Saturday, March 15, 2014

Eat Like You're Irish: Colcannon and Soda Bread

Fresh kale, twice rinsed, chopped and ready to go in my colcannon.

My love for St. Patrick's Day goes way back to elementary school. Back then it was important to be one of the lucky ones who remembered to wear green to school which gave you permission to pinch those poor souls who didn't. Then if you somehow forgot, the mission of the day was to avoid the pinches of those who remembered. Those were the days boy.

As I got a little older St. Patrick's Day became all about the party. Year after year my friends and I wore our annual uniform of funny leprechaun hats, re-purposed green mardi gras beads, and our favorite accessory, a plastic cup full of green beer. From what little I can remember, it was really fun.

Then I grew into a proper adult. I moved to the UK and got to visit Ireland a couple of times and fell in love with the country and everything about it. I loved the history, the warmth of the people, the beautiful countryside, and most importantly for this Texas girl, its lack of snakes. Thank you for that St. Patrick.

Another thing I loved about Ireland was the food. As thrifty as I am, there is nothing I respect more than people who use the plain, simple ingredients that they have on hand and make something wonderful, and no one does that better than the Irish. 

I know, I know, we've all heard the jokes about the food in the UK, but that is just what is on the surface. Scratch a little bit deeper and you will find some of the most thoughtfully prepared, locally sourced food available anywhere.

When I started planning this post I was amazed that I have been blogging for over five years now and have only written one other post about St. Patrick's Day. That's kind of hard for me to believe seeing how I fond I am of Ireland and this holiday. To make up for this neglect I took this opportunity to make my version of a couple of very simple, very popular Irish dishes. I hope you'll think about giving them a try this St. Patrick's Day or any day you are in the mood for some simple comfort food.


There are really no better examples of Irish comfort food than colcannon and soda bread. Colcannon, a combination of creamy mashed potatoes and sauteed kale, has to be one of my favorite side dishes ever. I love it dressed in maybe just a little too much butter and served along side absolutely anything. It is quite possibly the perfect side dish. My "luxury" version here might have its roots in Ireland, but with the addition of bouillon and bacon (what can I say, I am a bacoholic), is a bit more dressed up than the original.

2 pounds (about 5 medium) russet potatoes
1 tablespoon chicken or vegetable bouillon powder (optional)
2 tablespoons butter, plus more for serving
1/2 cup whipping cream or whole milk
4 slices bacon, chopped (optional, 2 tablespoons of cooking oil can be used instead)
6 ounces kale, stalks removed, chopped and well rinsed, or chopped savoy or green cabbage
2 green onions or 1/2 medium size sweet yellow onion, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste

Peel and cut potatoes into large chunks. Place into a large stockpot and add enough water to completely cover the potatoes by about an 1". Add the bouillon if desired and place over a medium high heat. Bring to a full boil, reduce heat a bit so that it maintains a vigorous boil. Cook until potatoes are fork tender; remove from heat and drain. Add butter and whipping or milk. Mash, whip or rice potatoes until they are smooth; cover and set aside.

While potatoes are cooking, place chopped bacon slices (or oil) in a deep, heavy bottomed skillet set over medium high heat. Cook until it the bacon is golden brown.  If using the yellow onion, add it to the bacon at this time and saute until it is just starting to soften. Add the rinsed, still damp kale or cabbage (a little moisture helps steam the kale) and stir around to coat in the bacon drippings or oil. Saute until it starts to wilt. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook until it is tender, approximately 5 - 10 minutes.

Gently fold the kale (and green onions, if using them instead of the yellow onion) into the mashed potatoes. Pour desired amount of melted butter over the top. Serve while hot.

Soda Bread with Golden Raisins and Caraway Seeds

The first time I ever had soda bread of any kind was in the casual restaurant of grand old hotel in Dublin. Tired from a day of sightseeing and wrangling two young children, we hit the restaurant for lots of drinks and an early supper for our damp, frozen, grumpy kids.

I don't know if it was the warmth of the dining room, the fresh brown soda bread* slathered in creamy Irish butter or, in my case the vodka, but we were instantly restored into a civilized family once again. Now that I think of it, I wouldn't rule out the possibility that this stuff might very well have magical powers.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, chopped into small (bean size) pieces
2 teaspoons caraway seed
1 nice handful (approximately 1/2 cup) golden raisins
1 cup buttermilk (or 1 cup whole milk mixed with 1 tablespoon vinegar and allowed to sit for 5 minutes)
1 egg, beaten

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Spray a 10" cast iron skillet* or baking dish with non-stick cooking spray; set aside.

In a large bowl stir together the flour, salt, sugar, baking soda and baking powder. Sprinkle the cold butter pieces over the top and cut in with a pastry cutter, fork, or do like I do and use my food processor. At this point, your mixture should look like cornmeal. Add the caraway seed and raisins; set aside.

Mix the buttermilk and beaten egg together. Pour it over the dry mixture and mix well by hand. The mixture will be very sticky. Pour into the prepared pan and place into the preheated oven. Bake for approximately 50 - 60 minutes or until it is golden brown and when a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Cool in the pan for 15 minutes or so before removing and setting on a cooling rack to cool completely or until slightly warm. Serve with plain or with butter.

Makes 1 nice size loaf that will easily serve 8 - 10.

That first loaf I ate in Dublin was brown soda bread made with whole wheat flour. This type of soda bread is traditionally made without the caraway, raisins and butter and are very different from my recipe, but are still very, very good in their own right. Bread similar to my recipe would have been made for special celebrations.  

Since I was making two Irish dishes, I decided to go all out and make a complete dinner. To pull my colcannon and soda bread together, I browned a couple of pounds of beef that I had tossed in seasonings and flour, and slow cooked it in a combination of beef stock, stout, thyme, bay leaf and onions. After a couple of hours when the meat was really tender, I added some celery, carrots and a parsnip, and cooked it until they were still firm but tender. Wow, what a supper.

*Since my family is on the smaller side, I divided my dough between two small (6") cast iron skillets that I found at World Market. We enjoyed one straight from the oven and froze the other one for later.

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