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Irish & Elegant

If you told Noreen Kinney 30 years ago that someday there would be a gourmet market near Limerick, Ireland, selling organic feta cheese, she would have wanted to believe you.

She'd have had trouble, though.

You see, Kinney spent about 20 years trying to convince the Irish that there was more to eating than Irish stew and potatoes.

In the 1970s and 1980s, she donned elegant gowns to give cooking demonstrations in fancy Irish hotels. Eager audiences learned how to make a volcanic mold of salmon mousse covered with avocado frosting _ it was the '70s, after all _ and were reminded that vegetables could be eaten raw, something largely avoided in Ireland at the time. Sometimes 100 people would be watching; occasionally a newspaper would cover the event.

"It was an unflattering remark heard overseas that people in Ireland lived on a diet of Irish potatoes, which made Noreen decide that she could prove Irish ingredients and food were as good as the world's best," wrote a reporter in the Wexford People in November 1974.

To make her revolutionary dishes more folksy, Kinney gave them names such as Leprechaun's Dainty Delight (wafer-thin slices of liver sauteed with onions and lots of butter) and Winter Wonderland (pears and chocolate cake with a fluffy whipped cream blanket of snow). She published her recipes in several cookbooks that are now out of print.

Not everyone was receptive, clever names notwithstanding. So ingrained was the limited, hearty food of old Ireland that even the government didn't see the delicious possibilities.

"I believed Ireland could be a gourmet's paradise," Kinney says, perched on the sofa in her St. Petersburg condo, nestled between Tampa Bay and the Pinellas approach to the Sunshine Skyway bridge. Her home is filled with mementos of a life lived globally: childhood in India, college in England, and marriage and motherhood in Ireland. Kinney, now in her early 60s, moved to Florida in 1990; her two daughters live nearby. She is writing a book about the Irish food revolution.

Kinney's pioneering efforts finally were validated in 1994 when the government established Bord Bia/the Irish Food Board to promote the foods of Ireland. Today, those foods include farmhouse cheeses, freshwater salmon, shellfish and honey _ in essence, regional foods.

Even with all the work Kinney did, followed by the efforts of Irish chefs, food writers and the government, to bring Ireland's cuisine out of the Age of Potatoes, there are still misconceptions about Irish food. Some might even wonder, is there such a thing as Irish cuisine?

You certainly wouldn't know it by the massive quantities of corned beef and cabbage that many Americans, with or without Irish ancestry, eat on St. Patrick's Day, which is Monday. Dublin's sweet Molly Malone cried "cockles and mussels," but most of us forget that Ireland is an island, surrounded by succulent seafood. How about salmon for St. Patrick's Day?

Is corned beef and cabbage even Irish? Well, sort of.

"It's basically a New England boiled dinner," says Margaret M. Johnson, author of The New Irish Table, published this month by Chronicle Books. "The huge influx of Irish immigrants who came to Boston started the tradition. It's an Irish-American dish."

Corned beef stood in for Irish slab bacon, which is the traditional meat in the dish the immigrants were re-creating: bacon and cabbage.

People, even Irish-Americans, turn to the traditional corned beef because they are in a rut, Johnson says. Johnson gives a nod to Kinney's early culinary efforts, noting that it took many years for her ideas to take hold.

"There are so many more things to be cooked," she says.

For example: Baked Oysters with Bacon, Cabbage and Guinness Sabayon, from Johnson's book. This is an Irish adaptation of Oysters Rockefeller, with bacon and cabbage replacing the spinach. (Irish bacon is meatier than American varieties and more akin to Canadian bacon, which can be substituted in this recipe.)

Without abandoning the Irish potato, Johnson says, consider making something with cheese, a new and robust industry in Ireland. Cheesemaking began in Ireland in the 1970s, she says, as a result of European Union milk quotas and immigration.

When Ireland joined the EU, mandated milk quotas resulted in a surplus. That extra milk was the beginning of Irish cheesemaking, Johnson says.

Before that, milk was only for drinking and making butter, she says. Immigrants from Germany, Holland and Switzerland, with their great traditions of cheesemaking, pushed Ireland's fledgling efforts along.

Today, more than 50 cheeses are made in Ireland, including Abbey Brie, Cashel Blue and Dubliner. Some Irish cheeses can be found in larger grocery stores in the Tampa Bay area, and many are carried in specialty shops.

