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St. Patrick’s Day will fall on a Monday this year, one month from now. It remains to be seen if revelers will make a long weekend of it, or if the pubs will suffer on March 17. Will workers stop for a drink on their way from (or even to) work or will good sense prevail on the first school night of the week?
Here in America much more is made of St. Patrick than was ever the case back home. Parades, pints and puking are the order of the day. In schools, offices and superstores even people who can’t claim an Irish granny (precious bloody few) wear ginger beards, emerald hats and shamrock-shaped accessories. As the day progresses, Emergency Rooms fill up with lacerated little people and colleens soaked in sick. It isn’t dignified and I want no part of it. I will spend the Shamrock season cooking the food I grew up with in Belfast, Northern Ireland in the ’60s and ’70s. Why not grab a frying pan and a pound or so of lard and join me? It won’t help your waistline but your liver will thank you.
No Irish person eats corned beef and cabbage. Let’s get that straight from the start. This said, cabbage will be key to getting your celebration started, and will feature in most of your meals.
Take a large green cabbage and turn it on its side. Cut inch-deep slices. You will use the ones from the middle of the cabbage—brassica at its broadest. (You can keep the top and tail slices for use tomorrow.) Cut each wide slice in half lengthwise. You should have slabs of cabbage that are each the size of a New York strip. Slather each side with garlic butter—Kerrygold (which does not sponsor this column, but should) sells it in sticks for just such an occasion. Add coarse black pepper. If you want the cabbage to hold together, cook it in a 400 degree oven for 40 minutes, flipping it half way through. Serve when the cabbage steaks are soft in the middle and browned on the outside. The cabbage may come apart a bit but it’ll still taste great—garlicky, carmelized and satisfying; a very hearty starter.
You’ll need lamb in some form for the entrée. A leg, or loin chops or a rack. How you cook it will depend on the cut, but don’t overdo it. It should be pink in the middle. Marinades, rubs and other contrivances are unnecessary. Serve with mashed carrots and parsnips or roast the whole vegetables in the oven’s lamb drippings until their outsides are brown and crunchy and their insides steamy soft. Champ is a must—mashed potato with lots of butter, S&P, and chopped scallions. It sounds ordinary, but champ is the ambrosia of the Irish and you mustn’t miss out. If you are concerned about cholesterol overload, use a little orange juice instead of butter for the carrot and parsnip mash, but on no account stint with the spuds. Cote du Rhone will go down well with this. The Irish and the French go back a long way (remember the Huguenots in Norman times and Wolfe Tone’s bon amis in 1789) and it seems only right to honor them by drinking a bottle or two of their best.
No one will have room for dessert but you might want to have an apple crumble handy as it will be popular the following morning with the first cup of tea of the day.
I cannot recommend you start your Saturday with a full Irish breakfast, also known as an Ulster Fry. Sure, you can get your hands on bacon and sausages (links, not patties) and you can throw in a leftover lamb chop or two if you have trouble sourcing blood pudding (black and white). Fried tomatoes, fried mushrooms and a few baked beans won’t do any harm and you have the remains of last night’s champ. Certainly you can take this straight from the fridge, shape it into patties, roll these in flour and fry them in the bacon fat until brown and crispy. But what are you going to do for bread? Soda bread and potato bread will be expected and their absence will cause sorrowing, even keening, if Irish guests are at table. Maudlin behavior should be discouraged so early in the day.
Instead of a fry that falls short, I recommend a green, white and gold hash topped with coarse black pepper and a fried egg. Begin by frying an onion, adding chunks of parsnip, potato, garlic and butternut squash and, when everything is somewhat softened and browned, throwing in some chicken stock and a few handfuls of kale. Put the lid on the pot and keep the whole mixture bubbling until the root vegetables are beginning to lose their shape and the kale is soft and green like a County Down field on a wet morning. Serve with sriracha. If you are timorous about cooking without a proper recipe, use this one. It also features sausage and beans—always welcome. Enjoy a Black Velvet with breakfast—Guinness, champagne and a suspicion of gin—and then go back to bed for a bit.
Lunch is likely to be late and small. Make a couple of batches of my Auntie Dot’s wheaten bread and eat a few slices slathered in butter with some shrimp in Marie Rose sauce (mayonnaise, ketchup and a tiny squirt of sriracha if desired). Add a small green salad if you must, but remember that an Irish person would most likely have French fries. For us, no meal is complete without potato. A glass or two of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc will compliment this nicely. We Irish are not famous for our own wine.
Time to start on the dinner. If you didn’t let the whole afternoon get away from you, you could make some stock from last night’s lamb bone and soak some barley and split peas to make soup. A couple of onions, the leftover cabbage, and a few more chopped potatoes, carrots and parsnips will do it. Leave the barley and peas until they are well swelled and then drain them. Add them to your vegetable broth to cook. Throw in a little flat leaf parsley and serve with wheaten bread and butter.
Quicker and easier is Nigella Lawson’s Vietnamese Chicken and Mint Salad, a coleslaw refreshingly unlike the flaccid, gluey abominations found behind most deli counters. Zingy with lime, hot with sriracha, this dish makes cabbage shreds flit like dancing geisha girls and causes shards of carrot to believe they are agile koi, brilliant lightning or tender flames instead of rather lumpen root vegetables. Open a bottle or two of Gewurztraminer and no-one will notice you’ve forgotten the potatoes and that there isn’t a pudding. Fish sauce is fundamental for the dressing. If anyone queries the Irish authenticity of this dish, tell them it’s Celtic Asian Fusion and remind them this is the 21st century—we are no longer tenant farmers, the Famine is behind us, and we can eat what we like. Never ever miss a chance to take umbrage, cite oppression and put your own spin on a story. Aren’t you Irish after all?