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by Robert Rich and Andrew Trice III, March 2003, for MV Voice
On March 17, millions of Americans will force down a meal of corned beef, boiled cabbage and green beer for the sake of claiming their vestigial Irish heritage. Meanwhile in Ireland, corned beef is conspicuously absent.
In the late 1980's, a restauranteur in Blarney proudly began importing corned beef from New York. He thought Americans couldn't go abroad without their coffee and corned beef.
Corning originally refers to the British practice of salting beef to preserve it for long sea voyages. Irish sailors would have eaten corned beef while conscripted aboard English vessels.
St. Patrick himself apparently wasn't even Irish. Hagiographies tell us that he was a Roman slave who escaped his captors in Gaulic Brittany, and wound up in Ireland converting the locals to Christianity. One of the earliest canonized saints, his true history is veiled in legend.
St. Patrick's day has become important, in part, because it's the only Catholic feast day during Lent. Besides giving Irish Americans a rare chance to proclaim their roots, the day allows for a good party during an otherwise austere time.
Here are some dishes that make a more traditional meal on an Irish feast day. We recommend skipping the green beer and opting for a Guinness instead. James Joyce wrote, "Guinness is the wine of the country."
Irish food is rustic and hearty. With simple ingredients, the flavors develop from slow cooking.
This simple dish blends mashed potatoes with chopped cabbage and bacon. Of course, a healthy dose of butter helps pull it all together. (Time: 1 hour, serves eight.)
Peel the potatoes and boil for about 40 minutes, until soft. While they are cooking, prepare the other ingredients. When the potatoes have cooked, mash them with about 1.5 sticks of butter, adding some salt and pepper to taste.
Slice the cabbage finely, like coleslaw. Slice the bacon into small pieces. In a heavy frying pan, fry the bacon until crisp on medium heat, about 10-15 minutes. Save the bacon drippings for the next step, and set the bacon aside.
Melt two tablespoons butter with the bacon drippings in a large cast iron casserole or Dutch oven, on medium heat. Add the cabbage and sweat until soft, about 20-30 minutes.
After the cabbage has cooked thoroughly, add the crisped bacon and chopped green onions to the pot. Blend in the mashed potatoes and adjust seasoning as needed.
Barm Brack (Speckled Bread)
The Irish commonly serve this sweet holiday yeast bread on Halloween, but it also appears on other feast days. (Time: 4.5 hours)
3 lbs. all purpose flour
Dissolve the yeast into one cup warm water and 6 oz. sugar. Sift together the dry ingredients, then add the yeast/sugar, eggs, 1 stick melted butter and one cup additional water. Mix thoroughly and kneed for several minutes, then let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1-2 hours.
Lightly knock back the dough, and kneed with the additional half stick melted butter and caraway seeds. Sprinkle the top with coarse sugar. Rise an additional hour on a greased baking sheet or in a large cake tin. Bake for about an hour in a preheated 375 degree oven. Remove when lightly browned.
Healing with Leeks
The healing power of leeks dates back to a legend of St. Patrick healing a dying woman. The woman dreamt of an herb flying through the air. Patrick asked her the nature of this herb, and she told him that it looked like marsh grass. Patrick then apparently transformed some rushes into the savory vegetable we now call leeks. When the woman ate the leeks, she became well again.
Potato Leek Soup
This potato leek soup tastes much better if you use homemade chicken stock, which takes time. If you use canned chicken stock, reduce the amount of salt accordingly, as almost all commercial stocks come heavily salted. (Time: 2 hours, serves 12 or more.)
Remove the green tops and roots from the leeks (reserve for a stock later.) Chop the white part of the leeks finely. Chop the onions. Peel and slice the potatoes.
Slice the bacon into small pieces. In a heavy frying pan, fry the bacon until crisp on medium heat, about 10-15 minutes. Save the bacon drippings for the next step, and set the bacon aside.
In an 8 or 12 quart stock pot on medium heat, melt two sticks of butter. Add the bacon drippings, then the chopped leeks, onions, bay leaf, and about 1 tablespoon of salt. Sweat (without allowing to brown) for 30-40 minutes until soft. Deglaze occasionally with sherry to prevent the leeks from sticking to the bottom of the pot.
After the leeks have softened, add the sliced potatoes to the pot and cover with about half of the chicken stock. Cook an additional 30 minutes. Keep adding additional stock and stir occasionally to prevent sticking.
Add 1/2 cup sherry, the crisped bacon, thyme and parsley. When the potatoes are thoroughly cooked (about 30 minutes) add the remaining stock, half & half, and cream. Bring back up to slow simmer, then stir in some Irish whisky, salt and pepper to taste, and cook an additional 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to evaporate the alcohol and to prevent scorching.
Purée the soup with an immersion blender, or place in a food processor a few cups at a time, until it has a smooth texture. Serve in bowls with a sprinkle of sliced green onions.
Leftovers of this soup will become very thick the next day, because of the potato starch. When re-heating, thin with milk or chicken stock to the desired consistency.
Pork Loin with Guinness Hunter Sauce
The sauce adapts some French techniques to Irish ingredients, but in this case we'll ignore pure authenticity for the sake of flavor. This reduction sauce will become very salty if you use canned chicken stock. Homemade unsalted stock works best. (Time: 1.5 hours, serves 8)
8 - 6 oz. pork tenderloins
De-stem and slice the mushrooms (reserve the stems for a soup stock.) Dice the onions. Melt two tablespoons butter in a heavy frying pan on medium-high heat. Add the chopped mushrooms and cook slowly (10-15 minutes) to evaporate the liquid.
Season lightly with salt and pepper, then add the chopped onions and an additional tablespoon of butter. Continue cooking 15 minutes more, until the onions are translucent.
Add the chicken stock, and simmer for about a half hour, or until reduced by half. Slowly add one bottle of warm Guinness Stout and reduce for about 20 more minutes to a medium sauce consistency. Check seasoning and adjust to taste.
Pound the pork loins with a tenderizing hammer to 1/4" thickness. Dust with salt, pepper and flour. Sear in a lightly oiled frying pan on medium high heat, until golden brown. Serve topped with Guinness sauce.
For those who may be disappointed to learn that neither St. Patrick nor corned beef came from Ireland, we have glad tidings. Irish coffee is indeed Irish. Joe Sheridan invented this blend of coffee, sugar, cream and Irish whisky at the Shannon airport near Dublin, in the 1940's. He layered it to look like a pint of Guinness.
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