Today is St. Patrick's Day and I love St. Patrick's Day. But I think I love it for reasons other than most people. When I was a kid my Mom made green frosted sugar cookies and pale green pistachio cupcakes (actually, she still makes these). And since I would rather eat cake and cookies than just about anything else, that in and of itself would make the day something to look forward to.
For a gardener, March 17th marks the beginning of the spring garden. Peas and lettuces can be planted, as well as little pansy seedlings. The cold rains of the end of winter have just begun to create a green and misty world, so that for about two seconds, a few weeks from now, even the Midwest will have the brilliant emerald green look of the emerald isle. I can't wait. And St. Patrick's day seems to be the harbinger of all of this.
And, of course, St. Patrick's day is a day to cook Irish food. I can't recall that I have ever had corned beef and cabbage. When I was in London for cooking school I remember that I asked about corned beef around St. Patrick's day, thinking that London would be a good place to taste it. No one I knew really seemed to know what I was talking about. It seems that it is more of an Irish-American dish...probably a substitute for the traditional boiled Bacon and Cabbage.
The one Irish food that I did eat in London was this wonderful brown soda bread that I purchased at Selfridges department store. Selfridges has a fabulous food hall. I am not sure what ever induced me to purchase my first loaf of "Brown Bread", as it was called, because it was fairly unappealing in appearance. Rather doorstop-like, in fact. But it made the best toast (slathered with lots of butter) imaginable. I thought it was one of those things that I would only have a memory of when I returned from London. But a couple of years later Gourmet ran an article about Irish Soda Bread. One of the recipes was for a brown soda bread that claimed to be "nearly identical to Field's brown bread"; a bread that, from the description in the article, sounded like my beloved brown bread. It still makes the best toast imaginable...with lots of butter...
Irish Brown Soda Bread (From Gourmet, March 1994)
1 1/4 c. unbleached all-purpose flour, plus additional for sprinkling
1 c. whole-wheat flour
1/2 c. old-fashioned rolled oats
1/4 c. toasted wheat germ
1 1/2 t. baking soda
1 t. salt
2 oz. cold unsalted butter, cut into bits
1 1/3 c. buttermilk or 1 c. plain yogurt plus 1/3 c. milk
In a large bowl whisk together flours, oats, wheat germ, baking soda and salt. Add butter and toss to coat with flour. With fingertips rub in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add buttermilk or yogurt and stir until dough is moistened evenly.
On a floured surface knead the dough 7 or 8 times, sprinkling lightly with additional flour to prevent sticking (dough should remain soft), until the dough comes together in a ball.
On a baking sheet lightly sprinkled with flour, pat the ball of dough out into a 7-inch round. Sprinkle the dough with additional flour and with fingertips spread lightly over the round. With a sharp knife, cut a shallow (about 1/2-inch deep) X in the top of the loaf.
Bake the bread in the middle of a preheated 425° oven until golden brown—about 30 minutes. Cool the loaf on a rack for 2 hours before slicing.
This soda bread, along with another, was included in the class that I taught this year on Irish foods for St. Patrick's Day. I also included Watercress Soup, Lamb Stew with Guinness, a Lemon Curd Tart and the very traditional Colcannon Potatoes. The potatoes generated the most reaction, and this was fascinating to me. People loved them--and were surprised by this. Several people commented that they would never in a million years have thought they would be able to eat a dish that combined cooked cabbage and mashed potatoes. This obviously has something to do with how people feel about cabbage, because well-made mashed potatoes are beloved by all. And they are frequently mashed together with other things--whether by you on your plate as you are eating them, or by the chef or cook in the kitchen (think: other mashed root vegetables, pesto or herbs, sautéed mushrooms...).
It has to be the cabbage. And this is sad. Because as I have said, and will continue to say over and over, fresh ingredients, prepared properly, with respect and care, are almost always good to eat. I'm sure if you took old cabbage and boiled it to mush and then folded that into mashed potatoes, that it would turn out like everyone seems to expect. But, if you take a fresh cabbage, cook it with a small amount of water and a generous amount of butter...with some green onions or leeks....and a proper amount of salt...and cook it until the cabbage is just tender...then you will have a vegetable that you would be willing to eat with or without the mashed potatoes. And you would probably understand why this dish has been a mainstay of the Irish table for hundreds of years.
3 lbs. Russet potatoes, peeled and cut into uniform chunks (about 2-inch pieces)
1 oz. (2 T.) Unsalted Butter, at room temperature
1 head Savoy Cabbage (about 2 lbs.), quartered, cored & thinly sliced
1 bunch green onions—white and pale green parts only—minced
1 c. whole milk
4 oz. (1 stick) Unsalted Butter, at room temperature
Salt & Freshly Ground Pepper, to taste
Place potatoes in a saucepan; cover with cold water (by about an inch) and salt the water (generously—about a teaspoon per quart). Place over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, and continue to cook until the potatoes are fork tender, but not falling apart.
While the potatoes are cooking, melt 2 T. of butter in a cup of water in a wide saucepan. Add the cabbage and the scallions and boil until the water has evaporated and the cabbage is tender—about 15 minutes (if the water has evaporated before the cabbage is tender, add more water or cover and reduce the heat).
Drain the potatoes thoroughly—do not let them get cold. While the potatoes are draining, place the milk in a small saucepan and heat just to the boil. Return the potatoes to the pot and mash with a potato masher. Stir in 6 or 7 tablespoons of the remaining butter along with the hot milk. Stir in the hot cabbage. Season to taste with salt & pepper. Mound the potatoes in a serving bowl. Make a small well in the center and place the remaining 1 to 2 Tablespoons of butter in the well. If desired, garnish with some sliced green onion tops. Serve immediately. Serves 6 to 8
Note: The potatoes can be prepared through the addition of the milk and butter an hour or 2 ahead—keep them hot in a bowl covered with plastic wrap placed over a pan of steaming water. Cook and add the cabbage just before serving.