The Irish appreciate imagination in stories, music and spirits.
Potatoes, too. St. Patrick’s Day comes Thursday, and pub and hall celebrations will include corned beef, carrots and the staunch and starchy Irish favorite.
Ireland’s Biddy White Lennon prefers colcannon — mashed potatoes with kale or cabbage — and potato cakes. The author of “Best of Irish Potato Recipes,” published by Dublin’s O’Brien Press, said sweet, spicy and savory flavors are part of Irish potato experience.
While Americans like ’taters smashed, fried, scalloped and “au gratin” — lightly browned with grated cheese — Irish prefer steamed potatoes and potatoes cut into wedges and roasted with herbs. They also are served mashed with butter, sour cream, bacon and scallions.
“Potatoes form the basis of many soups, such as potato and onion or leek, and potato cakes and potato bread are part of the traditional full Irish breakfast,” Lennon said in an e-mail interview.
There’s a lot of history behind the lot of Irish potato recipes, which include dishes that use black pudding, dillisk (seaweed) wild garlic and celeriac, also known as celery root.
“They are ideally suited to Ireland’s temperate climate, warmed by the Gulf Stream and moistened by the gentle rain that keeps Ireland green,” said Lennon, who is chairwoman of the Irish Food Writers Guild and editor and food writer of the Irish Home Diary. She also played Maggie Riordan in the long-running Irish soap opera “The Riordans.”
Lennon plays favorites in her kitchen. “Colcannon, champ [mashed potatoes mixed with chopped green onions, butter and milk], potatoes with cream and wild garlic, potato and nettle soup,” she said. “For me, they’re comfort foods.”
There is no special potato recipe for St. Patrick’s Day.
“But colcannon is a festive dish associated with many Irish high days and holy days,” Lennon said. “The Irish-American tendency to color food and drink green for Paddy’s Day has caught on in the last decade. So colcannon, made with floury potatoes, finely chopped kale and scallions, butter and milk or cream, whizzed to a green ‘soup’ then mixed with mashed spuds results in a vibrant green purée fit for Paddy’s Day.”
Irish foods make appearances in Irish songs and poems. Boxty, which is made with both raw and cooked potatoes and pan-fried, is the subject of a rhyme.
“Boxty on the griddle,
Boxty in the pan;
If you don’t eat your boxty,
You’ll never get a man.”
There are even verses for colcannon. Lennon offers this one:
“Did you ever eat colcannon when t’was made with yellow cream;
And the kale and praties blended like the picture in a dream?
Did you ever take a forkful and dip it in the lake
Of heather-flavored butter that your mother used to make?
Oh you did, yes you did! So did he and so did I,
And the more I think about it sure, the more I want to cry.”
People may not be able to rhyme like the Irish, but if they want to cook potatoes the Irish way, they should follow the Irish rules.
“Choose what we call floury potatoes, that is potatoes with a high dry matter content,” Lennon said. “Steam rather than boil, cook until tender. . . . Where possible cook in their skins, that is, without peeling. And if necessary, remove the skins afterwards.”
She said there are basically two kinds of potatoes: “waxy” and “floury,” and the Irish much prefer the latter.
“Waxy, or soapy, potatoes are alien to the Irish palate. We might use a waxy potato for potato salad or to eat as new potatoes, the early crop of small potatoes eaten skins and all. For almost all other dishes, the Irish favor the floury potatoes, the low water and high dry matter content. Early varieties include Queens; main crop favorites are Kerr’s Pinks, Records, Golden Wonders and King Edwards, all of which are very floury. An all-purpose variety recently developed in Ireland is called the Rooster and has a pink skin and is fairly floury.”
In America, a russet potato is an example of a floury potato, low in moisture and sugar content and high in starch. Low-starch waxy varieties in the States include red potatoes, fingerlings and Yukon Golds.
Recipes from Biddy White Lennon’s “Best of Irish Potatoes,” courtesy of O’Brien Press.
2 1⁄2 pounds floury (russet) potatoes, peeled
1 cup curly kale, cooked and finely chopped (For cabbage colcannon, omit the kale and substitute 1 cup finely chopped green cabbage)
1 cup hot milk
1 bunch (about 6) scallions, finely chopped (optional)
4 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper, to taste
Steam the potatoes until tender. Dry off by placing a clean tea towel on top for a few minutes. Then put through a potato ricer or mouli grater.
Strip the soft kale leaf away from the stem and tougher veins. Discard the stem and veins. Shred the leaves finely. Bring a large stainless-steel pot of salted water to a furious boil, add the kale leaves and cook until just tender. Drain and cool immediately under cold running water — vital if you wish to preserve its bright green color.
