Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Week Ten: A Journey to Ireland

When I lived in Birmingham, Alabama, a group of my friends and co-workers celebrated St. Patrick’s Day each year by piling into The Irish Deli on Green Springs Highway for lunch. We ordered bowls of Irish Stew and laughed with giddy delight as we watched the kitchen hands frantically opening cans of Dinty Moore Beef Stew to fill our orders. We continued this tradition year after year, because the kitsch outweighed the quality of food by a mile. As I began this week’s journey into Ireland, I vowed to discover the more refined points of Irish cuisine.

Although beef and bacon come to mind when thinking of traditional Irish food, the truth is that these meats were most often reserved for the wealthy until the late nineteenth century. Those living near the coastline took advantage of shellfish, such as oysters, mussels, and even lobster. For the Irish living in the hills, cattle-herding was a common occupation, but most of the meat was raised for nobility. (Even today, more than 90 perfect of farmland is used as grazing land for livestock.) The commoners’ diets more likely included offals and dairy products. Dairy products continue to play a prominent role in Irish cuisine. The Irish are famous for their pure butter (with a higher butterfat content than average American butter) and their cheeses, such as Cashel Blue, Duhallow Farmhouse, and Dubliner.

The role of the potato is epic. While it was widely cultivated for the sustenance of both people and hogs, the potato became a core part of the cuisine out of necessity and economic hardship. Because of laws denying the Irish Catholic majority the right to buy land or will it to their descendants, family farms were reduced to small plots, sometimes even less than a quarter of an acre. These families were forced to focus on the cultivation of a single crop that would produce throughout the year, and most Irish chose potatoes to serve that role. Dishes such as colcannon (potatoes with kale and cream) and champ (potatoes with scallions and cream) originated during this time period. The infamous Irish Potato Famine was actually more than one event as it occurred periodically throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Because families depended on only one crop, the years with poor potato harvests due to extremely cold weather proved to be difficult. Later in 1845, potato blight spread throughout the farmlands causing even more serious food shortages. Even after so much death, devastation, and more than one million Irish emigrating to new lands, the Irish welcomed back the potato into their everyday cuisine when the blights ended.

Breads and cakes play prominent roles in Irish cuisine, particularly Irish Soda Bread. Although I had heard of Irish Soda Bread, I did not really know exactly what it entailed. After reading recipes in my cookbooks and scanning the internet, I still felt a bit lost because the ingredients varied so greatly. Then, I found the aptly-named website, Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread. This is an entire website dedicated to the tradition of the bread, and they are serious about Irish Soda Bread. After reviewing its “History” tab, I understood quickly that most of the recipes I found online were not traditional at all.  The site clearly states that none of the following ingredients can be included in a traditional Irish Soda Bread: zest (orange or any other kind, Irish Whisky, honey, sugar, eggs, garlic, shortening, heavy cream, sour cream, yogurt, chocolate, chiles, jalapenos, or fruit. Fortunately, all of those delicious ingredients may be included in other baked goods…just not traditional Irish Soda Bread.

As I planned my weekend menus, I considered this history, the use of Irish ingredients, and a mix of traditional and modern interpretations of the cuisine.

Saturday Night Snack: Irish Cheese Platter
Having never specifically sought out Irish Cheese, I thought this would be a great opportunity for a tasting. I made a trip to Whole Foods and bought a wedge of every cheese imported from Ireland: Duhallow Farmhouse, Dubliner with Irish Stout, Aged Cheddar with Irish Whiskey, and Cashel Blue.

Aged Cheddar with Irish Whiskey, Cashel Blue
Duhallow, Dubliner with Irish Stout

The Aged Cheddar with Irish Whiskey had a smooth, nutty flavor. The infusion of Irish Whiskey was mild as I could barely detect its flavors against the sharpness of the aged cheddar.

Cashel Blue is an original Irish farmhouse blue cheese made by the Grubb family on their farm at Beechmount. The cheese has a natural rind. Its creaminess was far beyond any blue cheese I’ve ever tasted, and the intense flavor surprised me.

The Duhallow Farmhouse cheese is semi-soft with a buttery flavor and mild tanginess. It was my favorite of the four. Duhallow is the first authentic farmhouse cheese recognized by Ireland.  It is made on a single farm with milk exclusively from the Burns family farm’s herd sourcing back to 1925 when the family imported Friesians into Ireland.