So the new Irish cuisine uses a lot of cheese. And a fair amount of stout or whiskey, according to Johnson's book. Main dishes and desserts pay homage to Ireland's storied tradition of spirits, with Guinness stout, Bushmills whiskey and Baileys Irish Cream among ingredients.

Guinness-spiked brownies are served at Dublin's Grace Neill's, the oldest bar in Ireland, and could make a jolly ender to your St. Patrick's Day meal. The brownies are dense and moist; we love them with mint chocolate chip ice cream.

Kinney's Seashore Delicacy, a scallop and shrimp gratin, is as at home in tropical Florida as it is on the Emerald Isle. The ingredients are readily available, and simple preparation makes this a satisfying, quick entree.

Though Johnson loves corned beef and cabbage, she encourages something different for a holiday dinner, such as chef Noel McMeel's Braised Lamb Shanks with Roasted Garden Vegetables. Serve the lamb shanks with champ, a mixture of smashed potatoes and green onions served in a mound with a well of melted butter in the middle. Champ is sometimes called poundies.

McMeel, the head chef at Castle Leslie in northern Ireland, honed his skills with California food pioneer Alice Waters and the late legendary French chef Jean-Louis Palladin, who conquered America with his upscale restaurants.

An Irish chef who trained with the founder of California cuisine? Locals crowding gourmet markets to buy handmade Irish cheeses? A cover story on sophisticated Irish cuisine in this month's issue of Saveur magazine?

That's a very long way from the Tipperary that Kinney knew, where food was cooked beyond recognition and spice meant salt and pepper.

From her Florida condo she applauds the changes but gently reminds that she told them what was possible way back when.

Grace Neill's Chocolate and Guinness Brownies

4 eggs

} cup superfine sugar

8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped

4 ounces white chocolate, chopped

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

} cup all-purpose flour

} cup cocoa

1\ cups Guinness stout

Confectioners' sugar for dusting

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter an 8-inch-square pan.

In an electric mixer, combine the eggs and sugar. Beat until light and fluffy.

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the bittersweet chocolate, white chocolate and butter, stirring until smooth. Remove from heat and beat into the egg mixture.

Sift the flour and cocoa together and beat into the chocolate mixture. Whisk in the Guinness.

Pour into the pan and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until a skewer inserted in the center comes out almost clean. Remove from the oven and let cool on a wire rack.

To serve, dust the cake with confectioners' sugar and cut into squares.

Serves 8 to 10.

Times testing note: This is a dense, moist brownie. We used semisweet chocolate rather than bittersweet. The results were delicious, especially when served with mint chocolate chip ice cream.

Source: "The New Irish Table" by Margaret M. Johnson (Chronicle Books, $24.95).

Champ

2 pounds boiling potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces

{ cup half-and-half

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 cups minced fresh chives or green onions (including green parts)

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Cook the potatoes in salted boiling water 12 to 15 minutes, or until tender. Drain and mash.

Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan over low heat, combine the half-and-half and 4 tablespoons of the butter. Heat until the butter is melted. Add the chives or green onions, reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 2 to 4 minutes, or until the chives or green onions are soft.

Add the potatoes, salt and pepper to the milk mixture and stir until blended.

To serve, spoon the champ into a deep bowl, make a well in the center and top with the remaining 2 tablespoons butter.

Serves 4.

Garlic mashed potatoes: Substitute 1 cup finely chopped onions and 3 tablespoons finely minced garlic sauteed in { cup (1 stick) unsalted butter for the chives or green onions. Add the onion mixture to the mashed potatoes, stir in the half-and-half and season with salt and pepper.

Source: "The New Irish Table" by Margaret M. Johnson (Chronicle Books, $24.95).

Braised Lamb Shanks

With Roasted Garden Vegetables

3 tablespoons olive oil

4 lamb shanks (} to 1 pound each)

1 large carrot, diced

1 onion, diced

1 stalk celery, diced

{ cup dry white wine

14 ounces canned diced tomatoes

4 to 5 sprigs thyme

1 bay leaf

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup water

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Roasted Garden Vegetables:

1 small turnip, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 carrot, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 parsnip, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 onion, quartered

2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Cook the lamb on all sides until browned, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a Dutch oven or oven-proof casserole dish. Add the diced vegetables to the skillet and cook for 5 minutes over medium heat, or until soft. Add the white wine and stir, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan, and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the wine is reduced by half.