Drain, then squeeze out any excess liquid. Place the kale in a food processor with the hot milk and process until you have a thick green “soup.”
If using scallions, put them in a small pan with the butter and soften for just 30 seconds.
Lightly, but thoroughly, mix the scallions, potatoes and kale until you have a pale green fluff. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, then reheat until piping hot in the microwave or (covered) in an oven. Serve with more butter.
Serves 6 to 8.
Boxty on the Griddle
1 pound raw floury potatoes (russets), peeled
1 pound cooked floury potatoes, mashed while warm
1 cup plain white flour
Grate the raw potatoes directly into a clean cloth. Holding the cloth over a bowl, twist the ends together tightly and wring out the starchy liquid from the potatoes into the bowl.
Place wrung potatoes in another bowl and cover with the mashed potatoes (this prevents the grated potatoes becoming discolored). The liquid in the first bowl settles and the starch drops to the bottom. Carefully pour off the clear liquid at the top. Then mix the starch thoroughly with the grated and mashed potatoes. Sift the flour with a good pinch of salt mixed in, then knead into the potato mix as if you were kneading bread dough. Roll out on a floured board and cut into farls (triangles), squares or circles about 1⁄2-inch thick.
Heat a heavy griddle (or frying pan), which has been very lightly greased. Cook the boxty cakes slowly until well browned on both sides. They are best eaten hot, fresh from the pan, lightly buttered.
Traditionally, boxty cakes were fried in bacon fat for breakfast. If this is your plan, you might make them thicker and then slice each cake in two horizontally before frying.
Makes 4 to 8, depending on shape chosen.
Author’s note: Boxty is perhaps the most individual of our traditional potato dishes, and is particularly associated with the northern midlands and the province of Ulster. Boxty must be cooked as soon as it is prepared lest the raw potatoes turn black.
9 ounces floury potatoes (russets), raw and grated
9 ounces floury potatoes, cooked and mashed
1 cup plain white flour (approximately)
1 teaspoon salt
Prepare in the same way as boxty on the griddle. The amount of flour varies — use enough to make a pliable dough.
After kneading, form into balls about the size of a golf ball. Drop into boiling salted water and simmer for between 40 and 45 minutes.
These can be used instead of dumplings made from flour and are a good accompaniment to stews, casseroles and to boiled bacon, or corned beef and spiced beef.
Irish Potato Salad
1⁄2 cup mayonnaise
1⁄4 cup milk
1 pound waxy new potatoes (reds, fingerlings or Yukon Golds)
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 scallions, finely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh mint, finely chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
Whisk the milk and mayonnaise together. Scrub the new potatoes and rub off the skins. Steam the potatoes until just tender, taking care not to overcook them.
Drain, dry and, while still hot, cut into cubes of a size that pleases you. Sprinkle the olive oil over them while still hot and season with salt and freshly ground black (or white) pepper. Cool to room temperature and then gently stir the mayonnaise mixture and the scallions through the potatoes. Sprinkle with chopped fresh mint.
-- Add 3 to 4 bacon rashers (pieces of back bacon or Canadian bacon) grilled until crisp then crumbled, with herbs. Try different herbs — chives, wild garlic, parsley, marjoram, dill leaves, fennel leaves.
-- Substitute 1⁄2 cup sour cream or crème fraîche for the mayonnaise and omit the milk.
-- Instead of mayonnaise, use vinaigrette and a tablespoon of capers, drained, dried and chopped.
1 pound floury (russet) potatoes, cooked and mashed hot
1 1⁄2 cups plain white flour
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1⁄4 cup milk (approximately)
Keep back a couple of tablespoons of the flour. Mix all the other ingredients together, adding just enough milk to make a fairly firm dough. Sprinkle the flour on a flat surface and roll the dough out to between 1⁄4-inch and 1⁄2-inch thick. Cut into square, triangular or round shapes, as you wish. Bake on an ungreased griddle (or heavy frying-pan) until lightly brown on both sides. Serve hot from the pan, or reheat by frying in a little bacon fat or butter, or spread with very little butter and grill until warmed through.
Makes 8 to 12, depending on thickness and shape chosen.
Author’s note: A potato cake is savory, not sweet. The texture varies regionally and is achieved by using more or less flour. More potato and less flour makes a moister cake that is more tender to the tooth. Thickness varies from 1⁄4-inch to 1⁄2-inch thick, cakes high in potato being thicker than those high in flour.