As St. Patrick’s Day approaches, revelers in the United States and around the world are preparing for festivities. This includes a lot of green dye in rivers, in beer or milk, on your clothes or even in your food. Grocery stores sell “Irish soda bread” and the refrigerated meat aisles are full of corned beef, which in reality isn't even Irish. So what really is Irish food?
With a country that is basically all “farm to table,” Ireland is bound to have delicious food that is just waiting to be recognized. But, the majority of us have no idea what that is. Through his debut cookbook My Irish Table: Recipes from the Homeland and Restaurant Eve, James Beard nominee Cathal Armstrong, along with chef and food journalist David Hagedorn, opens the door for us to Ireland's Eden. In the book, chef Armstrong takes us on a journey from his childhood in Dublin, Ireland to Washington, D.C.. Through personal stories and recipes, he captures the essence of Irish life and its evolving food. "When we got the first copy in the mail, it really brought me home and made me think of those times when I’d be out playing a hurling match on a cold, rainy winter’s night," says Armstrong. "The things that my mother cooked or my father cooked you can almost smell." The Irish have a way with storytelling and Armstrong does it with food.
There is no better time to start giving Irish cuisine the spotlight than around St. Patrick’s Day. For a look into the holiday and Irish culinary traditions, we sat down with chef Armstrong.
What inspired you to become a chef?
Initially it was an accident you know? And, mostly just something to do until I tried to figure out what my real life’s goal was. There was always food in our household. Our lifestyle very much revolved around food. I guess it was kind of destiny more than anything else.
I went to college to study computer programming, and I hated it. It was so boring. I had a job in a restaurant washing dishes, and one of the kids got sick in the kitchen, so he asked me to cover him while he was away. And, he never came back. I ended up cooking there for a while. Then in an effort to escape the restaurant business, I came to America for a summer job to try and earn some cash to then go back to college. But, it just never worked out. Probably after two or three years of being in America, I began to embrace the possibility of a career in the industry. And it has really been a story of how one thing led to another more than anything else.
You were born in Ireland, you’re trained as a French chef, and you’ve lived in the U.S. for over 20 years. Why for your first cookbook did you choose to write about Irish food?
I think for the first book the most interesting part is how I became who I am and the history that is associated with it. Ireland is a tiny country, and you learn to be very patriotic and passionate about your home and your upbringing. Over the years of developing Restaurant Eve, every time we mentioned something Irish, people would say, "What the? There’s no such thing." People don’t know anything about Irish food. I wanted to illustrate that even in the traditional country cooking of the peasant people of Ireland from the 1600s and 1700s there was a tradition and a passion for food, though it may not have developed into a classic great cuisine. So I wanted to show what Ireland is capable of and I’m proud of it.
How would you define Irish cuisine?
Well, Irish cuisine is still really developing and had its first true opportunity to blossom in the 1980s. Mostly that was because of its history. Ireland was ruled by England for about 400 years and there really wasn’t an opportunity [for an independent cuisine to develop]. The Irish weren’t permitted to use available ingredients except for the potato. After the Easter Rebellion in 1916 and the War of Independence which ended in 1921, Ireland went into this long era where it had its own freedom for the first time in 100s of years. It was starting to develop its own economy and its own structure, its own identity as a free country.
The cuisine never really had an opportunity to develop because there was so much poverty over those decades. In the late '70s, '80s and '90s, we started to see a change driven by some individuals. Darina Allen and Myrtle Allen from the famous Ballymaloe House would have to be the godmothers of it, as well as Monica Sheridan who was a TV personality in those days. Then the economy of Ireland exploded in the '90s. With the Celtic Tiger we started to see people return from the continent and the United States. Also, some chefs started coming back to Ireland and they developed a new modern Irish cuisine using the ingredients that are indigenous to the island, which is very bountiful.
You don’t often think about Ireland in this way. Because of its geographic location, it has the same latitude as the southern part of Alaska. You would expect very cold winters and very harsh growing conditions. But, the Gulf Stream from the Gulf of Mexico crosses the Atlantic Ocean and keeps the sea from freezing in the winter. So Ireland gets a moderate temperate climate year round. It has grass year round, which is ideal for beef grazing, sheep raising and then they have this incredible access to dairy product because of the grass. If you can grow produce outdoors year round, then you have every opportunity to grow anything you want. That is where you see things like cabbage, sprouts, leeks and all of those things that grow in the winter months.
And, then it is a tiny island. We know tiny islands are surrounded by oysters, lobsters, mussels, langoustines, the Dublin bay prawns, and the salmon that swim up the river Shannon. All the raw materials are there for an incredible cuisine. It just never really had an opportunity to blossom. And I think we have seen a change in that in the last 20 years more than ever before and a lot more to come.