Transfer the vegetables and cooking liquid to the Dutch oven or casserole.

Add the tomatoes, thyme, bay leaf, garlic, water, salt and pepper to the Dutch oven or casserole. Cover and simmer for 2 hours, or until the lamb is fork-tender.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the turnip, carrot, parsnip and onion in a single layer in the bottom of a roasting pan. Toss with the olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook for 20 to 25 minutes, stirring once or twice, or until the vegetables are soft and lightly browned.

Using a slotted metal spatula, transfer the lamb shanks to a platter, cover and keep warm. Strain the sauce through a fine sieve into a clean saucepan, pressing the vegetables through with the back of a large spoon.

Cook over low heat for 5 minutes, until the sauce is thickened. Set aside and keep warm.

To serve, place a lamb shank in the center of each serving plate, spoon the sauce over and surround with the roasted vegetables.

Serves 4.

Source: "The New Irish Table" by Margaret M. Johnson (Chronicle Books, $24.95).

Baked Oysters With Bacon, Cabbage

and Guinness Sabayon

Guinness Sabayon:

2 egg yolks

{ cup Guinness stout

Dash of fresh lemon juice

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted

4 outer green cabbage leaves, finely shredded

1 teaspoon canola oil

4 slices traditional Irish bacon or Canadian bacon, chopped

24 oysters in the shell

To make the sabayon: In a double boiler, whisk the egg yolks, Guinness, lemon juice, salt and pepper together. Place over barely simmering water and whisk for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the sauce begins to thicken. Remove from the heat and gradually drizzle in the melted butter until the sauce is well blended.

Cook the cabbage in salted boiling water for 1 to 2 minutes, or until slightly wilted. Drain and immerse in cold water. Drain again. In a small skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Cook the bacon until crisp. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to paper towels to drain.

Preheat the broiler. Shuck the oysters over a small bowl. Reserve the deeper half of each shell and rinse them under cold water. Place the shells on a bed of rock salt in a small, sided baking sheet. Divide the cabbage among the shells, put an oyster on top of each and sprinkle the bacon over the oysters. Spoon some of the sabayon over each.

Place under the broiler 4 inches from the heat source and cook for about 3 minutes, or until the sauce is browned and bubbling. Serve immediately.

Serves 4.

Note: To shuck oysters, insert the tip of a strong knife between the halves of the shell just behind the hinge or muscle. Cut through the muscle. Lift off the shallow shell. Loosen the oyster from the shell with the point of the knife.

Times testing note: We shucked our own Apalachicola oysters, but when we make this recipe again, we will consider buying a pint of shucked oysters. Instead of cooking them on the shell, we will use coquille St. Jacques baking dishes, the ones that look like shells. Small, shallow ramekins would also work. This dish sounds fussy, but it comes together in less than 30 minutes. It makes a splashy presentation.

Source: "The New Irish Table" by Margaret M. Johnson (Chronicle Books, $24.95).

Seashore Delicacy

Fresh parsley

1 medium onion

{ pound bay scallops

{ pound of small shrimp, peeled

8 teaspoons sherry (or white wine)

Salt and black pepper

Dill or fennel

Garlic salt or powder

8 tablespoons sour cream

Garlic salt or garlic powder

4 tablespoons fine bread crumbs

4 tablespoons butter

Use four deep shell-shaped dishes, one for each serving, or shallow ramekins. Chop onions and some fresh parsley. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Melt the butter and spoon a little into each shell or ramekin. Divide the chopped onion into the shells/ramekins. Cut the scallops into small pieces and put equal amounts of shrimp and scallops into each shell. Put 2 teaspoons sherry over the fish. Season with salt, black pepper, dill or fennel and garlic salt or garlic powder.

Mix ingredients well. Spoon 2 tablespoons of the sour cream over the top of each shell, and 1 tablespoon of the fine bread crumbs over the sour cream.

Bake in moderate oven for 10 minutes. Sprinkle with more chopped parsley if desired.

Serves 4.

Source: Noreen Kinney, St. Petersburg.

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