Irish repasts and revelry of the past

Colman Andrews , Irish cookbook author, thinks corned beef and cabbage is poised for a comeback.
Colman Andrews , Irish cookbook author, thinks corned beef and cabbage is poised for a comeback.
Posted: March 11, 2010

My Dublin-born brother-in-law and thousands of others who emigrated from the Emerald Isle, will swear to you that corned beef and cabbage was not traditionally served on St. Patrick's Day.

Indeed, "a good many authorities these days take pleasure in announcing that corned beef and cabbage isn't a real Irish dish at all," says Colman Andrews, a food and wine expert with more distant Irish roots.

"I don't believe that for a minute," he says.

Andrews, the author of The Country Cooking of Ireland (Chronicle Books, 2009), and Darina Allen, who runs the esteemed Ballymaloe Cookery School in Cork and wrote the introduction to Andrews' book, even suggest the briny classic is poised for a comeback.

Allen says corned beef, now almost a forgotten flavor in Ireland, was extremely popular with all classes, not just the poor, as early as 1600 and continuing through the early 1800s. In the days before refrigeration, beef was slaughtered and corned before winter and then served with the first fresh spring cabbage to break the Lenten fast on Easter.

Early Irish immigrants brought corned beef and cabbage with them to the United States, where it became "sort of a cult food," Allen says. "I think what happens sometimes when people emigrate is life stands still. Their memories of a country and of the traditions stay as it was when they left."

Now, with so many chefs looking to the past for inspiration, Allen and Andrews agree that corned beef and cabbage could make a comeback in its country of origin (see accompanying recipe).

Its easy to imagine the roots of this dispute about authenticity, given that attitudes probably changed over time.

Yet one tradition holds here in America. And that is, a single drop of Irish blood entitles one to participate in all manner of folderol, especially drinking, every March 17.

In Ireland, St. Patrick's Day was a religious holiday, says my brother-in-law, Barry Kinsella, a photographer who spent his formative years (all 36 of them) in Dublin.

"There was a parade, but nothing like the things here," says Kinsella, who moved to Florida 29 years ago for my sister's sake.

Pubs operated on Sunday hours and families feasted as on our Thanksgiving, says his brother John Kinsella, a certified master chef (one of only 61 in the U.S.) at the Midwest Culinary Institute in Cincinnati.

"We'd have a real Irish breakfast first. Rashers [bacon from the back of the pig], white and black pudding [the white made with pork butt and the black, blood sausage] and grilled tomatoes.

"After Mass we ate dinner and there would be a curling match in the afternoon," John Kinsella says.

Dinner was roast leg of lamb with a mint sauce. (Not a jelly. Combine eight ounces of a good malt vinegar with 3 ounces of sugar and an ounce of mint leaves. Cook 6-8 minutes on medium; don't boil. Serve hot or cold over the lamb.)

And for dessert, a Queen of Puddings, which was made from layers of bread pudding and preserves topped with meringue, says Kinsella, who has published a few books of his own: Professional Charcuterie (Wiley, 1996) and Professional Butchery (2010). His Modern Approach to Classical French Cooking is expected in 2011.

"The pubs were only open from 12 to 2 and 7 to 9, just like a Sunday," says the chef. "And a lot of people didn't even drink because St. Patrick's Day fell during Lent.

"My father would turn over in his grave at the thought of green beer," he continues. "He always had a double whiskey with water. 'Ball of malt' he called it."

When they were growing up, the Kinsellas ate other Irish favorites year-round: boxty (potato cakes), barm brack (raisin bread), and colcannon (potato and kale casserole - see recipe).

Tiny tokens predicting the future of those who found them would be hidden in each of those dishes on certain holidays. A thimble signified spinsterhood, a ring meant marriage, and a threepenny piece suggested great fortune was in store.

"Today, the tokens are wrapped in waxed paper or cloth, to lessen the possibility that they will be accidentally ingested, thereby provoking a different prognosis altogether," Andrews writes in his cookbook.

The Ireland of old is romanticized by some as a place of proud but impoverished people huddled in thatched-roof cottages with their potatoes, or searching for shamrocks and lost leprechauns - a bit like the fictional Lake Wobegon, Barry Kinsella says, where all the women are strong, the men good-looking, and the children above average.

John, who is five years older, recalls stories told on St. Patrick's Day at the home of his grandfather, Edward, in Clontarf.

"He told about why our people starved to death during the famine," and about centuries of efforts to destroy the Gaelic language and culture, John says of Edward Kinsella, a law clerk who lived to the age of 99.

