Hearty Irish Fare

Published October, 2008

Cookbook author Margaret Johnson offers Irish family favorites

Margaret Johnson, 64, of West Hampton Beach, N.Y., knows that Irish food is not all corned beef and cabbage, and it’s a lesson she’s determined to share with her grandchildren. The Irish-American journalism teacher turned cookbook author says that, in the United States, where people have come to expect Buffalo chicken wings and chicken fingers at Irish pubs, it can be hard to broaden the hearts and minds of Americans to see Irish food as anything beyond meager pub fair.

"It is very, very hard. I could almost end with that," says the grandmother of Robby, 13 months, and step-grandmother of Alec, 6, and Will, 4.

"I guess as in any culture, grandparents want to keep certain traditions alive in subsequent generations, so for me it’s Irish heritage and cooking," she says. According to Johnson, Irish food is typically easy on the palate for young kids — not overly spicy or filled with unusual flavors and textures. Stew is an ideal example of Irish food at its best: a hearty dish, perfect for late fall and winter, with recognizable ingredients like carrots and potatoes, so it is an easy meal for grandparents to serve their grandchildren. It is also simple to put together, a perfect indoor activity for a crisp fall day.

Johnson’s culinary journey through the Emerald Isle began in the 1990s, after she began to notice a culinary Renaissance in Ireland. She published two books there — Ireland: Grand Places, Glorious Food (1993, Real Ireland Design LTD), a compilation of recipes from chefs at country houses and castles, and Cooking With Irish Spirits (1995, Interlink Pub Group Inc). She says the nineties were a time when Irish chefs came to appreciate their bounty of local products: "great beef, wonderful seafood, terrific lamb, and great produce," for example.

"Irish chefs used to go abroad to France, Italy, or Switzerland to learn to cook and they brought back the recipes and cooking styles of these countries," she says. "I think it was the rise of tourism to Ireland that prompted some of this along with an increased awareness of maintaining the culture" and chefs and home cooks began to revive more traditional dishes like leek and potato soup, Irish stew and creamy roast chicken with bacon and leeks.

After her big break in Ireland, Johnson has assumed the task of debunking Irish culinary myths in the United States such as "the Irish pub is just a place to get a Guinness and not a place to go and eat” and that Irish cuisine is more than meat and potatoes since "Ireland is an island and seafood is also an essential part of today’s Irish diet." The Long Island resident has written five cookbooks stateside: The Irish Heritage Cookbook (1999, Chronicle), The New Irish Table (2003, Chronicle), Irish Puddings, Tarts, Crumbles and Fools (2004, Chronicle), The Irish Pub Cookbook (2005, Chronicle), and The Irish Spirit (2006, Chronicle).

Her books focus on authentic Irish dishes and the use of Ireland’s local ingredients with recipes for dishes such as mussels cooked in Guinness, fried St. Killian Cheese, green tomato tarte tatin, and prawns and bacon with mustard sauce.

But re-educating the public is a goal that takes a backseat to Johnson’s mission to pass on the wonder of Irish culinary traditions, especially Sunday dinner, to her grandchildren. She says "On Sundays, my daughter Kate, who lives five minutes away, comes over for a big Sunday dinner. I would hope that tradition will carry on with the kinds of foods I grew up with. I am trying to keep dining together alive, especially on Sunday."

Johnson’s Sunday dinners always involve traditional Irish food, including roasts, potatoes, and parsnips.

When her grandchildren grow old enough to help out in the kitchen, Johnson will start them off the way many other grandparents begin their cooking lessons: with cookies and scones and cake batters to mix. She may throw in the occasional soda bread, giving them a taste of Irish cooking and a chance to "get their hands all mucky!" But she really looks forward to teaching them to make traditional favorites like Irish stew, cottage pie, and shepherd’s pie, all kid-friendly and all foods that recall her family’s homeland, dishes that will connect her grandkids to their heritage.

Shepherd's Pie
Lamb and vegetable filled, topped with mashed potatoes, the tastiest and easiest one-pot meal. Period.

This recipe is adapted from The Irish Pub Cookbook (Chronicle, 2006) by Margaret Johnson. Johnson writes, "In a land where sheep are so plentiful, it’s not surprising that lamb is the foundation for many farmhouse and pub dishes. Shepherd’s pie, a longtime favorite, was originally created as an economical way to use leftover lamb and was always a favorite with farmers. When the pie is made with beef, it’s called 'cottage pie.' Both are generally topped with a crust of mashed potatoes rather than pastry." Johnson recommends cottage pie for small children since beef is milder than lamb.

