- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Call me crazy, but I think the Irish have finally caught on to the benefits of spirits. Chuckles aside, I’m talking about their benefits in cooking, not drinking.

Over the course of decades of visiting Ireland, I have been the beneficiary of some of the most spirited cooking the country has to offer. Come St. Patrick’s Day, there’s no better time to enjoy some yourself.

For centuries, the marriage of wine with food has been a happy one, with chefs, food writers and wine critics constantly extolling the perfect partnership and the way that ordinary recipes are elevated to extraordinary dishes with a splash of red or a dash of white.

The late Alexis Lichine, wine grower and author, almost 40 years ago, of the landmark “Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits” (Knopf), called the use of wine in cooking, “a positive pleasure [in which] the two combine in a gastronomic treat infinitely more delicious than either could provide alone.”

History tells us that in countries without a wine-growing tradition, such as Ireland, beer becomes a nation’s favorite drink — think Guinness or Murphy’s Stout, Smithwick’s Ale and Harp Lager. Like wine, which chefs have long known enhances the taste and flavor of food, Irish stout, beer and ale have long been partners in traditional dishes ranging from plumping up the fruit in a Christmas pudding to tenderizing the meat in a slow-simmering casserole or deep-dish pie.

The malty flavor of Guinness, for example, adds a surprising sweetness to brown bread, a heartiness to onion soup and a serious kick to brownies.

Irish whiskey, which sixth-century monks first distilled and called “uisce beatha” (pronounced isk’ke ba’ha, meaning “water of life”), is another drink that has been spooned into many a kettle and cake. When the soldiers of Henry II first visited Ireland in the 12th century, they were greatly impressed with the liquid but had difficulty pronouncing it. Eventually “uisce” was anglicized to “fuisce” and finally to the word “whiskey” we know today. It’s an excellent flavor-enhancer in marinades for grilled meats and seafood, and the warming touch in Ireland’s famous drink, Irish coffee.

During the Middle Ages, cider was a popular beverage in Ireland, particularly in areas where water supplies were often unreliable and tea and coffee were unknown. As a result, cider, which was often fermented into an alcoholic beverage, became another popular drink, and it, too, found its way into dishes and sauces where a little sweetness was required.

The honey wine known as mead was originally the chief drink of the high kings of Ireland. Its fame as a refreshing drink spread quickly throughout the rest of the country, and soon no medieval banquet or wedding feast was complete without mead to accompany it.

Like cider, ancient mead’s distinctive sweet wine flavor is a terrific addition to many modern dishes, especially chicken and pork. Bunratty Meade is the most popular brand in the United States.

Irish cream liqueurs probably need no introduction when it comes to enhancing a dessert. The first of many brands, Baileys Irish Cream, was started in 1974, after discovering the secret that would allow milk to be separated into double cream and blended with natural flavors, Irish whiskey and neutral spirits. The origin of the drink, some say, harks back to a tradition in the west of Ireland where one “dropped a dab of fresh cream into some Irish whiskey, stirred, shook and tossed it down.”

These days, it’s more likely to find its way into a cheesecake, chocolate pot or adults-only chocolate chip cookies. But who’s complaining? It’s St. Patrick’s Day. “Slainte agus go marfaidh sibh an ciad” — (Good health and may you outlive 100 years).

Irish onion soup

The French may have invented onion soup, but it took the Irish to give it a flavor all its own.

In this recipe, Irish stout gives the traditional soup not only a deep, rich color, but a hearty, malty flavor. Instead of the traditional topping of Gruyere cheese, try it with Kerrygold Swiss or Blarney, two popular Irish brands.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 large yellow onions, peeled and sliced

2 large red onions, peeled and sliced

4 shallots, minced

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon dried basil

1 sprig fresh thyme

1 tablespoon dark brown sugar

3 cups homemade beef stock or canned low-sodium beef broth

1 cup Guinness or Murphy’s Irish stout

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 cup (4 ounces) shredded Kerrygold Swiss or Blarney cheese for topping

In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt butter. Add yellow and red onion, shallots and garlic, and cook for 12 to 15 minutes, or until onion is soft but not browned. Add bay leaves, basil, thyme, brown sugar, stock or broth, and stout. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, for 25 to 30 minutes, or until onion is tender. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Preheat oven broiler. Arrange 8 1-cup flameproof crocks on a baking sheet. Ladle soup into crocks and sprinkle with cheese. Place under broiler, 4 inches from heat source and broil for 1 to 2 minutes, or until cheese melts and starts to brown. Remove from oven.

Using oven mitts to protect your hands, place a crock in the center of each of 8 serving plates and serve immediately. Makes 8 servings as a starter.

Chops in Locke’s

Clever cooks often marinate meat in an alcohol-based product to tenderize it and add flavor. Lamb chops are perfect for this technique, especially less expensive chops like shoulder (round bone or blade), which are also perfect for outdoor grilling.

This marinade uses Locke’s Irish whiskey, but you can substitute another brand, and plenty of thyme, “that chef of seasoners,” according to James Joyce, who likened history to an Irish stew, influenced by thyme. Marinate the chops for at least 12 hours before you plan to grill them. Serve these with crushed potatoes (recipe follows) and a mixed green salad.

