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FOOD HOLIDAY: National Sourdough Bread Day

April 1st is National Sourdough Bread Day. Sourdough is an ancient bread made by a long fermentation of dough, using naturally occurring lactobacilli bacteria and wild yeasts (other types of breads use cultivated yeasts, which became available only in the 19th century).

In comparison with breads made with cultivated yeast, sourdough usually has a mildly sour taste and aroma, the result of the lactic acid produced by the lactobacilli.

The preparation of sourdough begins with pre-fermenting, using a “starter” made from flour and water (the starter is also known as levain, the chief, chef or head). It can be a fluid batter or a stiff dough, as the ratio of water to flour varies by baker.

The starter helps to develop the uniquely tart flavor of sourdough bread. Starters are maintained for years, even generations. The colony of bacteria and yeast inside the dough is kept alive by the baker, who needs only a piece of it to bake a new batch of bread.

If you bake bread in a bread machine, note that the rise time of most sourdough starters is longer than that of breads made with baker’s yeasts. Thus, sourdough typically doesn’t work in a bread machine; you need to use conventional baking techniques.

   

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Sourdough bread baked at Lafayette Restaurant | NYC.

ANCIENT BREAD

One of the oldest sourdough breads was found in a Swiss excavation; the site dates to 3700 B.C.E. But the origin of sourdough fermentation is likely thousands of years older than that, originating in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia.

Bread production has relied on the use of sourdough as a leavening agent for most of human history (the alternative to leavened bread was flatbread, such as lavosch and tortillas). The development and use of [cultivated] baker’s yeast as a leavening agent dates back only 150 years.

Sourdough starter from a prior batch is used to create the new batch. Sourdough remained the usual form of leavening in European into the Middle Ages. Then, it was replaced by barm, the yeast-laden foam that forms in the process of brewing alcohol (for bread, the barm typically came from beer brewing). Centuries later, scientists learned to culture yeast, so bakers no longer had to rely on barm.

 

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Sourdough starter. You can also purchase ready-made starter. Photo courtesy FoodForMyFamily.com.

 

SOURDOUGH COMES TO AMERICA

French bakers brought sourdough techniques to Northern California during the Gold Rush (1848–1855), and the bread remains part of the culture of San Francisco, where it has been in continuous production there since 1849. Some bakeries can trace their starters back to those days!

In English-speaking countries, where wheat-based breads predominate, sourdough is no longer the standard method for bread leavening. It was gradually replaced, first by the use of barm from beer making and then by cultured yeasts.

Thanks to the artisan food movement in the late 20th century in the U.S., it has undergone a revival [Source]. Now, most of us can enjoy it whenever we like—for toast, sandwiches and in the bread basket.

If you haven’t had sourdough bread recently, today’s the day!

 

Check out the different types of breads in our Bread Glossary.

  

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TIP OF THE DAY: Ways To Use Fresh Spring Peas

Lovers of green peas (also called English peas and garden peas), you’re in for a treat. Spring is the season.

It’s time to serve sides of fresh-steamed green peas and make some delicious fresh pea soup.

But what else should you be doing with these bright green jewels? Their sweet flavor and bright color can grace your table in so many other ways.

You can use almost any cooking method, from boiling, braising or microwaving, to sautéing, steaming and stir-frying. Add them raw to salads and pop them into your mouth as a snack.

They take only a few minutes to cook. In fact, you need to watch them to avoid ending up with mushy peas (if this happens, make a quick pea purée; and if they’ve lost their bright hue, add a teeny drop of food color). We aim for “al dente.”

Create recipes with these flavor accents:

  • Cured meats: bacon, chorizo, pancetta, prosciutto, smoked ham
  • Fresh herbs: basil, chervil, dill, mint, tarragon
  •    

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    Fresh picked and divine. Photo courtesy The Chef’s Garden.

  • The onion group: chives, garlic, green onions, leeks, ramps (spring onion), shallots; red, yellow or white onions
  • Proteins: chicken, duck, lamb, fish (especially cod and, salmon), seafood (especially scallops), tofu
  • Spring produce: asparagus, fava beans, fennel, fiddlehead ferns, Meyer lemon, morels, mustard greens
  •  
    We can’t think of anything more delicious than fresh peas with asparagus, fiddleheads, morels and ramps—or as many of these as you can get hold of—sautéed with garlic in olive oil. Garnish with a chiffonade of fresh mint.

    Don’t dally: The season is short! For inspiration, here are just ways to use the bounty of fresh peas.
     
    GREEN PEAS AT BREAKFAST

  • In an omelet
  • As a side with fried, poached or scrambled eggs
  • Atop Greek yogurt or cottage cheese
  • In a green smoothie
  •  
    GREEN PEAS AT LUNCH

  • In macaroni, potato or rice/grain salad
  • In a green salad or Greek salad*
  • Pea soup (try a spring recipe, with fresh mint)
  • Spicy fresh pea salad (recipe)
  •  
    Plus:

  • As a snack, raw
  •  
    *Romaine, bell pepper, red onion and feta, with a fresh dill garnish. Add some lemon zest to the vinaigrette.

     

    ricotta-pea-toast-chalkpointkitchen-230

    Easy, peasy: an appetizer or snack of crostini
    with ricotta and fresh peas. The recipe is below. Photo courtesy Chalk Point Kitchen |
    NYC.

     

    GREEN PEAS AT DINNER

  • Asian style: blanched or sautéed with ginger; then tossed with a soy, wasabi, ginger and garlic marinade
  • Bibb or butter lettuce salad with radish and green onion (scallion)
  • Blended half-and-half with cooked rice or other grain, topped with grated or shaved Parmesan cheese
  • Spring pea risotto, with pancetta or bacon plus garlic and onion
  • Cooked in olive oil and stock (recipe)
  • Pasta, especially with a white or olive oil sauce (add some prosciutto, bacon or a few grilled shrimp)
  • Pea & mint soup
  • Pea pesto, as a sauce or dip (recipe)
  • Pea purée as a side
  • Quickly sautéed in olive oil or steamed and tossed with butter
  •  

    RECIPE: GREEN PEA & RICOTTA TOAST

    Enjoy this for breakfast, as a first course or a snack. We chose a rustic Italian loaf with sesame seeds, but any peasant bread will do.

    Ingredients

  • Rustic bread loaf
  • Ricotta cheese (see if you can find it freshly made, at a cheese store or Italian market)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Green peas
  • Optional: lemon zest
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Garnish: baby arugula, pea shoots, microgreens or sprouts
  •  
    Preparation

    1. STEAM the peas to al dente and let cool. Combine the ricotta with salt, pepper and lemon zest to taste. Stir in peas to taste (few or many).

    2. TOAST the bread and slice as desired (depending on the diameter of the loaf, cut the toast into manageable pieces).

    3. SPREAD toast with the pea-ricotta mixture. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Garnish and serve.
     
    HOW TO BUY & STORE FRESH PEAS

    Buying Fresh Peas

    For the best flavor, choose small peas. They’re younger, sweeter and more tender than large ones. Look for medium-size pods that are firm and green, with no yellowing. Break open a pod and check the peas. They should be small, bright green and firm. Taste the peas in the pod: They should be tender and sweet.

    Freshness counts. As with corn, once picked the peas’ high sugar content begins to convert to starch. Don’t pay for mature peas. You might as well use frozen peas.

    Don’t pay extra for shelled peas. You don’t know how fresh they are; and since you aren’t shelling peas day in, day out, it’s a fun activity.
     
    Storing Fresh Peas

  • Store the pods in the crisper drawer of the fridge in a plastic storage bag. Use them within two days.
  • Once they’re shelled, the best way to store peas is to freeze them. First blanch them for a minute or two in boiling salted water and then shock them in an ice-water bath to stop the cooking and maintain ther bright color. Drain and freeze them in freezer storage bags for up to six months.
  •  
    THE HISTORY OF PEAS

    The pea is native to western Asia and North Africa, and are one of the oldest cultivated foods, dating to the beginning of agriculture in the Middle East (as long as 10,000 years ago [8000 B.C.E.).

