- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 12, 2008

TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES

As a redhead married to an Irishman, I have had more than my share of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. Watching fireworks over the River Liffey in Dublin. Attending parades along Fifth Avenue

in New York. Observing a cavalcade of classic cars in Kells. What all these festivities had in common was where I ended the day — at a busy bar with a pint of stout in one hand and a plate full of quintessential Irish pub grub in the other.

Public houses, or pubs, in Ireland date to medieval times. Then, as now, they performed a vital social role, providing villagers as well as townsfolk with a place to debate politics, discuss business, swap gossip, listen to music and, of course, knock back a few drinks.

In the early days, most only dispensed alcohol. Food service began when the first pub owner put a pot of soup on the stove and offered it, alongside slices of brown soda bread, to his patrons. From that point onward, simple peasant foods such as the mutton-rich Irish stew became the mainstays of bar menus.

Pubs remain a vital presence in Irish life. About 12,000 public houses exist in the Republic of Ireland, with more than 1,000 in Dublin alone. In Northern Ireland, there are about 1,500. That’s a lot of pubs and a lot of pub fare.

Although I habitually down either a Murphy’s or Guinness, what I eat at an Irish pub varies. With a laundry list of meals before me, I would be foolish to stick to my tried-and-true favorite, beer-battered codfish and vinegar-doused chips.

If in the mood for seafood, I might consider baked salmon cakes, oysters or a scallop and mushroom pie.

When looking for lighter options, I often go with a salad of mixed greens, arugula, spinach or Bibb lettuce. Where salads once consisted of a slice of tomato or cucumber atop a few lettuce leaves, they now are meals in their own right.

On drizzly days, I opt for a warm, hearty stew or soup. Stews — also known as hot pots — are layers of meat and vegetables with a rich broth of beer or meat stock. Irish stew is the most renowned and features chunks of lamb, sliced onions and cubed potatoes. While purists argue that Irish stew should only contain these three ingredients, some cooks add chopped carrots, celery, barley and a fresh herb or two.

Another familiar dish is bacon and cabbage. Think Canadian rather than American bacon, and you will undoubtedly recognize this classic as “ham and cabbage.”

Bacon and cabbage couldn’t be easier to make. Simply place 2 to 3 pounds of Canadian bacon in a large pot of water, bring it to a boil, then reduce the heat and allow it to simmer for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, core and quarter a small head of cabbage. After half an hour has passed, add the cabbage to the simmering pot and cook the cabbage and bacon for another 30 minutes. When finished, the cabbage will be soft and the bacon cooked completely.

Once they are ready, remove both from the pot. After allowing the bacon to cool slightly, slice it into pieces and place it, along with the cabbage, on a serving dish. With a dab of mustard for the bacon and a pat of butter and sprinkle of white pepper on the cabbage, you now have a traditional meal to enjoy at home.

As Galway resident Finbarr Connolly points out, I am more likely to see Irish stew and bacon and cabbage in either tourist-frequented pubs or Irish bars in America. “Because of the competition between pubs in Ireland and because so many travelers return home with high expectations regarding going out, the menus have become more modern, with influences from around the world,” he says.

At his local pub, the Huntsman, he and his family can dine on “chicken tikka, stir-fried veg on a bed of noodles, sausage and chips or a full Irish breakfast.” Thanks to a move toward American-style bars, he also enjoys such appetizers as chicken wings, chicken nuggets and chips. “Years ago, we never would get those kinds of things. And that’s what I loved about American pubs, the baskets of nibbles,” he says.

Donal O’Rourke, chef-owner of the Cuckoo’s Nest in the Queens, N.Y., neighborhood of Woodside, concurs with Mr. Finbarr. While his establishment does serve beef and Guinness and shepherd’s pies, as well as Dublin Bay coddle, a Dublin stew of sausage, ham, potatoes and leeks, he says that these items are not as prevalent in bars of his homeland.

“You have more traditional food here than in Ireland, where the pubs have become more global. These are on the menu because of my background as well as the public demand for Irish comfort food,” says Mr. O’Rourke, who hails from Donegal on Ireland’s northwest coast.