How do you see Irish food evolving?
Like the rest of the world, Ireland’s been hit by the economic crisis so there has been a little stagnation, which is okay I think. I expect that you will see Irish cuisine, which kind of got into this really modern style, rethink itself and become more of what you expect, which is hospitable, warm and welcoming. Some of the dishes we have included in the book will be more obvious because they are great simple rustic cooking, which I think the world needs now more than ever.
What would you say are the main differences between St. Patrick’s Day in the U.S. and in Ireland?
St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland is really closer to Thanksgiving than it is in America. We don’t drink green beer. We don’t dye the rivers green. It really isn’t a drunk fest day. It is more of a religious holiday. We celebrate the fact that St. Patrick introduced Christianity to Ireland in the 4th century. It is a family day where we will cook a traditional spring meal at home. Nobody will be doing corned beef and cabbage. Lamb will pretty much be on everybody’s table.
There is definitely a tradition that you have to wear something green or you get pinched, so everybody wears something green. We do wear shamrocks. There is a big parade in every city similar to the Thanksgiving parade in New York with floats and all, but it is probably much more subdued. When I was a kid, all of the pubs were closed on St. Patrick’s Day, so there was no going out drinking like we do here. Not that that is bad.
In the book, you selected a roast lamb au jus with herb pesto for St. Patrick’s Day [recipe below]. Why lamb?
St. Patrick’s Day always falls somewhere in the Lenten season. Because Ireland is 95 percent Catholic, it is an important time of year for everyone when they are preparing for Easter. It is a very quiet time of year in general. People will be fasting and preparing for the Easter holiday, but because St. Patrick’s Day falls there it is a special day of dispensation from Rome where you are allowed to celebrate. The spring lamb is going to be what it is typically found on every table.
Do you have any tips for making it?
The most important thing when making the roast is knowing what the weight of it is. You are going to want about somewhere between 15-20 minutes per pound depending on how cooked you want the meat to be. I like it to be about medium so I am going to cook about a 9 lb roast for about an hour and a half. And, that gives you a nice pink color. I don’t like it too rare for leg of lamb because it is going to have kind of a tough texture. A good thermometer is useful; hit about 135 degrees Fahrenheit in the middle of the lamb.
What are sides that would accompany the lamb well?
Things that are going to be in season at the same time as the lamb are going to work really well. We always say things that grow together go together. Things that are in season are going to be natural, phenomenal accompaniments like carrots, parsnips, morels, peas, and asparagus will start to come in soon.
I am actually a huge fan of potato gratin and there is a really cool recipe for it in the book [below]. And, that nice creamy lusciousness of the gratin with some lamb and that pesto is really all you need. I don’t even make gravy anymore.
If you are not sure yet what to make this St. Patrick’s Day, try diving into Ireland’s culinary traditions and make Chef Armstrong’s Roast Leg of Lamb au Jus with Herb Pesto, Potato Gratin and Glazed Carrots.
Roast Leg of Lamb au Jus with Herb Pesto
Lamb, except for less expensive cuts like shanks, shin bones, or neck meat, was a special occasion meat in my family, reserved for days like Easter and Saint Patrick’s Day. One of the most vivid memories I have of growing up is sitting at the oval table in my Nana’s living room with her and Granda, the eight of our family, and anyone else lucky enough to have been invited for Sunday dinner’s leg of lamb.
Occasionally, I’ll be out somewhere and catch a whiff of a leg of lamb roasting, and it takes me back instantly to my place at that table in another time. Too bad if I want to do anything about it, though; Meshelle [Armstrong's wife] hates lamb. She never lets me make it at home, but lamb remains one of my preferred meats.
Serves 8 to 10
1 (9-pound) bone-in leg of lamb, H-bone removed by your butcher
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 cup lamb demi-glace (page 244)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
6 cloves garlic, crushed
1 cup fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary leaves
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Roast the lamb: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the leg fat side up in a flameproof roasting pan. Rub it with the oil and season with the salt. Roast for 11/2 hours, until a meat thermometer inserted into thickest part of the lamb (but not touching the bone) registers 135°F for medium rare.
Make the pesto: Meanwhile, place the oil and garlic in the bowl of a food processor or blender and pulse briefly. Add the basil and process until a coarse purée forms. Add the thyme, rosemary, and salt and process briefly, until incorporated.
Add the pesto to the lamb: Transfer the lamb leg to a cutting board and spread 4 tablespoons of herb pesto over it. Cover the leg loosely with aluminum foil and let it rest for 15 minutes.
