Friday, March 17, 2006
Real Irish cooking for St. Patrick's Day
Here in the Boston area, we have made the feast day of the patron saint of Ireland into a huge holiday with leprechauns, pots of gold, parades and green beer. In Ireland, it is a quiet day, barely observed as a feast day, and celebrated only for the tourists. Beer does not change color and is not refrigerated. There are no raucous political breakfasts, and meals are pretty much the same as they are every day. It is much more fun to be here on St. Patrick's Day, where we make it into a big party with our own "traditional" food and drink. It is certainly not a holiday to observe while watching one's weight or limiting one's cholesterol intake, but there is plenty of reason in long, windy, weather-beaten March to get into the spirit. Sláinte and Erin go bragh!
Real Irish cooking comes down to great peasant fare, using fresh farm products without waste and not stinting on calories. Ireland's climate is cool, damp, and windy, and most people do a lot of walking, so comfort food is everywhere. Root vegetables are enormous there, and very sweet. Those that grow above ground tend to be best if they are hardy, like cabbage and its cousin, Brussels sprouts, and these are treated as green vegetables are here: served mainly as side dishes.
Corned beef and cabbage, the traditional St. Patrick's Day dinner hereabouts, is really a New England adaptation of an old Irish dish; in fact we more properly call it a New England Boiled Dinner. The meat is boiled with cabbage and vegetables like carrots or turnips and onions and the result is tender and quite delicious. In Ireland, however, the meat is soaked overnight to cut down on salt, and then the recipe goes like this:
Boiled Corned Beef with Dumplings
4.5 lb. corned beef or brisket
Water to cover
2 c. peeled carrots, about 1- inch long
2 c. turnip, cut in 1-inch pieces
2 c. onion, cut in 1-inch pieces
Fresh parsley sprigs
After soaking the beef overnight in cold water, place it in a stock pot and cover it with cold water. Bring it to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat and let it simmer until it is quite tender, about 30 minutes to the pound. Skim fat as necessary. About 45 minutes before the cooking is complete, add the vegetables. Add the dumplings, keeping the water at a simmer, 20 minutes before cooking is complete.
6 oz. all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp. salt
3/4 tsp. baking powder
2 oz. prepared suet (lard)
Water to mix
Combine the dry ingredients and add water slowly to make a light dough, Form small balls (about 3/4- to one-inch) and cook for 20 minutes with the meat and vegetables. Serve the meat on a hot platter placing the vegetables and dumplings around it. Pour a little of the broth over all, and garnish with parsley.
Note that cabbage does not appear in the old Irish recipe. It is a later addition, probably brought on by better consciousness of balanced diets. Turnip, however, is a very popular ingredient in Ireland because turnips there grow to the size of our pumpkins. Parsnips work well in the recipe too. It is perhaps no wonder that the suet dumplings have disappeared from the recipe here in America, but suet (lard) is a staple of Irish cooking, especially Irish country cooking. Unfortunately for our arteries, it can be a delicious addition to certain recipes. However, we can approximate some the original recipes with our healthier fats.
Lightening our load
An example of the way modern nutritional knowledge has impacted traditional cooking in Ireland is the transition from what is known in the north country as an "Ulster fry" to a "mixed grill." I watched an Ulster fry being prepared once; it is an experience I will never forget. A fistful of lard is tossed into a large cast-iron skillet, followed by sausages, kidneys, bacon, soda bread, and chips (French fries). When these are turned with a spatula, in go a few mushrooms and cherry tomatoes. When the cooking is finished, the skillet is drained and the fry is served with a pint or two of Guinness stout. A British pint (also Irish) is 20 fluid ounces to our 16, so after this meal, it is difficult to rise from the table. The "mixed grill" lightens this recipe somewhat, omitting the French fries and soda bread, and the meat portion usually contains leaner cuts. Fewer sausages, bacon and kidneys make up the mix, but they are still there. In this version, the recipe is as follows:
Brush with oil:
1/2 lb. sirloin tips
1/2 lb. pork sausage (lighten it further by using turkey sausage)
1/2 lb. lamb kidneys
1/4 lb. bacon (substitute Canadian bacon)
1 10-oz. package of cremini mushrooms
8-10 cherry tomatoes
Heat a grill pan until it is hot, and place the food on it in order, as the mushrooms and tomatoes will take the shortest time to cook. Cook everything thoroughly, pile it high on a hot platter, and garnish with the pan juices and watercress.
The Irish potato: famous and foremost
Lots of potato dishes come from Ireland, and potatoes appear in stews, slathered on top of meat and vegetables for shepherd's pies, and cooked in just about every way imaginable. Surprisingly, however, Colcannon, a St. Patrick's Day staple in New England involving mashed potato mixed with egg, butter, and cabbage, actually traces its roots to Scotland. The Irish version is called Champ or Thump. It is a favorite fast day food there, where a glass of buttermilk completes the meal, and is often eaten at Halloween, when portions of it used to be set out at the farm gates for the fairies. For St. Patrick's Day, experiment with the additions: try peas, green beans, scallions, parsley, chives, other herbs, or fiddleheads if they are available. In any case, it is a wonderful way to use up extra vegetables.
