Irish Traditional Cooking

I
For the past three or four weeks I’ve been taking regular phone calls from American food writers who are ‘filing their copy’ for their St Patrick’s Day columns – from Nebraska to Chicago, New York to Ohio, everyone seems to be convinced that we still live on corned beef and cabbage over here – quite disappointed to discover that many Irish people have never eaten corned beef and cabbage in their entire lives not to mention on a regular basis.

My traditional food book has just been republished in the US, it was well received the first time around in 1995, but this time is causing a real stir. There appears to be a much greater interest in Irish traditional food culture and history. They are fascinated by the stories of the food of the country houses, the simple farmhouse fare and the food of the wild – foraged in the woods and along the seashore. When I wrote that book I contacted regional newspapers, local radio stations, I explained that I felt there was an urgency to record many of the old foods, both simple and elaborate dishes that nourished our ancestors, before they were lost – many have never been written down and the older people who had memories of the food of their childhood were slipping off to Paradise.

Recipes and old cookbooks, some handwritten, came from all over the country. Many wrote nostalgic letters and reminiscences. It took me several years to collate and organise the material into a book, so many wonderful treasures and a finite number of pages. I spent many pleasurable days travelling around the country watching people cook almost forgotten foods. I stood between the cook and the bowl or saucepan with the scales to measure, weigh and record.

Traditionally geese were killed around Michaelmas, Christmas and the New Year. Every drop of blood was saved to make goose pudding. Jack O’Keeffe, whose mother originally came from the Sliabh Luachra area on the borders of Cork and Kerry, showed me how to make a goose blood pudding which had been passed down in his family for many generations. We filled the spicy mixture into the goose neck, tied the ends, pricked it with a darning needle and poached it gently for 1½ hours in a covered saucepan – I still remember the delicious flavour.

I stirred the fresh blood for puddings, chopped the soft pigs head and crubeens for brawn. The texture of those puddings was deliciously soft and crumbly, so different from the modern puddings made with imported dried pigs blood. It’s a great tragedy for Ireland that we have lost so much of our traditional food culture in recent years. There’s only a mere handful of butchers making black pudding with fresh blood nowadays. The cost of compliance with the tidal wave of regulations is putting them out of business. Who, if anyone, is batting for us in Europe – do any of our MEP’s realise that the demand for these kinds of artisan food products is growing and a growing number of discerning customers are prepared to pay more for quality. 

In the US and UK, chefs, particularly the new breed of young chefs are fascinated by the art of curing meat, pickling pork, brining bacon and hams, making sausages, salami and chorizo. The highly acclaimed chef Richard Corrigan of Lindsay House in London is famous for his black puddings, Mario Battali of Lupa and Babbo in New York has been curing meats in the time honoured way in his restaurant for several years and New Yorkers are flocking to see the results.

My own students here at the school were also anxious to learn, so Fingal Ferguson from Gubbeen Smokehouse near Schull, came and showed them how to butcher one of our own free range organic pigs. They spent a wonderful afternoon learning how to cure bacon, make sausages and salami and chorizo. We made brawn from the head and packed it into bowls like my Aunt Lil used to do when they killed a pig on the farm in Tipperary.

It’s a tremendous joy for me to find young people who are anxious to learn these almost forgotten skills and who are truly proud of our traditional food culture – a healthy and encouraging sign of a nation growing up. How about some bacon and cabbage, champ and parsley sauce for St Patrick’s Day.

Traditional Irish Bacon, Cabbage and Parsley Sauce

Our national dish of bacon and cabbage is often a sorry disappointment nowadays, partly because it is so difficult to get good quality bacon with a decent bit of fat on it.
Serves 12-15

4-5 lbs (1.8-2.25kg) loin of bacon, either smoked or unsmoked with the rind on and a nice covering of fat
Buttered or boiled cabbage
Parsley Sauce, see below

Cover the bacon in cold water and bring slowly to the boil. If the bacon is very salty there will be a white froth on top of the water, in which case it is preferable to discard the water and start again. It may be necessary to change the water several times depending on how salty the bacon is. Finally cover with hot water and simmer until almost cooked, allow 20 minutes to the pound. Remove the rind and serve with Buttered or Boiled cabbage and Parsley Sauce.

Parsley Sauce

1 pint (600ml/22 cups) milk
2 ozs (55g) roux
salt and freshly ground pepper
a few slices of carrot, optional
a few slices of onion, optional
bouquet garni
chopped parsley

If using herbs and vegetables, put them in the cold milk and bring to simmering point, season and simmer for 4-5 minutes. Strain out the herbs and vegetables, bring the milk back to the boil, whisk in the roux until the sauce is a light coating consistency. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Add chopped parsley and simmer on a very low heat for 4-5 minutes.

