Gourmet Girl: At the Irish Table
It took time to recover from the potato famine, but Irish cuisine has risen from the ashes.
When Irish eyes are smilin' these days, it may be due to the vibrant, creative, contemporary cuisine the country is now known for as chefs in restaurants and at home have elevated tired, traditional dishes like boiled beef and cabbage, soda bread and potatoes to new heights. These days, you're likely to find gourmet twists on tired fare, like spiced beef, a version of corned beef made with juniper berries and pink salt, served with tomato relish and cucumber pickles; pheasant braised with Cork gin; steak and oyster pie; and sticky toffee pudding.
But Irish food hasn't always been celebrated. It wasn't until recently, with the opening of an acclaimed Irish cooking school as well as innovative restaurants helmed by talented chefs, that Ireland became a culinary destination. For more than a century, the country's cuisine languished in the wake of the potato famine, which caused widespread starvation across the country in the 1840s and forced millions of people to flee to America. People forgot that prior to the famine, the land provided a rich bounty, from deer and wild pigs to duck, grouse, well-fed cows, sheep and goats and fields of wheat, barley, oats and rye. Ireland's food was so famous that The Vision of MacConglinne, a medieval tale, is brimming with references to plump sausages, hearty blood puddings, crusty bread, sweet butter, frothy milk and potent ale. Travelers in the country were always welcomed with food and lodging whenever they passed a farmstead.
The potato, however, changed everything after it was introduced from the New World in the 17th century. The humble vegetable soon become a staple in the Irish diet, and enabled a population explosion, as a farmer could grow enough potatoes on a single acre of land to support his family. But when a fungus destroyed successive potato crops, it was enough to starve a country and destroy an ancient way of life.
It took time to recover from the potato famine, but Irish cuisine has risen from the ashes. Chefs and families alike are shopping their farmers markets for artisan cheese, breads and organic meats and produce. They're rediscovering forgotten foods that are native to their land, from venison and grouse to fresh fish plucked from rivers and the sea. Chefs like Ross Lewis of the Michelin-starred Chapter One in Dublin serve innovative dishes that highlight local ingredients—pheasant soup with chestnuts, pig's trotter boudin, and Crozier sheep's milk blue cheese from County Tipperary.
Photo: Ballymaloe Cookery School
Much of this renaissance is due to Myrtle Allen, who opened her home to diners as Ballymaloe House in County Cork in 1964 and broke new ground by serving simple, superb Irish food featuring locally sourced ingredients. The scallops and mackerel, for example, came from nearby Ballycotton Bay, and the beef and lamb from local butchers. Allen didn't drown her dishes in exotic French sauces or cover them with herbs. She used basic recipes to create elegant dishes—oysters hot and buttered, duck and geese simply roasted, and soups made with watercress, cucumber or carrot. She turned crisp apples grown in the area into rustic tarts. Allen helped usher in a new era of confidence in Irish cuisine and today her business has grown into a family affair that includes a thriving cooking school run by her daughter-in-law. Her granddaughter has become a celebrity chef on national television, and continues to promote the cuisine of her country.
So as we celebrate St. Paddy's Day this year, consider including some traditional dishes with contemporary twists in your menu, dishes that are rooted in a long and dark history but that also reflect the resiliency of the Irish to regain a passion for what sustains them. Here are a few recipes to inspire you. Sláinte!
Cauliflower Soup (From Ballymaloe Cooking School; Serves 6)
1 2 1/2-lb cauliflower, cut into florets, leaves reserved
2 tablespoons unsalted butter (1/4 stick)
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
5 teaspoons freshly grated parmesan cheese
1 pinch of grated nutmeg
Salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
About 1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
1 cup croutons, sauted in butter until golden brown
Bring the water to a boil in heavy large saucepan. Coarsely chop cauliflower leaves; set aside 1/2 cup and add remainder to water. Cover and simmer 25 minutes. Strain, pressing on leaves to extract as much liquid as possible; discard pressed leaves; return cooking liquid to saucepan. Add cauliflower florets to liquid with reserved 1/2 cup leaves. Cover and simmer until cauliflower and leaves are very tender, about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, melt butter in heavy small saucepan over low heat. Add flour and cook 2 minutes, stirring frequently; whisk in milk. Increase heat and bring to boil, stirring constantly. Reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Mix in 5 tablespoons parmesan cheese and nutmeg.
