Forget green beer and dense soda bread, warmed over corned beef and cabbage drowning in grey water with a side of over starched potato. If that’s your St. Patrick’s vision of Irish food, and indeed the only time you eat it, then that’s pure blarney.
The potato has a mixed heritage in Ireland, corned beef was beyond most people’s economic reach, and green beer…well let’s just leave it at that.
Not all Mexican food is a crunch wrap, soufflés do not properly convey the depth of French food and the English do not eat blood pudding every day. Soda bread is probably not even Irish in origin although the soft wheat grown in Ireland called for a bit of magic to produce a bread that actually worked. The use of baking soda instead of yeast and the addition of buttermilk to activate that soda produces a cake like loaf that is indeed more like cake than bread but accomplishes the same goals using what is available.
And isn’t that a story you’ve heard before? Country loses cultural identity, struggles to get it back, and in the end succeeds by reclaiming the very indigenous ingredients that were there all along.
Without going too far back in history, the story of Irish cuisine should center on the ingredients at hand. Being an island located on the crossroads of warm gulfstream waters to the south and the cold North Channel, Ireland is privy to some of the best and most diverse seafood in the world. With the abundance of the ocean at their fingertips the Irish long ago worked out a system of preserving foods that allowed storage for the months that may have been lean.
Smoked and salted fish, potted and yes, corned meats along with dried herbs and mushrooms. Abundant pastures allowed livestock to be raised on grass and the size of farming remained relatively small, a microcosm of what it became in this country and other larger more industrialized areas of the world. What may have started as idyllic and pastoral became old fashioned and inefficient only to become a tourist draw for Irish Americans and homesick returnees.
The ingredients were always there, the artisans never left (and if they did they have since returned with new techniques and passion) and indeed it is the rediscovery of their cuisines potential that has sought to erase the image of dull thick food that merely filled the belly.
Let’s be clear, this enlightenment was not done in a vacuum. Some of the best restaurants in Ireland are owned and run by non-Irish or newly minted Irish expats coming back after a generation away.
They bring new techniques to apply to the timeless ingredients and while some honor the old dishes others seek to re-invent the food to reflect the new vision of the next Irish generation. While the “Celtic Tiger” might have taken an economic hit, the country is still a popular tourist destination, a pilgrimage of sorts for anyone remotely Irish and that alone gives them the opportunity to “show out.”
Techniques from molecular gastronomy to sous vide to advances in the smoking and curing techniques have given Irish chefs a new vision of old ingredients.
Their cooking is lighter, healthier, yet still aware of the long and sometimes tortured path that leads to the present. From the first Roman incursion to the latest influx of global refugees the mark of the Irish cuisine and indeed all cuisine is adaptability without a sense of loss. Another benefit of the new Irish cuisine is a renewed emphasis on tourism and travel.
Rambling from town to town, inn to castle, has always been welcomed in Ireland but now, with the reinvented and reinvigorated food scene, there is gem at almost every stop, and in the major cities there are places to rival any of those in Europe or America. Where once it was corned beef and cabbage and boiled potatoes, there is a renewed sense of identity that needs to stretch across the Atlantic and embrace every “Irishman” who seems to pop up around the 17th of March.
Colcannon and corned beef hash
This is a dish best served on the day after. Provided you haven’t imbibed too much it will help to ease your transition back into a semblance of order.
Filling and rich, it avoids some of the nastier aspects of “hangover food” by focusing on quick preparation and fresh ingredients mad with little added fat.
Using your chilled, leftover corned beef, trim off any excess fat and cut the beef into small cubes. If your boiled potatoes were treated with respect and still have some form and bite to them, also cut them into cubes. Dice one shallot, one rib of celery and add a bit of fresh herbs, dill, thyme and parsley to the mix. In a heavy bottomed skillet with a bit of whole butter, sweat the shallot, celery and fresh herbs together until they are fully combined and translucent.
Add in the cubed corned beef and potatoes and start to lightly brown. As everything cooks, try to break up the potato just a bit, this will bind tour hash together more easily. Add some fresh spinach to the mix and let it wilt into the rest of the ingredients. Season the mixture with salt and cracked black pepper and form the mix into a loose cake.
If your skillet is smaller, then press the mix down into the form of the pan. Too thin and it will burn so if the pan is big just keep everything in the center. Press the center of the mix in slightly and crack a fresh egg into the depression.
Place the entire skillet into a 400-degree oven and cook until the yolk is set to your liking. A bit of soda bread toast with some marmalade or honey and butter and you could almost believe you were in an Irish B&B!
John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit, in Lexington.