    By 2000 B.C.E., pea cultivation had spread throughout Europe and east into India. By the first century C.E., peas were introduced to China and soon after 1492, to the New World.

    Along with broad beans and lentils, peas were a staple for most Europeans during the Middle Ages. By the 1600s and 1700s, it became popular pick and eat immature peas. In France and England, where the eating of green peas eating young peas became a fashion.

    New varieties of peas were developed by the English during this time, including the familiar green peas we call garden peas and English peas.

    Thomas Jefferson grew more than 30 varieties of peas at Monticello. As the process of canning food became widespread in the 19th century, green peas moved beyond spring and became available year-round [source].

    Clarence Birdseye introduces the first frozen peas in 1952, which, everyone can agree, enabled a semblance of fresh peas year-round.

      

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    TIP OF THE DAY: Bake Irish Soda Bread

    Having published a recipe for Irish soda muffins for St. Patrick’s Day, we hadn’t planned to feature Irish soda bread this year.

    Then, we received this recipe from The Baker Chick and realized how much we wanted to tear into a warm loaf of soda bread and slather it with Kerrygold butter from Ireland.

    So we bumped our previously scheduled Tip Of The Day for this suggestion: Bake a loaf of Irish soda bread. If you’re already at work, bake it when you get home. It’s delicious with dinner—or in our case, instead of dinner. (We can make a joyous meal of great bread and butter.)

    Traditional Irish soda bread, the recipe below, has just four ingredients: flour, baking soda, salt and buttermilk. Other recipes add butter, caraway seeds, chocolate, eggs, orange peel or zest, raisins and/or sugar.

    The style of soda bread we enjoy in the U.S. is American-style, developed by Irish immigrants with butter, sugar and raisins.

    We adapted the recipe to meet in the middle: no butter or egg, but a bit of raisins and caraway.

    RECIPE: TRADITIONAL IRISH SODA BREAD

    Ingredients For 1 Loaf

       

    irish-soda-bread-thebakerchick-230

    Traditional Irish soda bread has no raisins or caraway. Photo courtesy The Baker Chick.

  • 1 pound (3-1/2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour; more as needed
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 cups buttermilk
  •  
    We couldn’t help ourselves: We added these optional, non-traditional ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup raisins, sultanas or dried cherries, currants or cranberries
  • 1 tablespoon caraway seeds
  •  
    But in the name of tradition, we held back on the butter, egg and sugar.
     
    Preparation

    1. PREHEAT the oven to 450°F.

    2. STIR together the flour, salt and baking soda in a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the middle of the mixture and pour in 1 1/2 cups of the buttermilk. Use a wooden spoon or your hand to combine the ingredients. You want the dough to be soft, so don’t over-mix it. Add more buttermilk if needed to get the dough to come together.

    3. TURN the dough onto a floured surface and give it just a few kneads (more will result in a tougher crumb). Shape it into a 6-inch diameter disk, about 2 inches high. Use a sharp knife to score a shallow X on the top of the loaf. Transfer to a cookie sheet or pizza stone and bake for 15 minutes.

    4. REDUCE the heat to 400°F and bake for another 20-25 minutes, or until the crust is golden, and the bread sounds hollow when you tap it.

     

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    For St. Patrick’s Day, spring for Kerrygold butter, made with milk from cows who graze
    on the green grass of the Emerald Isle. Photo
    courtesy Kerrygold.

     

    THE HISTORY OF IRISH SODA BREAD

    Baking soda, called bread soda in Ireland, was invented in the early 1800s. In those days most people didn’t have an oven—they cooked in a fireplace over coals or a peat fire (called turf fire in Ireland). They placed the dough in a lidded cast-iron pot which went right on top of the fire.

    In County Donegal and County Leitrim, there was a tradition of adding caraway seeds to bread. Immigrants brought that recipe to the U.S. In America, the recipe evolved to include butter, eggs, raisins and sugar—ingredients which frugal housewives in Ireland wouldn’t have thought to add to the dough.

