- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Remember the days when the mere mention of Ulster, the province that comprises Northern Ireland, sent shivers down the spine?

Remember when the news coming from this region was mostly gloom and doom, with endless reports of terrorist attacks and sectarian strife during the 30 turbulent years of “the Troubles”?

Thankfully, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 brought Northern Ireland’s warring factions to the negotiating table and ended most of the violence, setting the nation on a path to peace and prosperity. So there is much to celebrate in Ulster these days, especially when St. Patrick’s Day rolls around - the province is, after all, where the celebrated saint established the Christian church in Ireland. Two cathedrals in the town of Armagh, one Protestant and one Catholic, bear Patrick’s name, and his remains supposedly are buried in Downpatrick, County Down.

On the food side, things have never been better in Northern Ireland, and chefs from all six counties - Antrim, Armagh, Derry, Down, Fermanagh, and Tyrone - are making a collective effort to promote local produce, regional ingredients and traditional fare as members of food initiatives such as Taste of Ulster (www.tasteofulster.org) and Good Food Ireland (www.goodfoodireland.ie).

Both groups encourage member restaurants to credit suppliers, farmers and cheese makers on their menus, so you’ll see lots of name-dropping: Arkhill Farm (Londonderry) organic chicken with wild mushrooms; Kettlye Farm (Fermanagh) beef with champ and slow-roasted mushrooms; and Moyallon (Armagh) rare breeds pork and leek sausage with chive egg crush are just a few of the local dishes that Ulster chefs served at a recent U.S.-Northern Ireland investment conference there.



Even if you can’t make a trip to the six counties, ingredients for recipes inspired by chefs from the land of St. Patrick are as close as your local market, especially if you choose organic products. Slainte agus go marfaidh sibh an cead. “Good health and may you outlive one hundred years!”

Smoked salmon with arugula salad and citrus-cilantro dressing

For an easy first course, try this smoked salmon dish with a side salad of spicy arugula tossed with a citrus dressing (recipe devised by chef Noel McMeel of County Fermanagh). Makes 6 servings.

12 slices smoked Irish salmon

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon fresh lime juice

1 teaspoon chopped cilantro

1 teaspoon ground mixed peppercorns

10-ounce bag arugula

3 small red chilies, thinly sliced, for garnish

Lime segments for garnish

Cut each slice of salmon into 1-inch-wide strips. Divide the strips among 6 salad plates, arranging loosely in a mound. In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lemon and lime juices, cilantro and peppercorns. Toss the arugula with the dressing and divide the greens onto plates next to the salmon. Garnish with chilies and lime segments.

Beef tenderloin with roasted mushrooms, champ and rosemary-whiskey gravy

The mushrooms and potatoes in this recipe (devised by chef Robert McDonald of County Tyrone) can be made in advance and kept warm while you cook the beef.

Makes 6 servings.

ROASTED MUSHROOMS:

6 large portobella mushrooms

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

4 cloves garlic, mashed

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped

1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

CHAMP:

4 large russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

1/2 cup half-and-half

2 to 3 tablespoons chopped scallions or chives

4 tablespoons butter

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Steaks:

Six 6-ounce beef tenderloin steaks

2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

GRAVY:

1 1/4 cups Irish stout

1 1/2 cups Irish whiskey

3 tablespoons red currant jelly

Sprig each of rosemary and thyme

2 tablespoons minced garlic

To make the mushrooms: Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, garlic, rosemary and thyme. Wipe the mushroom caps with a damp paper towel, remove the stems, and place stem-side up in a nonstick baking pan. Brush the oil mixture over each mushroom and season with salt and pepper. Roast for about 1 hour, or until tender. Remove from the oven and cover with foil to keep warm. Increase the oven temperature to 400 degrees.

To make the champ: Cook the potatoes in a pan of boiling salted water for about 20 minutes, or until tender. Drain and mash. In a small saucepan over medium heat, gently bring the half-and-half and scallions or chives to a boil. Whisk into the mashed potatoes until smooth. Whisk in the butter and season with salt and pepper. Cover and set aside over low heat.

To cook the steaks: Heat a baking sheet in the oven. Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over high heat. Add the steaks and sear all over. Transfer the steaks to the hot baking sheet to finish cooking in the oven (4 to 5 minutes for medium rare). Remove the steaks from the oven, cover with foil, and let rest for a few minutes. Add salt and pepper as desired.