Corned Beef and Cabbage

Corned beef has a distinctive regional association with Cork City. Between the late 1680's and 1825, the beef-corning industry was the most important asset to the city and the country. In this period, Cork exported corned beef to England and much of Europe and as far away as Newfoundland and the West Indies. During the Napoleonic wars, corned beef exportation from Cork was at all time high and the British army was principally supplied with corned beef from Cork.
Although this dish is eaten less frequently nowadays in Ireland, for Irish-emigrants it conjures up powerful nostalgic images of a rural Irish past. Originally it was a traditional Easter Sunday dinner. The beef killed before the winter would have been salted and could now be eaten after the long Lenten fast with fresh green cabbage and floury potatoes. Our local butcher corns beef in the slow, old-fashioned way which, alas, is more the exception than the norm nowadays.

Serves 6-8

4 lbs (1.8kg) corned silverside of beef
3 large carrots, cut into large chunks
6-8 small onions
1 teaspoon dry English mustard
large sprig fresh thyme and some parsley stalks, tied together
1 cabbage
salt and freshly ground pepper

Put the corned beef into a saucepan with the carrot, onions mustard and the herbs. Cover gently in cold water, bring to the boil, covered and simmer for 2 hours. Discard the outer leaves of the cabbage, cut in quarters and add to the pot. Cook for a further 1-2 hours or until the meat and vegetables are soft and tender.

Serve the corned beef cut into slices surrounded by the vegetables. Serve lots of floury potatoes and freshly made mustard as an accompaniment.

Scallion Champ

A bowl of mashed potatoes flecked with green scallions and a blob of butter melting in the centre is ‘comfort’ food at its best.
Serves 4-6

1.5kg (3lb) 6-8 unpeeled 'old' potatoes e.g. Golden Wonders or Kerrs Pinks
110g (4oz) chopped scallions or spring onions (use the bulb and green stem) or 45g
chopped chives
350ml (10-12fl oz) milk
55-110g (2-4oz) butter
salt and freshly ground pepper
Scrub the potatoes and boil them in their jackets.

Chop finely the scallions or spring onions or chopped chives. Cover with cold milk and bring slowly to the boil. Simmer for about 3-4 minutes, turn off the heat and leave to infuse. Peel and mash the freshly boiled potatoes and while hot, mix with the boiling milk and onions, beat in the butter. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper. Serve in 1 large or 6 individual bowls with a knob of butte melting in the centre. Scallion mash may be put aside and reheated later in a moderate oven, 180C/350F/regulo 4. Cover with tin foil while it reheats so that it doesn’t get a skin.

Roscommon Rhubarb Tart

This delectable tart is an adaptation of a traditional recipe which was originally cooked in a bastable over the open fire – everyone adores it.
One could also add a couple of teaspoons of freshly grated ginger to the rhubarb, but try it unadorned at first, its seriously good.

Serves 8-10

900g (2lb) red rhubarb
255-285g (9-10oz) granulated sugar

Topping
310g (11oz) flour
20g (¾oz) castor sugar
1 heaped teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
55g (2oz) butter
1 egg
175ml (6floz) full cream milk, approx
egg wash
granulated sugar

23x5cm (9x2inch) round tin. We use a heavy stainless steel sauté pan which works very well, if you don’t have a suitable pan, par cook the rhubarb slightly first.
Preheat the oven to 230C/450F/regulo 8

Trim the rhubarb, wipe with a damp cloth and cut into pieces about 2.5cm (1inch) in length. Put into the base of a tin or sauté pan, sprinkle with the sugar. We put the stainless steel sauté pan on a low heat at this point while we make the dough.

Sieve all the dry ingredients into a bowl. Cut the butter into cubes and rub into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Whisk the egg with the milk. Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients, pour in the liquid all at once and mix to a soft dough. Turn out onto a floured board and roll into a 23cm (9inch) round about 2.5cm (1inch) thick. Place this round on top of the rhubarb and tuck in the edges neatly. Brush with a little egg wash and sprinkle with granulated sugar.

Bake in the fully preheated oven for 15 minutes then, reduce the temperature to 180C/350F/regulo 4 for a further 30 minutes approx. or until the top is crusty and golden and the rhubarb soft and juicy.

Remove from the oven and allow to sit for a few minutes. Put a warm plate over the top of the sauté pan, turn upside down onto the plate but be careful of the hot juices. 

Serve warm with soft brown sugar and cream.