    Today, the soda bread recipe options include:

  • White soda bread: all-purpose flour, baking soda, salt, buttermilk and optional caraway seeds.
  • Brown soda bread, also a traditional recipe that substitutes whole wheat flour for part or all or all of the white flour.
  • Irish soda bread with raisins and caraway, the classic Irish-American version also made with sugar, butter, and eggs.
  • Numerous modern recipes, from healthier variations of whole grains, flax and sunflower seeds to walnut soda bread to oat soda bread with browned butter, rosemary and black pepper.
  •  
    Check out these and other recipes here.

    FOOD TRIVIA: The cross cut into the top of the loaf before baking allows the heat to penetrate into the thickest part of the bread. As a bonus, in a Catholic country it adds the symbolic note of giving thanks.

      

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    ST. PATRICK’S DAY: Guacamole Recipe

    What’s Irish about guacamole, the quintessential Mesoamerican sauce, we wondered as we saw the headline in the email for St. Patrick’s Day Guacamole, sent to us by the California Avocado Commission.

    The answer: the integration of Irish ingredients—bacon, carrots, Cheddar, onion, parsley—into conventional guacamole. The idea was developed by Sabrina Modelle of TheTomatoTart.com.

    Alas, conventional Irish crackers (cream crackers, digestive biscuits, oat cakes) don’t go well with guacamole. Instead, default to tortilla chips.

    Food Should Taste Good makes Guacamole Tortilla Chips that have a slight green tinge, but we’re going with their Yellow Corn Dipping Chips.

    And some Irish beer.

    Prep time is 20 minutes. For a beautiful presentation, set aside a small portion of the Step 2 ingredients to use as garnish.
     
    RECIPE: ST. PATRICK’S DAY GUACAMOLE

    Ingredients For 6 Servings

  • 3 ripe Hass* avocados, seeded and peeled
  • ½ lemon, juiced
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  •    

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    Guacamole with “Irish” ingredients for St. Patrick’s Day. Photo courtesy TheTomatoTart.com.

  • 1/8 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
  • ½ cup very finely diced carrots
  • ¼ cup very finely diced red onion
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • ¼ jalapeño, seeded and very finely diced (optional)
  • 3 slices cooked bacon, chopped
  • ¼ cup very finely chopped parsley
  • 2 ounces Irish Cheddar cheese, crumbled (substitute other sharp Cheddar)
  • Tortilla chips, crudités or other dippers (how about green endive leaves?)
  •  
    *While there are much larger varieties of avocado, the Haas has the creamiest, most delicious flesh. As a result, 98% of the avocados grown in Mexico are Hass, a variety discovered as a seedling by Rudolph Hass, a California postman who planted it in his front yard in the 1920s. He patented the cultivar in 1935.

     

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    The avocado was long considered too sexual for “proper” people to eat. Photo courtesy Hass Avocado Board.

     

    Preparation

    1. MASH the avocado with lemon juice, salt, and pepper in a large bowl.

    2. STIR in the bacon, carrots, cheese, garlic, jalapeño, onion and parsley.

    3. GARNISH and serve.
     
    THE HISTORY OF GUACAMOLE

    Mesoamericans cultivated the avocado, a fruit which had grown there for millions of years. The conquering Aztecs called it ahuacatl; the “tl” is pronounced “tay” in Nahuatl, the Aztec language. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1519 under Hernán Cortés, they heard ah-hwah-cah-tay as “aguacate,” the spelling and pronounciation they adopted.

    Guacamole was compounded in a molcajete, a mortar and pestle carved from volcanic stone.

     

    The name guacamole comes from Mexican Spanish via the Nahuatl “ahuacamOlli,” a compound of ahuacatl [avocado] + mOlli [sauce]. The chocolate-based mole sauce comes from that same word, mOlli.

    Ahuacatl means “testicle.” Aztecs saw the avocado as resembling testicles and ate them as a sex stimulant. According to Linda Stradley on the website WhatsCookingInAmerica.com, for centuries after Europeans came into contact with the avocado, it carried its reputation for inducing sexual prowess. It wasn’t purchased or consumed by anyone concerned with his or her reputation.

    American avocado growers had to sponsor a public relations campaign to dispel the myth before avocados could become popular. After then, their dark green, pebbly flesh also earned avocados the name, “alligator pear.”