Make the jus: Meanwhile, skim and discard the fat from the roasting pan. Add the demi-glace to the pan and place over medium-high heat. Use a flatedged wooden spatula to scrape up all the brown bits from the bottom of the pan.
Present the dish: Pour the jus into a small pitcher or gravy boat. Spoon the remaining pesto into a small serving bowl. Transfer the lamb to a serving platter and carve it at table. At about the middle of the leg, use a carving knife to cut a horizontal wedge the width of the leg and about 2 inches wide, cutting at a 45° angle from both sides until you hit bone. Then cut thin slices from both sides of the wedge. Once you’ve carved as much meat that way as you can, grasp the bone and stand it on its end with one hand, using your other hand to cut slices off the leg. Spoon some jus over each serving and place a little pesto on the side. Serve with your chosen side dishes.
Veal or Lamb Demi-Glace
Demi-glace is the backbone of meat sauces. Without it, you'd have great difficulty creating the deep, lingering, complex flavor that makes a dish truly great. It used to be that making demi-glace involved roasting bones with tomato paste and incorporating flour into the process, but many modern cooks, I among them, prefer to use a simple stock reduction because the result is more straightforward.
Makes about 7 cups
3 1/2 quarts Veal or Lamb Stock, skimmed of fat
Reduce the stock: Bring the stock to a boil in a large saucepan over high heat. Lower the temperature to medium, or wherever is necessary to maintain a simmer, and simmer until the stock is reduced by half, 1 1/2 to 2 hours, skimming often.
Strain and cool the demi-glace: Strain into a container through a fine-mesh sieve or chinois. Cool the demi-glace as you did the stock. The demiglace can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 days and frozen for up to 3 months.
Gratin potatoes are rich and creamy and so always welcomed at special occasion dinners. Don’t go overboard with the nutmeg. As Chef Patrick O’Connell of The Inn at Little Washington likes to say, “If you can taste the nutmeg, you’ve used too much.” Two things are important to know for preparing this: do not begin by slicing all the potatoes at once and soaking them in water; they’ll lose their starch. Instead, slice and add them to the cream one at a time. And you can’t make this dish ahead of time, because the butterfat will separate when you reheat it.
Serves 6 to 8
1 clove garlic, halved crosswise
3 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
6 russet potatoes, peeled and placed whole in cold water
Prepare the cream mixture: Preheat the oven to 325°F. Rub the inside of a 2-quart gratin dish with one of the garlic halves. Rub the inside of a large, heavy slope-sided sauté pan with the other garlic half and add the cream, salt, and nutmeg; bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
Prepare the potatoes: Using a mandoline, Japanese slicer, or very sharp knife, slice 1 potato crosswise into 1/4-inch disks. Add those slices to the pan with the cream mixture, overlapping them like shingles. This will help create a layered effect and keep them from sticking together in stacks. Repeat with the remaining 5 potatoes, gently shaking the pan back and forth from tine to time throughout the process. As soon as all the potatoes are added, turn the heat off and spoon the sliced potatoes into the prepared gratin dish, maintaining overlapping slices as best you can. Pour any remaining cream over the potatoes.
Bake the gratin: Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and place the gratin dish on top of it in case any cream boils over. Bake for 45 minutes, until the gratin is golden brown and bubbling and a sharp knife inserts easily into the center of the potato slices. Serve hot.
Glazed Baby Carrots
At Restaurant Eve we cook most root vegetables, including carrots, sous-vide (cooked slowly in vacuum-sealed bags in a water bath). The process cooks the vegetables in their own natural sugar and water, thereby concentrating their flavor. Since most households don’t have sous-vide capability, I’m offering this method of glazing, adding sugar to the cooking water to replace the natural sugar that leaches out and then enriching the glaze with butter. You can blanch the carrots the day before, but finish the dish when ready to serve.
24 baby carrots, trimmed and peeled
1 tablespoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Cook the carrots: Place the carrots, salt, and sugar in a heavy saucepan. Add water to barely cover the carrots and bring to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat to medium and simmer until the carrots are tender but still firm, about 5 minutes. Transfer the pan to the sink and run cold water into it in a thin stream for about 6 minutes to slowly stop the cooking process and cool the carrots completely.
Make the buttery glaze: Drain the carrots so that they still retain a bit of water and return them to the saucepan. Over high heat, stir in the butter until it melts completely, then lower the heat to medium. The idea is to create an emulsion by letting the butter thicken the remaining sugary water and coat the carrots; stop cooking as soon as this happens so the coating doesn’t separate. Add more salt if you wish and serve immediately.
Reprinted with permission from My Irish Table by Cathal Armstrong, copyright © 2014. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc.