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.
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.
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.
Yield: Serves 4.
Guinness Beef Stew
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
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.
Yield: Serves 6.
Mac's Pub Irish 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. 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.
Yield: Serves 6.