      

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    TIP OF THE DAY: Green Bean & Potato Salad

    If you’re thinking of potato salad for game day, how about upping the flavor, color, texture and nutrition with green beans, a.k.a. string beans and snap beans (more about that below).

    Fresh green bean crops are harvested year-round, but are best in early winter, early summer and early fall. Beans picked early in the season are smaller and sweeter. As they mature, they lose flavor and get thicker and tougher.

    “The combination of green beans and red potatoes, sometimes known as Green Beans Pierre, is one of my go-to side dishes,” SAYS Preci D’Silva, who contributed the recipe to Taste Of Home.

    The recipe calls for dried herbs, but trust us: fresh herbs give a much more wonderful punch of flavor. You can use a combination of fresh and dried, depending on what you have on hand (e.g., fresh basil and parsley, dried tarragon). While this recipe uses an oil and vinegar dressing, you can also add green beans into mayonnaise-dressed potato salad.

    While the recipe was developed to serve warm, it is equally delicious at room temperature. Prep time is 30 minutes.

    RECIPE: WARM GREEN BEAN & POTATO SALAD

    Ingredients For 10 Servings

  • 1 pound small red potatoes, quartered
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar*
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon each garlic powder, ground mustard and pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon each dried basil, parsley flakes and tarragon
  • 1 pound fresh green beans, cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 2 medium tomatoes, coarsely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons chopped onion
  •    

    potato-green-bean-salad-tasteofhome-230r

    Add crunch and flavor to potato salad. Photo courtesy Taste Of Home.

     
    *We love balsamic vinegar so much that we often use it, even though it adds a dark color. White balsamic, created to solve this problem, isn’t real balsamic, and doesn’t taste anything like it. Here’s more about balsamic vinegar.
     

    Preparation

    1. PLACE the potatoes in a large saucepan; add water to cover. Bring to a boil. Cook, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Meanwhile…

    2. WHISK together the oil, vinegar and seasonings in a large bowl.

    3. ADD the green beans to the pot of potatoes; return to a boil. Cook 3-5 minutes longer or until the vegetables are tender. Drain.

    4. ADD to the dressing and toss to coat. Stir in the tomatoes and onion. Serve warm.

     

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    Before breeding eliminated it, green beans had a fibrous “string” atop the long ridges and were known as string beans. Photo courtesy Burpee.

     

    GREEN BEANS OR STRING BEANS: THE DIFFERENCE

    String beans got their name because they originally had a string, a tough fiber that ran from one tip to the other. The string had to be removed before cooking. The task was onerous enough that the string was bred out of most varieties. But the name, handed down from generation to generation, lives on.

    The beans also got the name of snap beans, because when you bend them, they snap.

    There are two types of green beans:

  • Bush beans, which have a rounded pod (see photo).
  • Pole beans, which are usually large and relatively flat.
  •  
    Pole beans are also more tender, so if you have a choice, go for the flat beans.

    But whether bush or pole, raw green beans are tender enough to be eaten raw. They are a standard on our crudité platter, and whenever we have them on hand, we add them to green salads, other vegetable salads, grain salads and protein salads (chicken, egg, tuna, etc.).

     

    HOW TO HANDLE GREEN BEANS

    Here’s advice from Produce Pete:

  • Selection: Choose small to medium-size pods that are velvety-looking and bright green, with no signs of wilting or wrinkling. If you’re not sure of the freshness, bend one and see if it snaps. If it’s rubbery and bends, it’s past its prime.
  • Storage: Don’t wash green beans (or any produce) until you’re ready to use them. While it’s always best to use them as soon as you buy them, you can refrigerate them in a paper bag an or unsealed plastic bag for a day or two. If you’ve had them longer and they start to wilt, you may be able to revive them in ice-cold water. Otherwise, you can purée them or add them to soups or stews.
  • Preparation: To cook, simply steam or cook in a small amount of water in a covered pan for five to eight minutes (we steam them in the microwave), adding a dab of butter (or good olive oil), salt and pepper. Don’t overcook or you’ll get a canned green bean flavor.
  • Freezing: String beans freeze well if blanched for two minutes before freezing.
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