Dubliner Cheese is a firm cheese with a slightly dry texture similar to cheddar. We had one infused with Irish Stout, and the combination was divine. The sharp nutty flavor of the cheese with hints of caramel and bitterness from the stout provided a delicious balance. This one was also creamy for a firm cheese, which I attribute to the stout.

We also poured ourselves glasses of Bushmills Irish Whiskey with a splash of soda water. It isn’t a traditional choice for me, but I must say I did enjoy it in the spirit of this week’s Irish celebration.

Sunday Morning Breakfast: Irish Soda Bread with Irish Butter

Of course, I turned to the Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread for their recipe. I must say that this was a delicious, moist bread and so simple! Tasting it and seeing its texture, I was shocked at its outcome considering that the recipe does not include any yeast. I followed their directions to make the loaf in a round cake pan with another cake pan over it as a lid to simulate the effects of the bastible pot. We slathered rich, creamy salted Irish butter on warm wedges as soon as it came out of the oven. This is definitely a homemade bread that I will make again.

Sunday Night Dinner: Crab Crème Brûlée, Dublin Lawyer, Champ, and Grandmother Monahan's Irish Whiskey Cake

Paul Flynn is a prominent Irish chef who serves his signature dish, Crab Crème Brûlée, at The Tannery. The dish is based on traditional Irish Potted Crab, which is basically a custard with crab. His recipe includes pickled ginger and garlic which infuses more flavor into the custard. He also recommends homemade pickled cucumbers made with a touch of sweet chile sauce. I followed his lead and made his dish precisely as directed, including the homemade pickles and melba toasts. The result was a delicious first course…actually, the best dish we had on Sunday night. The recipe includes direction to mix the eggs, garlic, pickled ginger, salt, pepper, and crab meat for at least 30 minutes before baking and recommends that letting the flavors meld together overnight is ideal. As I reviewed his recipe, I questioned the use of pickled ginger and thought it would be overpowering, especially if I let the crab crème sit for 24 hours, but this is why I am not the chef. The flavor combination was perfect, and the small amount of pickled ginger was just enough flavoring to add a nice piquancy to the dish.

Dublin Lawyer and Champ
Dublin Lawyer is a dish that combines lobster with a whiskey cream sauce. The story goes that it is so named because it is "rich and boozy" like a Dublin lawyer. By all accounts, every recipe I found online was basically the same with the exception that one editor noted that he recommends Bushmills because he “does not like Jameson’s thin, one-dimensional and cloying sweetness.” (I’m no expert on Irish Whiskey, but based on his recommendation, I did use Bushmills.) The sauce includes shallots, butter, cream, flour, and whiskey. Then, egg yolk is tempered and added at the end. My sauce was luscious and creamy until I added the tempered egg yolk at which point it immediately broke. I didn’t have any extra shallots or even onions to try again, so I decided we would just have to enjoy the flavor in the broken sauce with our lobster. When the hubs asked what we were eating, I told him the story of Dublin Lawyer, and then I explained that I was calling my dish “Dublin Law Student” as it was boozy and broke! I’m pretty sure this dish would have been over the top delicious if I’d gotten the sauce right.

I felt obligated to make at least one potato dish, so I tried out Champ. Simply put, it’s mashed potatoes mixed with cream and butter that have been infused with scallions. Of course, they were tasty…how could they not be? The freshness of the scallions lightens the flavor and adds a nice pungency. This would be a great preparation for mashed potatoes to serve with fish or another light protein.

Irish Whiskey Cakes are traditionally served for special occasions. For many weddings, the top tier of the wedding cake is an Irish Whiskey Cake, which is saved for the Christening of a couple’s firstborn. For me, the special occasion was a gorgeous Sunday evening on our third floor deck with an almost-full moon overhead. I found no shortage of recipes for Irish Whiskey cake. For the most part, each recipe included the same basic ingredients with various combinations for fruit soaked in whiskey. I chose Grandmother Monahan's Irish Whiskey Cake because it sounded the best. I soaked the golden raisins and lemon zest in Irish Whisky for over 24 hours, and I used 2 tbsp of Irish Whiskey in the glaze. The final cake was rich, moist, and perfect with a big cold glass of milk. I took the leftovers to work on Monday morning, and the entire cake was gone within minutes. Definitely a success story…

I enjoyed this week’s Irish Cuisine, and I was pleased to find so many new dishes. The best discovery was the simplicity of Irish Soda Bread, which means I can be make homemade bread quickly and easily any day I choose. On the heels of St. Patrick’s Day, I am inspired for this week’s festivities! 

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