Irish delights: New cookbooks full of ideas for stay-at-home St. Paddy's suppers



If you're of Irish descent, or just pretend to be on March 17, you're probably already planning this year's St. Patrick's Day celebration. Here's betting Downtown's annual parade on Saturday, March 15, will be part of the party; widely regarded as one of the largest St. Paddy's parades in the U.S., it's expected to draw some 23,000 participants and 200,000 shamrock-festooned spectators to its route down Grant Street and the Boulevard of the Allies.

For many Pittsburghers, it also wouldn't be St. Paddy's without beer (some of it green) and familiar, traditional Irish fare like corned beef and cabbage, raisin-studded soda bread and perhaps something sweet and boozy for dessert -- say, a Guinness Stout chocolate cake, or in a pinch, a Shamrock Shake spiked with a shot of Jameson. Many of you are going to be celebrating well into the wee hours, after all, when the only way to tame a growling belly is with drive-thru.

But what about the actual holiday itself, which this year falls on a Monday?

After the weekend revelry, we're betting some of you might be happy to mark the religious holiday -- it celebrates Saint Patrick bringing Christianity to Ireland in the fifth century -- a bit more authentically, with a hearty home-cooked meal.

At least that's how it's done by the Irish, who observe the day with the same kind of high regard that Americans hold for Thanksgiving.

"On Saint Patrick's Day, we don't drink green beer, we don't dye the rivers green, and we don't get really drunk," writes four-star chef Cathal Armstrong in "My Irish Table" (Ten Speed; March 11, 2014; $35), the lush, debut cookbook he's co-authored with food writer David Hagedorn that's generating tremendous buzz on social media. "It is actually a stay-at-home day on which many pubs are closed."

Given special dispensation from the Catholic Church to break the Lenten fast, "after everyone goes to Mass, the family gathers for an elegant spring meal," notes Mr. Armstrong, who grew up in a food-centric Irish family in Dublin and today is an internationally recognized chef with seven restaurants in the Washington, D.C., area. They include Restaurant Eve in Old Town Alexandria, where President and Mrs. Obama celebrated their 19th anniversary in 2011 with butter-poached lobster, Waldorf salad and flourless chocolate cake.

A typical meal on this most special day might include a juicy prime rib or a roast leg of lamb. (In Ireland, spring lambs are born before Christmas.) Baked whole salmon, which Mr. Armstrong likes to stuff with fresh thyme and lemon slices and serve with hollandaise sauce and boiled new potatoes, is another favorite special-occasion dish. But really, anything that's cooked with care using seasonal, good-quality ingredients will fit the authentic St. Patrick's Day bill. So long as you steer clear of corned beef, which, Mr. Armstrong points out, is an American food tradition.

Intrigued? This is a great time to think about exploring Ireland's culinary traditions, in that traditional Irish food -- for so many years minimized, maligned and just plain misunderstood -- has been rediscovered by prominent Irish chefs such as Mr. Armstrong, who immigrated here in 1991. He is quite happy incorporating the global cooking techniques he learned working at high-end D.C, restaurants such as Vidalia and Bistro Bis into dishes from his homeland. To wit: Along with standards such as Shepherd's Pie (his is made with diced lamb shoulder and russet potatoes), Pan-Fried Plaice (a fish similar to flounder), Dublin Coddle (a stew-like dish made with sausage, bacon and cream) and Potato and Leek Soup, the chef includes in his cookbook recipes for Roast Duck with Sherry Vinegar Gastrique, Pan-Roasted Rockfish with Mushroom Reduction and Mock Risotto, and Gravlax with Dill Sauce. Or maybe you're craving a taste of Spain. He's got some killer recipes for paella and Spanish omelets, too.

Celebrity chef Kevin Dundon is another one who wants the world to know that while traditional dishes still are being cooked, contemporary Irish cuisine -- using traditional ingredients such as Irish farmhouse cheeses, butter, lamb and grains in new and interesting ways -- can be just as tasty and creative as anything else in Europe and the U.S.

"Irish food is often thought of to consist of nothing but stews and potatoes," he laments in the introduction to his book "Modern Irish Food: More than 100 Recipes for Easy Comfort Food" (Mitchell Beazley, Oct. 2013, $24.99). Yet "our cuisine is made up of far more than just these things." The seasonal menus he serves at Dunbrody Country House Hotel, the Irish Georgian manor he turned into a luxury hotel and restaurant in County Wexford, are a perfect example. "We draw on the wealth of ingredients available on our doorstep, from beef that has grazed on lush pastureland, and sheep and lamb that feed on heathers growing on our rugged mountains, to the sweet, delicate seafood from the seas that surround our beautiful country."

In his beautifully photographed cookbook, Mr. Dundon's passion for simple, quality ingredients that are locally sourced shines through. As befits the title, many of its Irish comfort food recipes have been tweaked to please today's more sophisticated palates. His chicken and ham pie, for instance, is topped with puff pastry instead of a traditional pastry crust (it's absolutely terrific) and lamb is braised with cannellini beans or roasted with Asian spices. There's also an entire chapter on vegetarian dishes, including a recipe for "blind" Irish stew made fragrant with rutabaga, leeks and parsnips. He'll also teach you to make a really good Apple and Blackberry Marmalade Crumble.

