Tuesday, May 19, 2015

I Make Brown Bread

I suppose to many people this post will be completely boring, but it’s about something I found incredibly interesting: I made brown bread for the first time, as in “Steamed Boston Brown Bread.”

I think it fascinated me because it seems no one makes it anymore. No one eats it, no one serves it. (At least not around here. I’ll bet it’s still proudly served in households throughout New England.) Yet I’m pretty sure it used to be fairly common throughout America. And that would make it a “retro recipe,” or a “mom” or “grandma recipe.” And that means: Let’s not forget it. Let’s check it out. Let’s have it sometimes, because it inspires nostalgia and reverence.

When I was a kid, we used to have brown bread pretty often. I think Mom used to buy it at the grocery store, canned. She’s told me that her mom used to make it. And like a lot of moms and grandmas, grandma used to make it in a largish tin can.

It would seem to be very healthy and full of nutrients: My recipe calls for equal parts of whole wheat flour, rye flour, and corn meal—plus molasses (I used Brer Rabbit full flavor). The leavening is buttermilk (or sour milk, but you can’t really buy that) plus baking soda and salt. Pretty simple, actually.

Raisins are commonly added—I intended to put them in, but forgot at the last moment. Yes, I really was that excited!

For those of you who don’t know anything about brown bread, here’s its most remarkable trait: It is not baked; it is steamed.

In my brain, that seems silly: Wouldn’t steaming make bread soggy? Well, not if you wrap up the batter/dough so that no extra moisture can get in.

And so, if you want to make brown bread, you need some kind of steamer. I used a big enamel-ware canning pot that Sue’s mom gave us. The recipe I used said to use a 2-quart pudding mold (filled 2/3’s full), and I didn’t have one of those. Well, I do, but I wanted something fairly loaf-shaped. (All our tin cans had gone out in the recycling, so I didn’t have any around!)

Digging around in our bakeware cupboard under the counter, I found some disposable aluminum-foil-type loaf tins that each hold 1 quart, and I found they would fit in the pot nicely side-by-side. I wrapped each tightly with heavy-duty aluminum foil, so no steam would get into the bread.

The instructions said to steam it for 3 1/2 hours, but they didn’t need to go that long (two 1-quart loaf tins would cook faster than one big mass in a single 2-quart mold). Even at 3 hours, it still seemed like a hell of a long time to cook anything on the stovetop (not counting the braising of sauerbraten, which is always worth doing). But at least it didn’t need much watching. The canning pot didn’t let out much water vapor at all, so the water never got close to needing replenishing.

The recipe is from my beloved copy of The Good Housekeeping Cook Book, ed. Dorothy B. Marsh (New York: Rinehart, 1949), pp. 446-47.

There was something magical about fishing those foil-wrapped tins out of the steamer, opening them, and finding nice little loaves of moist, spongy bread where before there had been a blob of quick-bread batter glop.

To celebrate, we followed the rest of the instructions in my 1940s cookbook, which suggested to serve the brown bread hot “with baked beans, codfish cakes, frankfurters, etc.” I didn’t have any codfish cakes lying about, but I did go to the store and found some actual frankfurters (as opposed to hot dogs)—plump, pudgy, flavorful franks with skins that kind of “snapped” when we bit into them. And yes, baked beans, too.

The next day, we made little sandwiches with the bread, now chilled, filled with cream cheese, and had them with red-grape-laced chicken salad (a delicious combo that my Aunt Ann served us for lunch a few years ago; she’d spiked the chicken salad with a hint of microplane-grated orange peel, too, and that was especially good).

My apologies: There are no pictures of our plates, because we consumed these meals before I even thought of taking any photos for the blog. (I do wonder about bloggers who seem to take pictures of every morsel they put into their mouths . . . !)

So although this wasn’t the most “colorful” of posts, I hope you’ll appreciate this humble culinary exploration of mine. Maybe it will inspire you to try making brown bread, too!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Rainbow Scarab

I learned about another new insect today! I saw this in our backyard. At first I thought it was one of those doggoned Japanese beetles (invasive pests), but it looked stockier and somehow didn't fit my "search image" for that species. And I was right!

May I introduce you to: a rainbow scarab!