3 tablespoons canola oil
2 pounds ground lamb
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 medium onion, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
1 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups homemade beef stock, canned low-sodium beef broth, or 3 bouillon cubes mixed with 3 cups boiling water

2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 cup milk
2 tablespoons unsalted Kerrygold Irish butter
3 tablespoons Cheddar cheese, preferably Irish, grated (optional)

1. To start the filling: In a large skillet over medium heat, warm 2 tablespoons of the oil. Add lamb and cook for 5 to 7 minutes, or until browned. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat, and with a slotted spoon, transfer meat to a large bowl.
2. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil to the pan. Stir in the onion and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the onion is soft but not browned. Add the carrots, parsley, and thyme, and cook, stirring once or twice, for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the vegetables are coated with oil. Stir in the flour, cook for 1 to 2 minutes, then add the stock or broth. Bring to a boil, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the meat, reduce the heat to low, and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the lamb is tender and the sauce is thickened. Season again with salt and pepper.
3. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
4. To make the topping: In a large saucepan over medium heat, cook the potatoes in boiling salted water for 12 to 15 minutes, or until tender. Drain and mash. Add the milk and butter and stir until smooth.
5. Transfer the stew to a large casserole dish or 4 individual ovenproof casserole dishes. Decoratively spread or pipe the mashed potatoes over the meat mixture and bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the mixture is hot. Preheat the broiler for just a few minutes and sprinkle the potatoes with the grated cheese, if using. Place the pie under the preheated broiler, 4 inches from the heat source, and broil for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the potatoes are lightly browned and the cheese is bubbling.

Yield: Serves 4.

Guinness Beef Stew
A tasty beef stew casserole is a favorite made with Guinness stout for taste and entirely safe for kids

In The Irish Pub Cookbook (Chronicle, 2006) by Margaret Johnson, Johnson writes, "Another perennial pub favorite is a hot pot made with beef and Guinness stout. It can be cooked as a stewlike casserole, as in this recipe from the Brewery Bar at the Guinness Storehouse, St. James' Gate, in Dublin ... or as a meat pie.... At the Storehouse, this dish is served with a big scoop of mashed potatoes in the center and a sprinkling of parsley, but you can also serve it with a few boiled potatoes, if you like."

Although this recipe uses beer, the alcohol evaporates during the cooking process, making it safe for kids.

2 pounds boneless beef sirloin, cut into 1-inch cubes
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
All-purpose flour for dredging
4 tablespoons unsalted Kerrygold Irish butter
1/4 cup canola oil
4 medium onions, chopped
2 cups homemade beef stock, canned low-sodium beef broth, or 2 bouillon cubes mixed with 2 cups boiling water
2 cups Guinness stout
5 carrots, peeled and thickly sliced
4 parsnips, peeled and thickly sliced
1 medium turnip, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
Mashed or boiled potatoes for serving

1. Season the meat with salt and pepper and dredge in flour. In a stockpot or large saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter with the oil. Working in batches, cook the meat on all sides for 5 to 7 minutes, or until evenly browned. Remove from the pot. Stir in the onions and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, or until soft.
2. Return all the meat to the pot and add enough of the beef stock or broth and the Guinness to cover. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 60 to 70 minutes, or until the meat is nearly tender. Add the carrots, parsnips, and turnip, and cook for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the vegetables and meat are tender and the stew is thickened. (If not thick enough, mix 2 tablespoons flour with 1/2 cup of water until smooth. Stir into the stew and cook for 5 minutes longer, or until it reaches the desired consistency.)
3. To serve, ladle the stew into shallow bowls and serve with potatoes.

Yield: Serves 6.

Mac's Pub Irish Stew
Lamb, vegetables, potatoes, and herbs are hearty and nourishing in a savory stew

The chef at Mac’s Pub, says Margaret Johnson in The Irish Pub Cookbook (Chronicle, 2006), adds carrots to his Irish stew as well as celery and leeks. A traditional Irish stew is made with lamb, not beef, says Margaret Johnson, which is a delicious and hearty meal for grandparents to feed their adventurous grandkids. She recommends serving it with soda bread to soak up the juices.

2 1/4 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 pound lamb neck bones
6 cups homemade chicken stock, canned low-sodium chicken broth, or 6 chicken bouillon cubes mixed with 6 cups boiling water
3 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch thick pieces
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons minced fresh herbs, such as tarragon, marjoram, and rosemary
2 small onions, sliced
2 to 3 stalks celery, thickly sliced
2 leeks (white part only), washed and chopped
4 to 5 carrots, peeled and thickly sliced
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Minced fresh flat-leaf parsley for garnish

1. In a stockpot or large saucepan over medium heat, combine the lamb, bones, and stock or broth. Bring to a boil and skim off any foam that rises to the top. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook for 60 to 70 minutes, or until the meat is tender.
2. Add the potatoes, thyme, bay leaves, and herbs, return to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, uncovered, for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are nearly tender. Add the onions, celery, leeks, and carrots and simmer for another 30 minutes. Uncover and cook for 15 to 20 minutes longer, or until the vegetables are tender and the stock has thickened. Season with salt and pepper.
3. To serve, ladle the stew into shallow bowls, sprinkle with parsley, and serve with soda bread.

Yield: Serves 6.