Thursday, March 17, 2011

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Happy St. Patrick's Day!!! I hope you have on something green so you don't get pinched today! The Irish are a gregarious group and enjoy the frivolity of a holiday! There are all kinds of traditions, which I won't go into here...I'm sure you've heard them all. But I've become interested in the food of Ireland ever since Lisa gave me Darina Allen's Irish Traditional Cooking. And today I want to share the introduction to the section on potatoes in Darina's book. It's not the complete history of potatoes, but just some bits of information that you might enjoy knowing. And then there's a recipe for a potato dish called Champ that will be somewhat familiar to you. Here's part of what Darina has to say about potatoes in Ireland.


There is a long-established belief that Sir Walter Raleigh introduced the potato into Ireland in 1588, planting the first crop in his garden at Myrtle Grove, in Youghal, Co. Cork. However, Redcliffe Salaman, in his authoritative work The History and Social Influence of the Potato, suggests that potatoes may have been introduced into Ireland from plundered ships of the Spanish Armada which were wrecked on the west coast. Within a century of its introduction, the potato was a common item in the Irish diet. Commentators such as John Stevens in his Journal of 1689-91 noted that it was the staple food of the poorer people:
     The meaner people content themselves with little bread but instead thereof eat potatoes which with sour milk is the chief part of their diet.

The potatoes beloved of the Irish are not the waxy varieties, but the dry ones, whose skins  crack towards the end of cooking--referred to as "balls of flour" or "smiling spuds." Damp waxy potatoes are still scorned in Ireland as being "wet or soapy." Favourite varieties of potato are Home Guard, British Queens, Kerr's Pink, Golden Wonders, Aran Banners, Records and Champions. One of the finest sights in Ireland around the end of July and the beginning of August is fields of Golden Wonders and British Queens in full bloom--a sea of pale purple and white blossom. The famous "Ballycotton potatoes" are much sought after in the former English Market in Cork.

Like many other simple peasant dishes champ has stood the test of time. It now features on the menus of more fashionable restaurants in London, Paris and New York. As with Ireland's other great potato dish, colcannon, there are many regional variations.
A huge quantity of potatoes were boiled for each meal in the big black pot over the open fire. The pounding of the potatoes, using a heavy wooden pounder called a beetle, was usually men's work. Florence  Irwin, in Irish Country Recipes (1937) gives a wonderfully evocative picture of the laborious procedure.
          The man of the house was summoned when all was ready, and while he pounded this enormous potful of potatoes with a sturdy wooden beetle, his wife added the potful of milk and nettles, or scallions, or chives, or parsley and he beetled it 'till it was as smooth as butter, not a lump anywhere. Everyone got a large bowlful, made a hole in the centre, and into this put a large lump of butter. Then the champ was eaten from the outside with aspoon or fork, dipping it into the melted butter in the centre.

One of the best-loved ways of cooking potatoes was (and is) to mash them with boiling milk, add chopped scallions or chives and serve this creamy, green-flecked mixture with a blob of yellow butter melting in the center. Leeks, nettles, peas and brown crispy onions are all delicious additions.

Serves 4
6 to 8 unpeeled baking potatoes,
e.g. Russet or Yukon Gold
1 bunch scallions (use the bulb and green stem)
1 1/2 cups milk
4-8 tablespoons butter
salt and freshly ground pepper

Scrub the potatoes and boil them in their jackets. Finely chop the scallions. Cover the scallions with cold milk and bring slowly to a boil. Simmer for about 3 to 4 minutes, then turn off the heat and leave to infuse. Peel and mash the freshly boiled potatoes and, while hot, mix with the boiling milk and scallions. Beat in some of the butter. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper. Serve in one large or four individual bowls with a knob of butter melting in the center. 
Champ may be put aside and reheated later in a moderate oven at 350 degrees F. Cover with foil while it reheats so that it doesn't get a skin.

I have taken only parts of Darina's narrative about the history of potatoes, but as interesting as it is to me, I thought it was too long to put on here. And the recipe for colcannon looks good as well, but it is also long. Maybe later.

Have a great day celebrating! I'm on my way to meet Alice for lunch. Maybe I'll eat something green~

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