For those who want to stretch their culinary wings even further, he throws in a few recipes that make good use of pheasant, pork cracklings and something called samphire (sea asparagus).

For your St. Paddy's meal, though, you don't have to get that fancy.

One of the first recipes that caught my eye in "My Irish Table" was one of its most simple offerings: Cheese on Toast, seasoned with a bit of chili powder. Definitely a keeper. Mr. Armstrong's recipes for Potato Gratin and Creamed Leeks also were as easy to prepare as they were delicious, and who knew you can get a loaf of brown bread from oven to table in about an hour?

That terrific recipe came from "30 Years at Ballymaloe" by Darina Allen (Kyle, March 2013, $35), who founded the internationally renowned Ballymaloe Cookery School in County Cork in 1983 and today is a tireless ambassador for Irish food both at home and abroad. Here's where I also found a new use for parsnips -- in a layer cake sweetened with maple syrup, apple, orange and mascarpone.

We always knew the carrot-like root vegetable -- high in fiber, potassium and vitamin C -- is good for us. Thanks to Irish chefs such as Ms. Allen, now we know the veggie also can make its way into a wonderful dessert.

Chicken and Ham Pie

This is buttery, rich and decadent. But it's also really easy. I couldn't find Gubbeen cheese -- a semi-soft cows' milk cheese made on a 250-acre coastal farm in West Cork, Ireland -- so I substituted havarti. I had enough filling to make a few individual pot pies in addition to a large one. My family's favorite dish of those I tested.

2 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon olive oil

4 large skinless, boneless chicken breasts (4 to 5 ounces each), diced

1½ cups diced ham

1 leek, trimmed and thinly sliced

1 large onion, chopped

3 garlic cloves, crushed

7 ounces button mushrooms

Salt and black pepper

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

½ cup white wine

1¾ cups milk

½ cup smoked Gubbeen cheese or a semi-soft cows' cheese, grated

½ cup light cream

1 sheet ready-rolled puff pastry, thawed

Egg wash made with 1 egg yolk beaten with 1 teaspoon milk

Heat the butter and oil in a large, shallow saucepan. Add chicken and ham and cook for 4 to 5 minutes. Stir in leek, onion, garlic and mushrooms with a little salt and pepper and cook 5 minutes.

Sprinkle the flour in the pan and stir to form a paste. Pour in white wine and milk and stir in the cheese. Allow mixture to come to a gentle boil, stirring constantly. If you like, you can add a little extra cream, too. Simmer for 5 to 6 minutes, then transfer mixture to a large pie dish and allow it to cool for 15 to 20 minutes. (I had enough to fill a pie pan and 5 individual soufflé dishes.) Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Cover the filling with the pastry, trimming off excess. Crimp the edges and cut a steam hole in the center. Brush egg wash all over the pie and bake for about 30 minutes.

Serves 4 to 6.

-- "Kevin Dundon's Modern Irish Food" (Mitchell Beazley, 2013, $24.99)

Ballymaloe Brown Yeast Bread

This is a perfect yeast loaf for novice bakers because it only has to rise once. Don't skimp on the sesame seeds -- they add a great nutty crunch. Delicious right out of the oven with butter, but just as good the next morning as toast.

3¾ cups whole-wheat flour OR 31/3 cup whole-wheat flour plus 1/3 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups water at room temperature

1 scant teaspoon molasses

¾ to 1 ounce fresh yeast (I used dried yeast)

Sunflower oil, for greasing pan

Sesame seeds for topping, optional

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Mix flour with salt in a large mixing bowl. Measure out ½ cup of water into a small bowl, stir in the molasses and crumble in yeast. Set aside in a warm place for 5 minutes to allow the yeast to start to work. Meanwhile, grease a 5-by-8 inch loaf pan with oil. Check to see if yeast is rising -- it should have a creamy and slightly frothy appearance on top.

Give the yeast a quick stir and pour over the flour, along with the remaining water. Mix well to form a loose, wet dough; the mixture should be too wet to knead. (I had to add additional water.) Put the mixture into the greased pan, and sprinkle the top with sesame seeds, if using.

Transfer the pan to a warm place and cover the top with a clean towel to prevent a skin from forming. Set aside for 10 to 20 minutes, depending on the temperature of your kitchen, or until the bread rises just to the top of pan. The bread will continue rising in the oven (this is called "oven spring"). Don't allow the bread to rise above the top of the pan before it goes into the oven or it will continue to rise and flow over the top.

Bake the bread in hot oven for 20 minutes, then reduce heat to 400 degrees and bake for another 45 to 50 minutes, or until it looks nicely browned and sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. If you like a crisper bread, remove bread from pan about 10 minutes before the end of cooking and put it back into the oven to crisp all around. Cool on wire rack.

