Celebrate potatoes, the most Irish food of all
March 13, 2020
With St. Patrick’s Day falling on Tuesday of next week, it’s likely this weekend will be filled with green-themed celebrations. The Irish have observed the anniversary of St. Patrick’s death as a religious holiday for over a thousand years. And, what began as time to honor a Catholic missionary has evolved into an excuse to drink green beer with a plateful of corned beef and cabbage.
Like any legend, there are all sorts of variations, some of which are true, while some are embellishments. One tradition says that St. Patrick chased all the snakes from Ireland, but that is actually a symbolic notion. In the process of converting the Irish to Christianity, St. Patrick is credited with having rid his countrymen of their “pagan” practices.
We can’t talk about the Irish and St. Patrick’s Day without celebrating one the most important foods associated with that country: the potato. As you may know, potatoes were first domesticated in South America more than 7,000 years ago. After the Spanish conquest of the Inca, the potato found its way to Europe.
Over time, Europeans developed a healthy respect for the potato as a crop. They were cheap and easy to grow, the harvest was slow to spoil and the potato was calorically dense, making it a good food source when compared to various grains. We are all familiar with what became known as the Potato Famine in Ireland during the mid-19th century when a fungus caused widespread crop failure.
Many survivors of this devastating event migrated to other European countries and to the United States. The Irish brought with them a rich repertoire of recipes that featured the ubiquitous potato, starting with the dish in the photo, colcannon, made from mashed potatoes mixed with butter, milk, leeks, green onions and chopped kale or cabbage.
The name is from the Gaelic “cal ceannann” which means white-headed cabbage and refers to a key ingredient that adds a light-green color to the dish. Other food historians believe the name is a derivative of the old Irish “cainnenin” translated as garlic, onion, or leek, which are some of the additional ingredients. For a brighter green hue, kale can be substituted for the cabbage.
A slight variation on colcannon is a dish called champ, which combines spring onions and mashed potatoes. Another signature potato dish from the Irish is boxty. Something of a cross between a potato pancake and a hash brown, it is made with mashed potatoes, grated potato, flour, baking soda and buttermilk. Boxty dates to the days of the Irish famine, where its name came from “aran bocht tí” for poorhouse bread.
As you may imagine, there are as many colcannon recipes as there are cooks in Ireland. I’ve included instructions for making the colcannon in the photo, which unlike other versions allows you to boil everything in the same pot. I’ve also given you a recipe for boxty, an excellent breakfast side dish to enjoy with ham and eggs.
Now that you have a few authentic recipes for St. Patrick’s Day, you’re ready to don your green and drink your Guinness – Erin Go Bragh!
2 russet potatoes
1 bunch scallions
2 C chopped cabbage
1/2 C half & half
1/4 C butter
salt & pepper, to taste
1 T butter
parsley, for garnish
Peel potatoes and cut into 1-inch chunks. Place them in a large saucepan with just enough water to cover. Thoroughly clean the leek, slice in half lengthwise and thinly slice crosswise; scatter over potatoes. Trim and thinly slice the scallions; scatter over potatoes. Scatter chopped cabbage over the potatoes. Bring to a boil over medium high. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover and cook until potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes. In a glass measuring cup, combine half & half and butter. Microwave for 30 seconds to melt the butter and heat the half & half. When potatoes are cooked, drain and return to the saucepan over very low heat. Pour in the half & half; mash coarsely. Adjust seasonings with salt and pepper, to taste. Transfer to a serving dish, place the butter in the center and sprinkle with parsley. Yield: 4 servings.
4 russet potatoes
1 C flour
1 t baking soda
1 C buttermilk
1 lightly beaten egg
salt & pepper, to taste
1/2 C butter, melted
1 T olive oil
Peel the potatoes; cut 2 potatoes into chunks and add to a large saucepan of salted water. Bring to a boil and simmer until soft, about 20 minutes. Drain and return potatoes to the pan; mash and keep covered. Grate the remaining 2 potatoes on the coarse side of a grater. Add grated potato to the mashed potato along with flour, baking soda, buttermilk, egg, salt, pepper and 1/4 C melted butter. Stir thoroughly to combine; the mixture will be very stiff. In a large skillet, heat 1 T oil and add 1 T melted butter. Drop 1/4 C batter in the pan for each cake; using a spatula, shape the cakes into 4-inch rounds. Cook over medium-low heat until browned, about 4 minutes. Turn and brown the other side, about 3 minutes. Continue cooking the remaining batter, adding more melted butter to the pan as needed. Yield: 4 to 6 servings.