To make the gravy: Return the skillet to medium-high heat, add the stout, and bring to a boil. Cook, stirring constantly, for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the stout is slightly reduced. Add the whiskey, jelly, rosemary, thyme and garlic and cook for about 5 minutes, or until slightly thickened. Strain and return to simmer.

To serve: Place a mushroom in the center of a serving plate, top each with a steak, and spoon some of the gravy over the top. Serve with the champ.

Chicken breasts with wild mushrooms, potato cake, thyme butter and herb jus

The thyme butter and herb jus in this recipe (devised by chef Barry Emerson of Belfast) can be made in advance and kept warm while the chicken and potato cakes cook.

Makes 6 servings.

THYME BUTTER:

1 cup (2 sticks) softened butter

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves

2 tablespoons minced garlic

HERB JUS:

2 cups port

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves

1 cup prepared chicken gravy

CHICKEN:

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

6 6-ounce chicken breasts (with skin), preferably organic or free range

10 ounces mixed wild mushrooms

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

POTATO CAKE:

1 pound baking potatoes

4 tablespoons butter

To make the thyme butter: Combine the butter, thyme and garlic in a food processor and blend until smooth.

To make the herb jus: In a small saucepan over high heat, cook the port for 3 to 5 minutes, or until reduced by half. Add the thyme and whisk in the gravy until smooth. Keep warm.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a large ovenproof skillet over medium heat, melt 4 tablespoons of the butter. Add the chicken, skin side down, and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the skin is browned. Transfer to the oven and cook for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a meat thermometer registers 175 degrees to 180 degrees when inserted into the thickest part. In a separate small skillet over medium heat, melt the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter. Saute the mushrooms for 5 minutes and season with salt and pepper. Cover and set aside.

To make the potato cake: Peel and grate the potatoes into a large bowl of cold water (to prevent browning.) Soak potatoes 1 to 2 minutes, then drain in a colander. Spread the grated potatoes on a kitchen towel, then twist to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. In a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Spoon about 2 tablespoons of the grated potatoes into 3 mounds, and press down with a fork to make 3-inch rounds. Fry for about 5 minutes on each side until lightly browned. Repeat with remaining potatoes. Transfer to a platter, cover, and keep warm. (Potato cakes can be made up to 8 hours ahead; reheat in a 350-degree oven for 5 minutes).

To serve: Place a potato cake in the center of each serving place and place the chicken breast next to it. Spoon some of the thyme butter on top of the chicken (it will begin to melt) and arrange the wild mushrooms around the chicken. Spoon the herb jus over the mushrooms.

Sticky toffee pudding with Bushmills toffee sauce

This recipe (from chef Paul Rankin of Belfast) pays homage to Bushmills, a whiskey that’s been produced in Northern Ireland since 1608.

Makes 24 small puddings

8 ounces dates, chopped and pitted

3/4 cup water

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature

2/3 cup granulated sugar

2 large eggs, beaten

1 1/2 cups self-rising flour

1/4 cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Toffee Sauce:

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup light brown sugar

1 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons Irish whiskey

Whipped cream for serving

To make the puddings: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously grease a 12-well Bundt muffin pan.

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine the water, dates, and baking soda. Bring to a boil, and then remove from the heat and set aside to cool completely.

Beat the butter and sugar with an electric mixer on medium speed for 3 to 4 minutes, or until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, and then alternately fold in the flour and milk. Stir in the vanilla. Fold in the dates. Spoon into the prepared muffin cups, filling halfway, and bake 30 to 35 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Invert the pan onto a wire rack and remove the puddings. Re-grease the pan and repeat with remaining batter.

To make the sauce: In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. When it begins to bubble, stir in the brown sugar. Cook, stirring constantly, for about 3 minutes, or until the sugar has dissolved. Carefully pour in the cream, and then continue to cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the sauce is smooth and thickened. Remove from the heat, stir in the whiskey, and let cool slightly. (To make ahead, cover and refrigerate for up to 12 hours, and then reheat over low heat.)

To serve, put a pudding in the center of a dessert plate, spoon warm some sauce over, and garnish with some whipped cream.

• Margaret M. Johnson is the author of five Irish cookbooks. Her “Tea and Crumpets” (Chronicle Books) will be released in May.

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