4 large baking potatoes, peeled and chopped into large pieces
1/2 c. milk
2/3 c. chopped scallions, beans, or peas or combination of all
1 T. chopped chives or parsley
4 rounded tsp. butter
Place the potatoes in a saucepan and cover them with water. Bring to a boil and cook until tender, about 15 minutes. While the potatoes are cooking, place the milk in another saucepan and heat it over medium heat, adding to it the other chopped vegetables or peas. Cook until the vegetables are crisp-tender. Drain and mash the potatoes when they are done, and gradually add the milk mixture to them. Place the potato mixture into four small serving bowls and make a well in the center of each. Drop 1 rounded teaspoonful of butter into the center of each well, garnish with the chives or parsley, and serve. Champ should be eaten from the outside in, dipping each mouthful into the melting butter.
The Irish are wizards with bread, and their breads range from delicious scones to very healthy whole grain round breads. Here are some of the older Irish examples:
2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 t. salt
3/4 tsp. baking soda
1 1/4 tsp. cream of tartar
3/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. mixed spice: allspice, nutmeg, mace, orange peel
2 T. butter or margarine
4 tsp. superfine sugar
4 tsp. treacle (dark, thick, unsulphured molasses)
Sift the dry ingredients together into a bowl. Cut in the butter and then add the sugar. Add the molasses (treacle) and mix all to a soft dough, adding a drop or two of milk if necessary. Roll out to a thickness of about one inch and cut into scones with a two-inch-round cookie cutter (if this is for a tea party, use a doughnut hole cutter). Place on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake at 475° until golden, about 7 minutes.
Irish Soda Bread
Soda bread is sold in many grocery stores this season and often contains caraway and raisins. There is a similar kind of soda bread in Ireland called sultana soda bread (sultanas are golden raisins), again with Scottish origins in a bread called barmbrack, but the most ubiquitous type is more like our baking powder biscuits. It may be baked in an oven or on a griddle and eaten with a mixed grill:
Basic Soda Bread
4 c. all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
Approximately 1 3/4 c. buttermilk
Sift the dry ingredients into a bowl and add the buttermilk gradually to form a soft, but not sticky dough. Turn out onto a well-floured surface and shape into a round cake approximately 1 1/2 inch thick. Transfer to a greased and floured cookie sheet and mark with a deep cross on top forming four "farls." Bake at 450 for about 30 minutes. If cooking on a griddle, have the griddle hot (at about 450), and cook the bread round on both sides until golden brown and cooked through.
Direct from Galway
Feature editor Ellen Miller has an Irish friend, Concepta O'Connor Siembab, who lives on Galway Bay, in the south of Ireland. She contributed the following recipes.
Quickie Facsimile Irish Bread/Scones
This is a quick and easy recipe that I dreamed up for breakfast many aeons ago. Serve warm with butter.
1 1/2 cups flour
1 c. (unprocessed) oatmeal
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
1 T. sugar
1 c. sour cream
Preheat oven to 400° F. Combine dry ingredients with sour cream and bring together lightly into a soft dough. Roll out dough into (approximately) a 9" circle, adding flour as needed. Cut into wedges and place on non-stick baking pan. Bake at 400°.
1 lb. plain flour
1 lb. stone ground oatmeal flour*
1 handful wheat germ
4 T. butter
2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking soda
1 egg beaten
1 pint buttermilk
Preheat oven to 400°. Mix dry ingredients together in a bowl. Combine egg and butter milk and mix into flours with your hand or a spoon. Knead very lightly just until combined into a soft dough adding additional flour as necessary. Roll out on to a floured board to about 9 inches. Cut a cross in the middle. Place on a non-stick pan and bake for approximately 30 minutes.
*If you cannot find oatmeal flour at Whole Foods, you can always substitute Irish Oatmeal (comes in a tin can), using it straight or grinding it in a food processor.
Bacon and Cabbage
This commonly cooked winter recipe usually resulted in overcooked vegetables and a cabbage that had released its chemicals and nutrients. It is, however, the most likely forerunner of what is now called New England Boiled Dinner. I actually always enjoyed cooking this version when I lived in Boston:
One smoked Picnic Shoulder (available in most supermarkets) cooked separately in a large pot according to directions on package. When fully cooked, remove and keep warm wrapped in foil. Although the cooking water will be nicely flavoured by the ham, I usually add a couple of tablespoons of vegetable stock granules.
Bring the stock back to a boil and add (in the following order):
10 small potatoes, peeled
6 carrots, peeled and quartered
3 parsnips, peeled and quartered
After the above items are almost cooked, add:
10 small onions
1 large head of green cabbage cut into wedges
Simmer all until just "al dente." Return the meat to the stock just to reheat it.
Slice and serve on a platter surrounded with the vegetables, a few spoonfuls of broth, and garnish with chopped parsley or your own choice of fresh herbs. Serve with mustard and creamy horseradish.
© 2006 The Carlisle Mosquito