bit about shaping them with your forefinger and thumb, but essentially you just need to squeeze the skins around the filling to get them to stick, and once you've steamed them nobody can tell the difference! You don't even really need to set aside edamame for decoration as there are a lot in the mix and they seem to rise to the top of the dumplings of their own accord. These freeze well too, so if you're feeling really energetic make a double or triple batch and freeze the leftovers for another night, or nights.
These are really easy and nutritious. I like the texture combination you get with the edamame and the other ingredients, which is kind of intriguing and very delicious. I didn't make a dipping sauce, I ran out of energy (!) so I just served these with a dash of soy sauce, and they were yummy.
Edamame are now hugely popular as a snack food in England and the States, though not as an accompaniment to beer, which is kind of weird!
Somen Noodles with Natto, Tuna & Avocado
I don't know about anyone else, but it's been WAY too hot to cook over the past couple of weeks. My appetite has been playing tricks on me too: it vanishes completely only to ambush me when I least expect it: I'm not hungry for hours and then suddenly I'm ravenous.
Thinner than angel-hair pasta and so delicate, somen noodles take just minutes to cook, and they are incredibly versatile: you can serve them with pretty much anything. The great thing about this dish is that you don't need anything else: all the nutrients you could ever want are already in there – it's a complete meal in itself, and it doesn't take a whole lot of effort to put together.
The idea for the tuna-avocado combination came from a dish I had at an izakaya a couple of weeks back. It was so good I had to find some way of using it at home, though the grated yam and natto make it lighter and easier on the palate I think, as does the ginger in the sauce. I also think I've eaten about all the noodles I can handle, mind you, though I never really get tired of the slurping experience probably because slurping was such a big no-no when I was a child and I still feel like I'm doing something naughty!
Tips: Sprinkling the avocado with lemon juice as soon as you've cut it stops the avocado from discoloring, which probably isn't news to anyone, but what you may not know is that leaving the stone inside the remaining half also prevents the fruit from turning brown while it's in storage.
I'm having a love affair with Mexican salsa right now. I think it's something to do with the sticky heat that's descended on the city: if I'm going to sweat, I'd rather have fun doing it, and this hot and fiery salsa will make your eyes water, your face and hands sweat and your tongue sing!
I'm having it with everything – on toast in the morning, with natto (yup! That suggestion came from a friend and it's every bit as good as she said it would be) or a fried egg; everything, in fact, save the tortilla chips with which it's normally associated.
The heat of salsas has a purpose: to make the eater break into a sweat. The body cools itself by sweating, and hot, spicy foods have developed in countries that deal with hotter climates, but you want a healthy balance between flavor and pungency: you shouldn't permit an excess of chili to saturate your taste buds or other sensory organs.
A good salsa is all in the vigorous, spirited, vehement, but at the same time, sensual and subtle flavors of the chili pepper. Naturally, you can buy salsa in jars, but making it yourself from fresh, seasonal vegetables is much more satisfying, healthier and you can control the spiciness.
The coriander (or cilantro, as I discovered it's called in the States) and the jalapeno peppers are standard to all salsa recipes, but you can make salsa with pretty much anything. I've made it the traditional way with tomatoes and onions, but the last batch had zucchini and tomatoes in it, and this celery version is my current favorite – think of all that fiber!!!
Incidentally, you don't have to sauté the vegetables, but doing so helps them to absorb the flavors of the other ingredients.
Pressed Sushi with Cabbage and Japanese Ginger
The weather's been so odd lately and the last couple of days have been cool enough to have me yearning for hot sake (atsukan - at this time of year?!), but in hope that there is warmer weather to come and that appetites and the desire to slave over a stove are going to dwindle, I'm already experimenting with dishes that are refreshing and vibrant that will stimulate the taste buds and ease heat fatigue.
There is nothing like sushi.
The emphasis on the freshness and quality of ingredients, the precision of its assembly, the simple elegance of presentation: all hallmarks of Japanese cuisine encapsulated in a single dish. Sushi is both delicious and healthy, making it a favorite of food lovers everywhere. The only draw back is that a full sushi dinner at a restaurant can often be very expensive. I'm a sushi lover, but I don't want to spend a fortune, so I've come up with a super-easy and very economical version of pressed sushi that will save you a lot of money - it doesn't even use any fish!
Pressed sushi is essentially regular, sushi-chef sushi in reverse; you could even call it 'lazy-man's sushi'. The oshizushi mold is a useful thing to have hidden at the back of a kitchen cupboard, too, since it's a great way to transform seasonal vegetables into sushi treats. Here the contrastive colors of the cabbage and the myoga make for an eye-pleasing appetizer that could as easily fit in to a bento lunch box. Every morsel is a cascade of flavor. The distinctive sour of vinegar rice sublimely highlights the sweet freshness of the cabbage and delicate flavor of the myoga. If I could, I'd probably eat several uncut oshizushi cakes by myself! I jest.
Myoga trivia (mainly for my own benefit, since most Japanese readers probably know all this stuff already): Myoga will ward off evil and is thought to be an auspicious food. It is also said to be mildly anaesthetic and is thought to help keep colds at bay. If you eat too much you'll lose your memory (perhaps that's the reason I'm so absentminded...)! Myoga is also the name of the bird that helps bring the lover stars Altair and Vega together on Tanabata, the night of the Star Festival. What more reason could you want to eat it, aside from its distinctive, delicate taste?!