½ cup Locke’s Irish whiskey

3/4 cup olive oil

1 clove garlic, minced

1 small onion, chopped

2 sprigs fresh thyme

1 sprig fresh rosemary

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 ½-inch piece ginger root, peeled and grated

6 (4 to 6 ounces each) lamb cutlets, chops or steaks

Crushed potatoes (recipe follows)

Combine whiskey, olive oil, garlic, onion, thyme, rosemary, cayenne, salt and pepper to taste, and ginger root in a sealable jar and shake to blend. Place lamb in a shallow dish and pour marinade over. Cover and refrigerate for at least 12 hours.

Prepare a medium-hot fire in a charcoal grill, preheat a gas grill to medium-high or preheat the broiler. Remove lamb from marinade. Grill or broil 4 inches from heat source, for 5 minutes on each side (for rare). Brush once with marinade after turning. Serve immediately with crushed potatoes. Makes 6 servings as a main course.

CRUSHED POTATOES:

2 pounds small potatoes (fingerlings, Yukon Gold or Red Bliss), unpeeled

Salt

Water

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut in pieces

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons crumbled blue cheese or 1 tablespoon whole-grain mustard, optional

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Cook potatoes in a large pot of boiling salted water for about 20 minutes, or until tender, and drain. Return to same pot to dry out a little. With a wooden spoon, roughly crush potatoes. Stir in butter, oil and cheese or mustard, if using. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Makes 6 to 8 servings as a side dish.

Black and tan brownies

Historically, the name black and tan refers to the much reviled force of English soldiers sent to Ireland after the 1916 Easter Rising to suppress the Irish rebels. Eventually, a much loved drink made with half Guinness stout and half Harp lager assumed the name, and now this two-toned brownie gets it, too. Serve the brownies with coffee or vanilla ice cream, if you wish.

TAN BROWNIES:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature, plus butter for greasing pan

1 cup packed light brown sugar

1 large egg, beaten

½ teaspoon vanilla

1 cup all-purpose flour

1½ teaspoons baking powder

1/8 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

½ to 1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts

BLACK BROWNIES:

4 ounces (4 squares) unsweetened chocolate

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

Water

2 cups sugar

3 large eggs, beaten

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon vanilla

1 cup Guinness stout

To make tan brownies, butter a 9-inch square baking pan. In a medium bowl, beat 4 tablespoons butter and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Beat in egg and vanilla.

With a wooden spoon, stir in flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and nuts. Batter will be thick. Spoon into prepared pan and spread it evenly with a rubber spatula or with dampened fingers. Set aside.

To make black brownies, in a medium bowl, melt chocolate and butter over a bowl of hot water or in the microwave. Stir until smooth. Stir in sugar, eggs, salt, flour and vanilla. Slowly stir in Guinness until smooth.

Pour black brownie mixture over tan brownie batter and bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 45 to 50 minutes, or until a skewer inserted in center comes out almost clean. Remove from oven and let cool on a wire rack. Cut into 16 squares.

Baileys white chocolate tart with raspberry sauce

When the R & A Bailey Co., producer of Baileys Irish Cream, invited chefs from around Ireland to contribute recipes to its “Pure Indulgence” cookbook, chef Martin Dwyer of Waterford, Ireland, offered this decadent white chocolate tart, which he serves with sweet-tart raspberry sauce.

You can also serve it with fresh strawberries.

PASTRY:

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons sugar

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

2 large egg yolks, beaten with 2 tablespoons of water

FILLING:

8 ounces (8 squares) white chocolate

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

3 tablespoons Baileys Irish Cream liqueur

2 large eggs

3 large egg yolks

1 tablespoon honey

RASPBERRY SAUCE:

4 ounces raspberries, plus a few for garnish

1 tablespoon water

Fresh mint sprigs for garnish

To make pastry, combine flour, sugar and butter in a food processor and pulse 5 or 6 times, or until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add half of the egg yolk mixture and process until soft dough forms. Form dough into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Roll out dough between 2 sheets of waxed paper to a thickness of 1/4-inch. Line a 12-inch tart pan with dough, leaving a small overlap in case of shrinkage. Cover dough with a piece of aluminum foil, fill it with pie weights and bake in preheated 400-degree oven for 15 minutes.

Remove weights and foil, brush with remaining egg wash and bake for 3 to 5 minutes longer, or until lightly browned.

Remove from oven and set aside. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees.

To make filling, in a small saucepan over medium heat, melt chocolate and butter. Stir in Baileys, remove from heat and let cool for 20 minutes. In a large bowl, beat eggs, egg yolks and honey with an electric mixer until light and fluffy.

Whisk chocolate mixture into egg mixture and pour into pastry shell. Bake for 30 minutes, or until filling is set and top is golden. Remove from oven and let cool completely on a wire rack.

To make sauce, in a small saucepan over medium heat, combine raspberries and 1 tablespoon water. Cook for 5 to 8 minutes, or until berries break down. Transfer mixture to a food processor and puree until smooth. Strain mixture through a fine sieve and let cool.

To serve, drizzle some of sauce onto serving plates, cut tart into slices and put a slice on each plate. Garnish with a few whole raspberries and a sprig of mint.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Margaret M. Johnson is author of “The Irish Spirit” (Chronicle Books), from which these recipes are adapted.

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