Phanaeus vindex is apparently pretty common in the eastern United States, though I'd never seen one before.

It's a type of dung beetle--one of those scarabs that takes advantage of organic materials that aren't completely digested by mammals. Unlike other dung beetles, which are generally dull black (shiny black if they're exceptionally spiffy), this one is bright shiny green and copper!

Like other dung beetles, this species sniffs out piles of poop using its elaborate antennae (orange, here--with platelike segments that can be fanned out or pressed together at will). Once it catches a whiff, the beetle, buzzing heavily like a bumblebee, flies upwind to the source of the stench (you know, to dung beetles, poop must smell like a steak on a grill, or a bunch of pretty flowers, or a cherry pie in the oven).

Finding the poop, the beetle burrows under the pile, rolls some of the dung into a ball, then buries the ball in a hole beneath the pile, laying eggs on it. After hatching, the larval beetles (C-shaped grubs) eat the dung as they develop. (Like other beetles, the larvae then pupate, much like a butterfly, and emerge as a winged adult.)

Most dung beetles (quite famously) roll their little dung balls away from the pile of poop. If you haven't seen Zefrank's video "True Facts About the Dung Beetle," you must see it. I insist. But the rainbow scarab doesn't do that "rolling" bit.

It's ironic that this species, which is so beautiful, apparently spends more time completely under the dung than the dull black types, which roll the poop along like a circus act for all to see.

Another thing: this one I saw is a male. See the horn on the top of its head? Females don't have that. Apparently the horn plays a role in male-male competition.

Sometimes the horn on males is breathtakingly large. Look at Bugguide's Phanaeus vindex page for examples.

As I type this, Mr. Rainbow Scarab is probably forming himself a nice little poo-ball and looking to hook up with a girlfriend. I leave you with this closeup on his face. I can't help but see an "expression" in it, like "Aren't you about done taking pictures? Can I just leave now, please? I have things to do."

So, after harassing this beetle and taking a bunch of pictures of it, what did I do with him? I found a pile of cat poo in the backyard and set him down beside it. He immediately began digging into the soil next to it. Fascinating!

But I didn't stick around to watch--I was curious, but flies were buzzing around, and it didn't exactly smell like a bunch of flowers, either.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Yellow Breeze

I used to rank springtime right up there with fall, as the very best time to be in Missouri, and possibly the best time to be alive, but I’m finally admitting it: Springtime has slipped to third place . . . behind winter.

Hang it all: I’m tired of fighting with the pollen. Until I was in graduate school, springtime never bothered me. Then, somehow (my mind still runs in circles, trying to figure out how it could have happened, as if there’s some kind of reason for it), I developed allergies to tree and grass pollen.

The first time it hit, I thought I had the world’s worst (and weirdest) head cold. In my effort to stop the nose running and the itching, I took so much Benadryl I became polka-dotted. I developed a rash. (I read the part in the instructions about “take every 4 to 6 hours,” but I neglected to pay attention to the part that says “don’t take more than X tablets in a 24-hour period.”) Fortunately, a doc with ASU student health center set me up with some Hismanal, and it was like clicking a switch: All better now.

And so each year my secret wish is that someday this might all “go away” just as mysteriously it came on. And if that wish doesn’t come true, then my second wish is that whatever allergy drug I took the previous year will still work this year. (And yeah . . . unfortunately, this year, Claritin’s nearing the end of its run. Geez, I’ve taken all the other ones. What’s next?)

I used to love to throw open the windows in spring, let the fresh cool air into the house. Taking down the storm windows and putting in the screens. Smelling the lilac blossoms from beneath the window. Awakening to birds singing in the backyard, because the windows are open. Or falling asleep to the sound of a gentle spring rain.

But no. This year, I entered allergy season on the heels of a head cold, and my throat, lungs, and sinuses are just . . . tired. So this year, when it started to get so bad that even Sue was suffering, we’ve decided to keep the windows closed, to keep the pollen out. It helps.

We also went and bought one of those true-HEPA air purifiers, and put it in the bedroom, so I can finally get some sleep.

It makes me sad to think that this time of year, when the weather is finally warm enough to let fresh air into the house, that a different reason has us shutting the windows. But then, ya gotta breathe, huh?