What's St. Patrick's Day with no corned beef? REAL IRISH

Special to the Union Leader
March 12. 2013 4:50PM
Lobster is an added twist to the traditional Irish mariner's pie. (COURTESY)

Soggy, lifeless cabbage slopped to the side of a Pepto-pink hunk of boiled, used-to-be meat, washed down with the mother of all travesties, a once beautiful ale colored a shameful shade of green.

Happy St. Patrick's Day.

The yearly rehash of the boiled-beyond-recognition dinner has become a St. Patty's staple, but in reality, it's not even Irish. Not by far.

"The first thing that comes to mind when you hear 'St. Patrick's Day' is corned beef and cabbage, but that's actually more of an Irish-American tradition," said Sophia Khan, a Dartmouth grad, who along with her nutritionist aunt Ellen Bass penned the"Students Go Gourmet" cookbook.

"Ireland is this rich, lush land, full of a lot of farm-to-table recipes. And it's also an island, so there are a ton of recipes filled with fresh seafood."

With that in mind, a great way to start a St. Patrick's Day meal is with a nice watercress soup.

"Watercress soup is very Irish," said Bass. "It has been in Ireland since ancient times. It's actually in the same family as cabbage and broccoli and cauliflower, so it's extremely healthful. It has a lot of antioxidants and vitamins and minerals."

For watercress soup, throw together some chicken stock, milk, onions, watercress and potatoes. Once everything has cooked through, puree in a blender for a smooth consistency, Bass said.

"You can top this with a little blue cheese, which is a very traditional Irish cheese," Bass said.

In keeping with Ireland's tradition of local sourcing, there are dozens of winter farmers markets throughout the Granite State to get the makings for this soup. For a full listing, visit the NH Farmer's Market Association at www.nhfma.org.

A nice compliment to the watercress soup is toasties, Kahn said. While in Ireland toasties are typically breakfast fair, they can take a savory turn for supper. Typically, they are made with a nice, hearty hunk of multigrain bread, pre-toasted, topped with egg and cheese mixture and complimented with some mustard. The whole lot is then toasted in the oven for an open-faced grilled cheese effect. To make for dinner, Khan suggests changing up the condiment and the cheese.

"We added fig jam," Khan said. "We find it's a fun pairing with something like gorgonzola or another strong cheese."

Not as sweet as say a cherry jam, a fig jam adds a gooey, earthy element to the salty, pungent gorgonzola, she said.

For the main course, Bass and Kahn recommend ditching the brisket. Instead, they said, try shepherd's pie, traditionally made with lamb and potatoes.

There are a few local farms that sell lamb and even beef, but for a different take altogether, Henry Ahern of Bonnie Brae Farm in Plymouth suggests trying venison either in the pie or as a stew.

"It doesn't have a gamey taste, it has a sweet sort of taste," said Ahern. "(With stew meat) it's usually the better pieces of meat."

The pie concept can also be lightened up a bit while still giving a nod to the Emerald Isle.

"There's also fish pie," Bass said. "Ireland being an island it makes sense, there's so much fish, a lot of shellfish, they've got mussels, they've got oysters and clams and salmon and cod-those are really their big fish. And lobster - which is actually, as the legend goes, St. Patrick's favorite fish."

Very similar to the shepherd's pie, the mariner's or seafood pie is topped with potatoes, but instead of meat, it is stuffed with a variety of fish including salmon, scallops and lobster.

While many fishermen have hung up their nets for the winter, there are still some good local seafood options in New Hampshire markets, said Padi Anderson, a board member with Granite State FISH. She said local fishermen are scalloping right now and there's always lobster or a hard shell crab to be found locally as well.

For the pie, the raw fish is tossed into a white sauce with a little fresh tarragon at the bottom of a pie plate. Then simply place some mashed potatoes on top and bake in the oven for 30 minutes. Khan and Bass suggest pairing this dish with a warm, brown soda bread.

It's also best to skip the green libations if at all possible. Not the brew, just the coloring. For the heartier meat dishes like lamb, most experts suggest pairing with a nice porter or stout, something malty with a bit of hoppy bitter to cut the richness of the meal.

For those going a little lighter with seafood, traditional wisdom is to keep with a lighter flavored beer, so as not to overpower the fish. But with a fish pie or stew, you could easily go with a white beer or a solid pale ale.

Here are two recipes provided by Khan and Bass.

Irish Seafood Pie

This is a "Students Go Gourmet" take on an Irish seafood pie. We've taken a potentially complicated recipe and simplified it for you. We add the fish raw before we bake the pie, which makes for perfectly cooked fish that is tender, soft, and delicate.

Ireland has an abundance of fresh seafood. Common seafood found in Ireland includes salmon, cod, scallops, and mussels, oysters, and lobster. We've added lobster to this recipe because legend has it that lobster was St. Patrick's favorite food.

1/2 pound salmon (skin removed)

1/2 pound large scallops (about 6)

1/2 pound cooked lobster

2 leeks (sliced and rinsed)

6 ounces mushrooms

3 cups of milk

3 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon Kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon black ground pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

2 tablespoons fresh tarragon

3 pounds russet or Yukon gold potatoes

1/4 cup milk

2 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Slice the leeks and mushrooms.

Cut the seafood into bite-sized pieces.

In a large saucepan or soup pan, melt 3 tablespoons of butter and add the leeks and mushrooms. Cook until tender, 5 to 8 minutes over medium low heat. Add 3 tablespoons of flour and cook for another 2 minutes. Add the 3 cups of milk, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium low and cook for 10 to 12 minutes until the sauce thickens.

While the sauce is thickening, make the mashed potatoes. Dice the potatoes and add them to a large saucepan, cover with cold water, and cook until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain. Add milk, butter, salt and pepper. Mash until smooth.

Add the seafood to the white sauce. Pour sauce into an 8 x 11 baking dish. Sprinkle wish tarragon. Top with potatoes. Cook for 30 minutes.

The potato topping can be spread with a spatula for a rustic appearance. Or you can take a fork and make a design in the potatoes. Or to be really fancy, get a pastry tip and pipe the potatoes on top of the fish sauce.

Irish Watercress Soup with a Twist

Are you looking for something different to serve your guests? Something that will truly be a conversation piece? Then this is the soup for you!

Watercress has been a staple in Ireland since ancient times. In Ireland, most of the food is farm to table. You will find a chapter on soups in every Irish cookbook. Years ago, there was a cauldron of simmering soup on almost every hearth in Ireland. The earliest soups had meats such as mutton or beef. Today, many of the soups are vegetable based soups, vegetables that have come directly from farm to soup pot.

Watercress is a peppery, bland herb. Therefore it needs some dressing up. I've added lemon juice and potatoes to this recipe. And I top it off with crumbles of blue cheese --- another classic food found all over Ireland.

2 bunches of watercress

3 cups of white potatoes, diced (3 medium potatoes)

2 cups chicken broth (you can substitute with vegetable broth)

2 cups whole milk

1 onion, large dice

2 tablespoons olive oil

Juice of 1 lemon

Blue cheese crumbles for garnish (1 tablespoon per serving)

In a soup pot, add the olive oil and onion and cook over medium heat for 5 to 8 minutes, until the onions are translucent.

Add the broth, milk, potatoes, and watercress and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to medium-low and cook for 20 minutes, until the potatoes are fork-tender.

Let cool. Add the lemon juice. Puree until smooth consistency. Top with crumbled blue cheese.

You can serve warm or cold.

Nutrition: Servings per recipe: 8 cups; Nutrition per 1 cup: calories 169, fat 6 grams, carbohydrates 14 grams, protein 3 grams, sodium 104 milligrams.

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