Once a year, I adopt my mother Kathleen Collin’s name.
Most Americans, especially Irish-Americans, are shocked if they visit Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day and discover that the day is primarily a religious holiday — although the crafty Irish have learned to celebrate it for American tourists. Another surprise is that the Irish don’t eat corned beef and cabbage on this holiday.
In fact, there’s no special meal in Ireland for St. Patrick’s Day. The day commemorates the English monk who brought Christianity to Ireland in the early 5th century; it is celebrated at Mass, not in pubs.
So where did the corned beef come from?
In Ireland, the Irish who could afford it added meat to the cabbage and potatoes that were staples of their diet, particularly in winter. The meat was typically bacon, a preserved pork loin (unsliced Canadian bacon, if you will).
During the Irish potato famine of the mid-1800s, many immigrated to the United States, where times were tough. They faced widespread discrimination, but it beat starving.
As they came to enjoy America’s opportunities, the Irish immigrants could afford meat, but their beloved bacon wasn’t available. However, their Ashkenazi Jewish neighbors introduced them to corned beef brisket and they embraced it enthusiastically. (The corning refers to salting the meat; “corn” was a generic term for large grains, in this case salt.)
So corned beef and cabbage is an Irish-Jewish-American hybrid, a perfect analogy for America.
While we’re debunking myths, the Irish call their language Irish, not Gaelic (that’s for the Scots), and although it’s taught in school and revered in song, most Irish speak English.
And St. Patrick didn’t drive the snakes out of Ireland. It never had any.
The Irish do celebrate many other holidays with fine meals. Lamb and pork are favorite meats, and because Ireland is an island, seafood is very popular.
In the past, Ireland had a bad reputation for food (as did England), but that has changed as prosperity and immigration, combined with an embrace of the country’s own fresh produce and meats, caused a revolution in dining.
I was once editor of a magazine called Electronic Business, and the Irish government treated me to a few trips to Ireland in hopes the magazine would help attract U.S. electronic companies.
I ate very well — no corned beef — and I still remember a dinner at a seaside restaurant where we feasted on Dublin prawns (otherwise called Norwegian lobsters, scampi in Venice) and salmon.
Jokes aside, the Irish do like potatoes. At a elegant lunch on that trip we were served three types of potatoes (with rare leg of lamb): scalloped potatoes, creamy mashed potatoes and puffed fried potatoes so light you almost had to hold them down.
Back in Napa, last week I designed an Irish meal suitable for celebrating all things Irish.
We started with Guinness draught, naturally, and fine Harp Lager, which can be combined with Guinness in the Black and Tan, making the Guinness more drinkable.
A friend, Cass Walker, contributed a tasty leek and potato soup, while Register food columnist Diane de Filipi offered appetizers: potato boats stuffed with Irish white cheddar, and green deviled eggs (although the Irish don’t take this green stuff very seriously).
The main course was smoked salmon. Poached or baked might be a little more traditional with a meal like this.
Next came two potato dishes (bringing the total to four with the soup and appetizer): traditional scalloped potatoes and colcannon.
For the scalloped potatoes, I partly cooked the sliced potatoes in whole milk with a few bay leaves in a nonstick pan, then placed them in a casserole dish to finish and gratinée the top. No cheese needed; they’re rich enough.
You could just serve mashed potatoes, but colcannon is a favorite. It’s simply rich mashed potatoes mixed with finely chopped cooked kale (or another green, like cabbage). Colcannon is similar to champ, which substitutes scallions or chives for the kale.
I rounded out the menu with boiled young carrots and the first asparagus of the season with butter.
Irish soda bread was a natural accompaniment. It’s made using baking soda, which reacts with buttermilk for the rise, and it needs no serious kneading or rising time. Traditionally, the top is cut into a cross, either for Christian devotion or to let the fairies out. This bread is heavy, best eaten while still warm but good toasted the next day.
We had a wide choice of Irish-American wine like Mahoney, Corley and Sullivan to choose from, along with Clos La Chance from my friend Bill Murphy, J Pinot Noir and Montes Sauvignon Blanc.
For dessert, I had proposed either traditional apple cake or Guinness cake to Sasha Paulsen, features editor at the Register; art director Kelly Doren requested Guinness cake, as he wanted the recipe.
Rather than the traditional Guinness cake, which is a fruitcake full of candied fruit, I selected the chocolate Guinness cake apparently invented by Brit Nigella Lawson, but praised in many references in Irish newspapers and blogs.
It doesn’t taste of Guinness, but is a dense cake like gingerbread or carrot cake with a cream cheese topping similar to that on carrot cake. The frosting is only put on the top, and the cake is said to resemble a pint of Guinness.
After dinner, I found no takers for coffee — Irish or otherwise — or even Bailey’s Irish Cream. I guess the guests were full.
This simple method works best with a skin-on fillet of salmon.
Rub the top (no skin) with a mixture of salt and sugar and let marinate for an hour.
I do this outside as it smells up the house for days: Place a wok over a butane burner and place hickory chips in bottom with rack over it. Wipe off fish, place on rack, cover and turn heat all the way up. It will soon start leaking smoke. Don’t open.
Start checking fish after 10 minutes. The flesh should reach at least 120 degrees F (the government says 140, but saltwater fish is OK at lower temperatures and the fish remains moist).
I actually smoked the fish in a smoker this time. Grilling is good, too.
Brown Soda Bread
Adapted from Darina Allen
Makes two loaves.
3 1/3 cup (560 g, 1 1/2 pound) brown whole wheat flour (preferably stone ground)
3 1/2 cup (560 g, 1 1/2 pound) all purpose white flour
2 1/2 tsp. salt
2 1/2 tsp. baking soda
About 1 1/2 pints (900ml) buttermilk
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.
Place the dry ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer, add most of the sour milk or buttermilk and mix thoroughly, but you don’t need to develop gluten. The dough should be soft but not sticky.
Turn out onto a floured board and knead lightly, divide in half and shape into rounds. Put onto baking sheet.
Cut a deep cross in each and bake 20 minutes, then reduce the heat to 400 degrees F for 20-25 minutes, or until the bread sounds hollow when tapped. Internal temperature will be about 208 degrees F.
Cool on a wire rack.
Chocolate Guinness Cake
Adapted from Nigella Lawson
Yield: One cake (12 servings).
For the cake:
Butter for pan
1 cup Guinness stout
10 Tbsp. (1 stick plus 2 Tbsp.) unsalted butter
3/8 cup unsweetened cocoa
2 cups sugar
3/8 cup sour cream
2 large eggs
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
2-1/2 tsp. baking soda
For the topping:
1 1/4 cups confectioners’ sugar
8 ounces cream cheese at room temperature
1/2 cup heavy cream
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch springform pan and line with parchment paper. In a large saucepan, combine Guinness and butter. Melt butter over medium-low heat, then remove from heat. Add cocoa and sugar, and whisk to blend.
In another bowl, combine sour cream, eggs and vanilla; mix well. Add to Guinness mixture. Mix flour and baking soda and add to mixture, and whisk again until smooth. Pour into buttered pan, and bake until risen and firm, about one hour. Make sure top is level and uniform in appearance. Place pan on a wire rack and cool completely in pan.
For the topping: Using a food processor, mix confectioners’ sugar and cream cheese and blend until smooth. Add heavy cream and mix until smooth and spreadable.
Remove cake from pan, place on platter and ice only top of cake so that it resembles a frothy pint of Guinness.