Likewise, ancestry as well as appeal influences the fare at Molly Maguire’s Irish Restaurant and Pub in Phoenixville, Pa. “Somewhere between 50 to 70 percent of our customers have visited Ireland or are Irish and want to experience the traditional dishes again on American soil,” says manager Tom Kirwan, whose parents come from Ireland.

Molly Maguire’s features such customary offerings as potato leek soup, Irish stew, shepherd’s pie and an all-day Irish breakfast. It also offers another one of my favorites, boxty, a pancake made from both mashed and shredded potatoes. Boxty can either be topped with bacon, meats, cheeses or onions, or simply served as is.

Meat pies. Irish stews. Boxty. Or just a nice salad and soup. This St. Patrick’s Day, whether in Ireland or at home on the East Coast, I know that I will be tucking into some lovely Irish pub food.

Irish brown soda bread

2 cups whole wheat flour

2 cups unbleached all purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees

Grease and flour a 9-inch loaf pan. Stir together the dry ingredients. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour the buttermilk into it, slowly mixing the wet with the dry ingredients. Stir until well combined. The dough should be thick, not watery.

Using your hands, shape the dough into a log that will fit the loaf pan in length and width. Place the dough in the pan and score the top with a sharp knife.

Bake the bread for 35 to 40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean and the bread sounds hollow when you tap the bottom. Remove from the pan and cool on a wire rack. Makes 1 loaf.

Potato leek soup

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

11 ounces leeks, washed, drained, chopped and tough greens discarded

1 teaspoon salt

13/4 pounds Idaho potatoes, washed, peeled and cut into small chunks

6½ cups chicken stock

Freshly ground white pepper, to taste

Melt the butter in a medium-sized stockpot. Add the leeks, sprinkle them with salt and sweat on medium-low until transparent. Add the potatoes and saute for 5 minutes.

Add the chicken stock and bring to boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, skimming the top occasionally, for 30 to 40 minutes or until the potatoes are tender.

Season with pepper, then either use a stick blender or pour the soup into a traditional blender and puree. If using a stationary blender, return the soup to the stockpot. Check the seasonings, stir then serve. Makes 6 servings.

Boxty

1 pound Idaho potatoes, washed, peeled, cut into chunks and boiled

1 tablespoon butter

1 cup milk

1 pound Idaho potatoes, washed and peeled

1½ cups flour, sifted

1 teaspoon baking soda, sifted

1 cup buttermilk

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 to 2 tablespoons butter, for frying the boxty

Mash the boiled potatoes with 1 tablespoon butter and 1 cup of milk. Set aside.

Using a box grater, grate the other pound of potatoes into a bowl. Strain or squeeze out the liquid from the grated potatoes, then add them, along with the flour, baking soda and buttermilk, to the mashed potatoes. Stir well to combine then sprinkle in the black pepper and stir again. The batter should be quite thick.

Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a large, nonstick skillet.

With either a 1/4 cup or small ladle, pour the batter onto the frying pan. Cook the cakes on medium heat until the batter has bubbled and appears slightly dry, about 3 to 5 minutes. Flip and cook the other sides. Place on a platter and serve immediately. Makes about 18 potato pancakes.

Scallop and mushroom pie

1 pound Idaho potatoes, washed, peeled, cut into chunks and boiled

1 cup milk

5 tablespoons unsalted butter

10 ounces cremini mushrooms, sliced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1½ pounds scallops

3/4 cup whole milk

1 tablespoon flour

2 tablespoons sherry

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 2-quart baking dish.

Mash the potatoes with the 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 cup of milk and set aside.

Melt 3 tablespoons of butter in a medium saute pan. Add the mushrooms and saute on medium high heat for 5 minutes. Add the garlic, stir together then add the scallops. Cook for 10 to 12 minutes, until the scallops are opaque.

Remove the scallops and place them on a warm plate. Add the milk to the pan and deglaze. Add the flour and stir until well combined.

Return the scallops to the pan. Add the sherry and stir well.

Pour the contents of the saute pan into the greased baking dish. Evenly spread the mashed potatoes over the scallop and mushroom mixture. Dot the top of the potatoes with the remaining butter and insert the dish into the oven.

Bake for 20 minutes or until the top of the potatoes have browned. Serve immediately.

Makes 6 servings.

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