Makes 1 loaf.

-- "30 Years at Ballymaloe" by Darina Allen (Kyle, March 2013, $35)

Cheese on Toast

I used Kerrygold Mature Cheddar and brown bread for this easy toasted cheese sandwich.

4 slices Pullman loaf or other good sandwich bread (I used brown bread)

4 ounces Irish cheddar cheese, thinly sliced

2 Roma tomatoes, cut crosswise into ½-inch slices

Salt

4 pinches chili powder

In preheated broiler or toaster oven, toast the bread on one side until lightly browned. Arrange bread toasted-side down on a baking sheet. Divide the cheese evenly over the bread, covering each slice completely. Add 2 slices of tomato to each. Season the tomatoes with salt and sprinkle a pinch of chili powder over them. Broil until the cheese is bubbly and the tomatoes are barely softened.

Serves 4.

-- "My Irish Table" by Cathal Armstrong and David Hagedorn (Ten Speed; March 11, 2014; $35)

Potato Gratin

You probably don't to think about the calories in this rich and creamy potato dish, but boy is it good, so long as you follow these 2 important instructions. "Do not begin by slicing all the potatoes at once and soaking them in water; they'll lose their starch. Instead, slice and add them to the cream one at a time." Mr. Armstrong writes in "My Irish Table." "And you can't make this dish ahead of time, because the butterfat will separate when you reheat it."

1 clove garlic, halved crosswise

3 cups heavy cream

1 teaspoon kosher salt

Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

6 russet potatoes, peeled and placed whole in cold water

Prepare cream mixture: Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Rub the inside of a 2-quaert gratin dish with one of the garlic halves. Rub the inside of a large, heavy slope-sided sauté pan with the other garlic half and add the cream, salt and nutmeg. Bring to a boil over medium heat.

Prepare the potatoes: Using a mandolin or very sharp knife, slice 1 potato crosswise into ¼-inch disks. Add slice to the pan with the cream mixture, overlapping them like shingles. This will help create a layered effect and keep them from sticking together in stacks. Repeat with the remaining 5 potatoes, gently shaking the pan back and forth from time to time throughout the process. As soon as all the potatoes are added, turn the heat off and spoon the sliced potatoes into the prepared gratin dish, maintaining overlapping slices as best you can. (I was not successful.) Pour any remaining cream over the potatoes.

Bake the gratin: Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and place the gratin dish on top of it in case any cream boils over. Bake for 45 minutes, until gratin is golden brown and bubbling and a sharp knife inserts easily into the center of the potato slices. Serve hot.

Serves 6 to 8.

-- "My Irish Table" by Cathal Armstrong and David Hagedorn (Ten Speed; March 11, 2014; $35)

Creamed Leeks

Be sure to clean your leeks carefully by repeatedly dunking the sliced greens in a bowl of cold water -- the dirt and sand will sink to the bottom.

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

4 leeks, white and light green parts only, halved lengthwise, cut into diagonal slices and washed well (about 4 cups)

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup heavy cream

Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

Melt butter in a flameproof casserole over medium-high heat. Stir in leeks and salt, and let the leeks sweat uncovered, stirring occasionally, until tender but still bright green, about 5 minutes.

Stir in the cream and nutmeg. Lower heat to medium and cook the leeks for 5 mores minutes, until sauce is thickened and leeks are completely soft but still bright. Serve immediately.

Serves 4.

-- "My Irish Table" by Cathal Armstrong and David Hagedorn (Ten Speed; March 11, 2014 $35)

Parsnip and Maple Syrup Cake

This seasonal cake is sweetened with maple syrup. Your kids will never know it contains parsnips.

For cake batter

12 tablespoons butter, plus extra for greasing pan

¼ cup brown sugar

½ cup maple syrup

3 large eggs

2 cups self-rising flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice

2 medium parsnips, peeled and grated

1 medium eating apple, peeled, cored and grated

½ cup pecans or hazelnuts, roughly chopped

Zest and juice of 1 small orange (I used half of a large orange)

Confectioners' sugar, for dusting

For filling

1 cup mascarpone

3 to 4 tablespoon maple syrup

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 2 8-inch cake pans with a little butter and line the bases with parchment paper.

Melt butter, sugar and maple syrup in pan over low heat. Set aside to cool slightly, then whisk in the eggs. Sift the flour, baking powder and pumpkin pie spice into a large mixing bowl. Stir in the butter and sugar mixture and mix carefully. Next add the grated parsnip, apple, pecans or hazelnuts, orange zest and juice, and combine thoroughly.

Divide mixture between 2 pans and bake in the preheated oven for 35 to 40 minutes, or until cakes are just starting to shrink from the sides of the tins. Cool on a wire rack.

Just before serving, beat the mascarpone and maple syrup together. Spread over the tops of one cake and top with the second cake. Dust with confectioners' sugar right before serving.

Makes 1 cake, serves 8.

-- "30 Years at Ballymaloe" by Darina Allen (Kyle, March 2013, $35)


Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

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