Puree cauliflower with cooking liquid in batches in blender; return to saucepan and mix in cheese sauce. Bring to simmer, stirring constantly.Season with salt and pepper to taste.Ladle soup into bowls, garnish with additional parmesan and sauteed croutons and serve
Beef and Guinness Stew (From Cooking Light; Serves 6-8)
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 pounds boneless chuck roast, trimmed and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 teaspoon salt, divided
5 cups chopped onion (about 3 onions)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
4 cups fat-free, lower-sodium beef broth
1 (11.2-ounce) bottle Guinness Stout
1 tablespoon raisins
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 1/2 cups carrots,
1 1/2 cups parsnips, sliced 1/2-inch thick on the diagonal
1 cup turnips, peeled and cubed
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Place flour in a shallow dish. Sprinkle beef with 1/2 teaspoon salt; dredge beef in flour. Add half of beef to pan; cook 5 minutes, turning to brown on all sides. Remove beef from pan with a slotted spoon. Repeat procedure with remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons oil and beef.
Venison Medallions with Juniper and Orange (From Chef Paul Flynn of The Tannery in Dungarvand, Ireland; Serves 8)
7 tablespoons butter, preferably Irish butter such as Kerrygold, softened
1 tablespoon drained green peppercorns in brine, coarsely chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed orange juice
1 teaspoon honey
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
In food processor, combine all ingredients and pulse until well combined. Transfer to large sheet of wax paper and roll into 5-inch-long log. Wrap in wax paper and refrigerate at least 1 hour to allow flavors to develop.
1 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon orange zest (from 2 oranges)
4 sprigs fresh sage, minced
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
16 juniper berries, crushed with the backside of a knife
16 (3 1/2-ounce) venison medallions (each about 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick)
In large glass baking dish, whisk together olive oil, orange zest, sage, pepper, and juniper berries. Add venison medallions and turn to coat. Let stand at room temperature at least 1 hour, turning meat occasionally.
Over moderate heat, heat large heavy skillet until hot. Add 4 venison medallions and cook until undersides are well browned, about 3 minutes. Turn over and cook to desired doneness (thermometer inserted into center will register 120°F for medium-rare), about 2 to 3 minutes for medium-rare. Transfer to platter and cover loosely with foil. Repeat with remaining medallions, cooking 4 at a time. Slice log of butter into 8 coins. Divide medallions among 8 plates and top each serving with 1 coin. Serve immediately.
Irish Soda Bread (From The Daily Meal; Serves 10) )
4 cups all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
4 tablespoons (½ stick) cold butter, cut into ½-inch dice
1 ¾ cups cold buttermilk,
1 egg, lightly beaten
½ cup dried cranberries
½ cup julienned apricots
½ cup crystalized ginger
1 egg (optional)
1 teaspoon milk (optional)
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.
Combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt. In the bowl of an electric mixer, add the butter and the flour mixture on low speed until the butter is mixed into the flour.
With a fork, lightly beat the buttermilk and the egg in a measuring cup. With the mixer on low, slowly add the buttermilk mixture to the flour mixture. Now add the cranberries, apricots, and crystalized ginger. Mix to combine.
The mixture may seem a bit wet, but dump the dough onto a well-floured board and knead it a few times into a round loaf. You may want to make 2 smaller loaves out of your dough. Place the loaf or loaves on the prepared sheet pan with parchment paper. If using the egg wash, beat the egg and add the milk, then brush the top and sides of the bread. Bake for 45-50 minutes, or until a knife comes out clean.
Black & White Chocolate Mousse (From The Guinness Storehouse at St. James Gate in Dublin; Serves 8)
Black Chocolate Mousse:
8 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped or grated
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted Kerrygold Irish butter
1/4 cup superfine sugar
3/4 cup Guinness stout
3 large eggs, separated
1 cup heavy (whipping) cream
White Chocolate Mousse:
6 ounces white chocolate, chopped or grated
1 cup heavy (whipping) cream
To make the black chocolate mousse: In a small bowl set over a pan of simmering water, or in a double boiler, combine the chocolate, butter, and sugar. Stir until the chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth. Stir in the Guinness and whisk in the egg yolks. Remove from the heat.
In a small bowl, whip the cream with an electric mixer until soft peaks form. Fold the cream into the chocolate mixture. With clean beaters, in a medium bowl, beat the egg whites with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form. Fold the whites into the chocolate mixture. Fill 8 wine or parfait glasses three quarters full with the chocolate mixture. Refrigerate while preparing the white chocolate mousse.
To make the white chocolate mousse: In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the white chocolate and 1/2 cup of the cream. Stir until the chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth. Remove from the heat and let cool, stirring once or twice, for 30 minutes, or until thickened.
In a small bowl, beat the remaining 1/2 cup of cream with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form. Fold the whipped cream into the white chocolate mixture. Spoon the mixture over the top of the chocolate mousses and refrigerate for at least 2, and up to 24, hours.