Spotted Dog

Makes one loaf
450g (1lb) plain white flour, preferably unbleached
1 level teaspoon salt
1 level teaspoon bread soda (finely sieved)
1 dessertspoon sugar
85-110g (3-4oz) sultanas
350ml - 425 ml (12-14fl oz) approximately butter milk
1 free-range egg (your egg is part of your liquid measurement)

First fully preheat your oven to 220°C/425°F/regulo 7.

In a large mixing bowl sieve in the flour and breadsoda, add the salt, sugar and fruit. Mix well by lifting the flour and fruit up in to your hands and then letting them fall back into the bowl through your fingers. This adds more air and therefore hopefully more lightness to your finished bread. Now make a well in the centre of the flour.

Break the egg into the bottom of your measuring jug add the buttermilk to the 425ml 14floz line (your egg is part of your liquid measurement). Pour most of this milk and egg into the flour. Using one hand with the fingers open and stiff, mix in a full circle drawing in the flour from the sides of the bowl, adding more milk if necessary. The dough should be softish, not too wet and sticky. 

The trick with spotted dog like all soda breads is not to over mix the dough. Mix it as quickly and as gently as possible thus keeping it light and airy. When the dough all comes together, turn it out onto a well floured work surface. Wash and dry your hands. 

With floured fingers roll lightly for a few seconds just enough to tidy it up. Pat the dough into a round, pressing to about 6cm 2inches in height.

Place the dough on to a baking tray dusted lightly with flour. With a sharp knife cut a deep cross on it, let the cuts go over the sides of the bread. Prick with knife at the four triangles as according to Irish Folklore this is to let the fairies out! 

Put in to the preheated oven for 10 minutes, then turn down the oven to 200°C/400°F/regulo 6, for 35 minutes or until cooked. If you are in doubt about the bread being cooked, tap the bottom: if it is cooked it will sound hollow.

Serve freshly baked, cut into thick slices and smeared with butter and jam. Spotted Dog is also really good eaten with cheese.

Caraway Seed Cake

I hated Seed cake as a child and now its one of my great favourites, my father had a passion for it so it was always an option when we went to visit our Tipperary relations on Sunday afternoons.
6 ozs (170g) butter
6 ozs (170g) castor sugar
3 eggs, free-range if possible
8 ozs (225g) plain white flour
1 tablespoon ground almonds, optional
2 dessertspoons caraway seeds
3 teaspoon baking powder
some caraway seeds to sprinkle on top

Round cake tin 7 inches wide x 3 inches deep (18cm x 7.5cm)

Line the cake tin with greaseproof paper.

Cream the butter, add the sugar and beat until very soft and light. Whisk the eggs and gradually beat into the creamed mixture. Stir in the flour and ground almonds. Add the baking powder and 2 dessertspoons of caraway seeds with the last of the flour. Turn the mixture into the prepared cake tin, scatter a few caraway seeds on top and bake in a moderate oven, 180C/350F/regulo 4 for 50-60 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. Keeps well in an airtight tin.

Foolproof Food

Buttered Cabbage

This method takes only a few minutes to cook but first the cabbage must be carefully sliced into fine shreds. It should be served the moment it is cooked.
1 lb (450 g) fresh Savoy cabbage
1-2 oz (30-55 g) butter
salt and freshly ground pepper
a knob of butter

Remove the tough outer leaves from the cabbage. Divide into four, cut out the stalks and then cut into fine shreds across the grain. Put 2-3 tablespoons of water into a wide saucepan with the butter and a pinch of salt. Bring to the boil, add the cabbage and toss constantly over a high heat, then cover for a few minutes. Toss again and add some more salt, freshly ground pepper and a knob of butter. Serve immediately.

Buttered Cabbage with Caraway Seeds

Add 2-1 tablesp. of caraway seeds to the cabbage, toss constantly as above.
Hot Tips

Cork St Patrick’s Festival Food Market 11am -5pm March 17th

On St Patrick’s Day from before the Parade starts until well after its finished, Oliver Plunkett St will be teeming with fresh foods gathered from all over the county (and in some cases the country). 

Fuchsia Brands from West Cork will have a strong presence with their various and varied foodstuffs,157 enterprises are accredited to the Fuchsia Brand. The principal food producers will be represented in the food market in Oliver Plunkett Street, including: O’Connell’s Chocolates, Staunton’s Black and White Pudding, Shellfish de la Mer, Mellas Fudge, Durrus Cheese and the Gubeen Smoke house.

Cork City’s own world famous English Market will also be participating along with traders from the weekly Coal Quay Market and numerous stall holders from both Farmers and Country markets will be keeping our energy levels up by providing us with the best of Irish foodstuffs. www.corkstpatricksfestival.ie

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Darina Allen
By Darina Allen

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