He wasn't one for corned beef and cabbage, Kinsella says, but "he gave us a sense of why we were Irish."

Corned Beef With Cabbage

Makes 6 to 8 servings

4-pound corned brisket of beef

3 large carrots, cut into large chunks

6 to 8 small onions

1 teaspoon dry English mustard

Large sprig fresh thyme and some parsley stalks, tied together

1 cabbage

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1. Put the brisket into a saucepan with the carrots, onions, mustard and the herbs. Cover with cold water, and bring gently to a boil. Simmer, covered, for 2 hours.

2. Discard the outer leaves of the cabbage, cut in quarters and add to the pot. Cook for a further 1 to 2 hours or until the meat and vegetables are soft and tender.

3. Serve the corned beef in slices, surrounded by the vegetables and cooking liquid. Serve with lots of floury potatoes and freshly made mustard.

- From Irish Traditional Cooking by Darina Allen

Per serving (based on 8): 496 calories, 35 grams protein, 12 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 34 grams fat, 122 milligrams cholesterol, 2,784 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.


Makes 4 to 8 servings

2 to 2 1/2 pounds russet or other floury potatoes, unpeeled

6-8 tablespoons butter

2 to 3 lightly packed cups chopped kale (cabbage may be substituted)

1 1/3 cups milk

4 scallions, green part only, minced

Salt and pepper

1. Scrub potatoes. Put them in a large pot, with the larger ones on the bottom, and add water to come halfway up the potatoes. Cover the pot and bring to a boil over high heat. When the water begins to boil, carefully drain off about half of it, then return the pot to the heat, cover it again, reduce the heat to low, and let the potatoes steam for about 40 minutes. Turn off the heat; cover the potatoes with a clean, damp tea towel; and let sit for 5 minutes.

2. Melt 4 tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the kale and cook until just wilted, about 5 minutes.

3. Combine the milk, scallions, and remaining butter in a medium pot, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cook for about 2 minutes, then add the kale and stir in well. Remove the pot from the heat, cover, and set aside.

4. Drain and carefully peel the potatoes, then return them to the pot. Add the greens and their liquid and mash until smooth, leaving a few small lumps in the potatoes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

- From The Country Cooking of Ireland by Colman Andrews (Chronicle Books, 2009)

Note: To serve in a traditional Irish manner, push the back of a large soup spoon down in the middle of each portion to make a crater, then put a large pat of room-temperature butter into each to make a "lake." Diners dip each forkful of colcannon into the butter until its walls are breached.

Per serving (based on 8): 201 calories, 5 grams protein, 25 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 10 grams fat, 27 milligrams cholesterol, 92 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

Colcannon Cakes

Makes 6 servings

2 cups leftover colcannon (see recipe)

2/3 cup white flour

4 tablespoons butter

Salt and pepper

1. Combine the colcannon and the flour in a medium bowl, mixing together well. Form the mixture into 6 cakes of equal size, about 3/4 inch thick. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

2. Melt butter in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat, then fry cakes on both sides, turning once and pressing down lightly on them with a spatula, until golden brown, about 4 minutes per side.

- From The Country Cooking of Ireland by Colman Andrews (Chronicle Books, 2009)

Per serving: 212 calories, 4 grams protein, 21 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 12 grams fat, 31 milligrams cholesterol, 93milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.

The Best Shepherd's Pie

Makes 6 servings

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 onion, minced

1 1/2 carrots, minced

1 1/2 pounds lamb, minced or ground

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 cup hot beef, lamb or chicken stock

Salt and pepper to taste

4 cups freshly made mashed potatoes

2 tablespoons butter, melted

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and carrots and cook for 8 to 10 minutes or until they are soft, but not browned. Raise the heat to high, add the lamb, and cook until well browned. Stir in the tomato paste and mustard, then add the stock. Reduce the heat to low, season to taste with salt and pepper, and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes or until the stock is mostly, but not completely evaporated.

3. Transfer the meat mixture to a round or rectangular ovenproof baking dish. Cover the meat with mashed potatoes, flattening the top with a knife (make a wave or crosshatch pattern in the top of the potatoes, if you like). Brush the top with melted butter, then bake for 50 minutes.

- From The Country Cooking of Ireland, by Colman Andrews (Chronicle, 2009)

Per serving: 529 calories, 22 grams protein, 28 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 36 grams fat, 96 milligrams cholesterol, 716 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.

Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or Read her recent work at

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