Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Where's the corned beef?

For St. Patrick's Day,

Irish native Matty Murphy and family turn to traditional fare



Keri Fisher and Matty Murphy

Globe Correspondents


Today, the food of Ireland is a far cry from the tinned corned beef and processed foods Matty grew up with. Still, when he owned Matt Murphy's Pub in Brookline and later Stone's Public House in Ashland, he offered his version of corned beef on St. Patrick's Day menus, so he's eaten his share of the salty meat.

But that's not how he cooks when he wants Irish food. At home with our children, and on St. Patrick's Day, we turn to traditional dishes such as lamb stew. Add a hearty brown soda bread and a slice of juicy blackberry pie in a flaky crust, and you have a meal that might have been served a century ago in a more rustic form. Today, it's part of Ireland's new cuisine. Like chefs here, cooks in Ireland use local ingredients with modern cooking techniques, but they haven't forgotten traditional dishes such as lamb stew, bacon and cabbage, spiced beef, and fruit pies.

When Matty moved to the US from West Cork 20 years ago, he hadn't seen anything like our St. Patrick's Day. St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, and at home, the day was marked with solemnity: church followed by a traditional family dinner. In fact, up until the late 1970s, bars and pubs were closed in Ireland on March 17 (shocking but true). The holiday as we know it was only recently adopted in Ireland as a way to showcase the culture.

That's a far cry from the beer-fueled festivities of today's holiday, which went from religious to the biggest sales day in Irish pubs across America.

The first St. Patrick's Day parade was held in Boston in 1737. New York followed several years later; all saw it as a way for Irish immigrants to honor their heritage. Here in America, that heritage was morphing into a new Irish-American culture.

So was Irish-American cuisine, which focused on foods available here. Beef was a luxury at home; cows were kept for their milk, but steer (known as bullocks in Ireland) were raised mostly for export. The cured meat of choice was bacon, which referred to any cured pork. Irish in America found beef plentiful, so corned beef and cabbage was born. Like St. Patrick's Day, the Irish-Americans made it their own.

Throughout Ireland today, dependence on processed foods is waning, and the packets of instant white sauce that once filled every cupboard are being replaced with foods grown in the countryside. Artisan cheese makers are spreading out from Cork across Ireland. There's a new appreciation for the foods that were once subsistence.

Mackerel, for instance, is plentiful around the small West Cork island where Matty grew up (and where his father and five of his siblings still live). So plentiful, in fact, that our 3-year-old son, Declan, caught a dozen his first time out (with a little help from his Uncle Mike). When Matty was a boy, the mackerel was fried into oblivion. Today everyone on the island has a proprietary method. On our last visit, smoked mackerel was all the rage. At the pubs, locals debated the merits of applewood versus hickory like the generation before might have debated the merits of Paddy's or Powers whiskey (Paddy's makes you fight, Powers makes you sing - or so the saying goes).

Besides mackerel, you can get prawns, lobster, and salmon, all sent to market within hours after they're caught.

One thing that hasn't changed is the potato, which is still a staple of the diet. When we visit Matty's family every year, we eat lots of potatoes. With every meal. Lots and lots of potatoes. Before the potato famine of the 1840s, the average Irish person ate 10 to 12 pounds daily - and little else. Even today, supermarkets sell potatoes in 25- and 50-pound bags, not the wimpy 5-pounders you get here. In fact, the potato in Ireland is so revered, some compare the much-anticipated appearance of new potatoes in early summer to that of the November release of Beaujolais Nouveau in France.

The fertile Irish soil is also perfect for growing grains and the grassy countryside a natural fit for cattle, sheep, and pigs.

Matty has lived in this country longer than he lived in Ireland, and his siblings joke that he's more American than Irish. Our sons, Declan and Ronan, and Matty's daughters, Michela, Ciara, and Snowy, are all Irish-American. Matty hopes they'll embrace their heritage.

Two decades ago, within a week of arriving here, Matty was asked for an immigrant's view of St. Patrick's Day. In Ireland, he said, "My Da made me go to Mass on St. Patrick's Day and the only corned beef I ate came in a can."

Maybe he is more American than Irish now.



Irish lamb stew


In dishes like Irish stew, which was recognized as a national dish of Ireland as far back as the 18th century, tough mutton meat would have to be cooked long and slow to become edible. Old recipes often contained just lamb, onions, and potatoes. Modern ones with carrots and other vegetables are cause for controversy. Many believe that the stew is representative of Ireland's history and as such should be eaten quite plain. It's important to skim the broth while the stew is cooking so that you get a nice clear cooking liquid at the end. The dark green of leeks and parsley stems enhance the broth at the beginning of cooking. Use the tender white part of the leeks and parsley leaves in the stew.



                2   Tablespoons       vegetable oil

                3   medium               leeks, green tops roughly chopped

                1   bunch                  parsley stems

                3   large sprigs        fresh thyme

                1   medium               onion, skin on and quartered

             1/2   teaspoon             whole black peppercorns

                6   cups                    chicken stock


1. In a large flameproof casserole over medium-low heat, heat the oil. Add the leeks, parsley stems, thyme, onion, and peppercorns. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes or until the vegetables are softened but not browned.

2. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer while you sear the lamb chops.



          3 1/2   pounds                lamb shoulder chops (about 8 chops)

                                                salt and pepper, to taste

                2   Tablespoons       vegetable oil

                2   cups                    chicken stock

                2   medium               russet (baking) potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

          1 1/2   pounds                small gold creamer potatoes, peeled (or another

                                                     waxy potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces)

                4                               carrots, cut on the diagonal into 1-inch pieces

                1   pound                  boiling onions, peeled

                3   medium               leeks (white part only) sliced into 1-inch disks,

                                                     separated, and rinsed well

             1/4   cup                      fresh parsley, finely chopped

                1   Tablespoon         fresh thyme, finely chopped


1. Sprinkle the lamb chops generously with salt and pepper.

2. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat the oil. Sear the lamb chops in batches, 2 to 4 minutes per side, or until browned. Add the lamb chops to the pot of simmering stock.

3. Pour the 2 cups stock into the skillet. Cook, scraping up any bits that are stuck to the pan. Pour the stock mixture into the pan of chops.

4. Return the pan of chops to a simmer. Cook uncovered for 30 minutes, skimming occasionally and discarding foam on the top.

5. Remove the chops from the pan. Strain the cooking liquid, discarding the solids. Return the liquid to the pan with the chops and russet potatoes. Bring the mixture back to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 30 minutes, skimming occasionally.

6. Add the creamer potatoes, carrots, onions, and sliced leeks to the pan, with more water, if necessary, to just cover vegetables. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, cover the pan, and simmer for 20 minutes, or until carrots are tender.

7. Add the parsley and thyme, taste for seasoning, and add more salt and pepper, if you like. Simmer 5 minutes more (total simmering time is 1 hour and 20 minutes).

Serves 6

                                                                        —Keri Fisher and Matty Murphy




Brown soda bread


Work quickly when putting this together, trying not to handle the dough too long or too firmly. Be as gentle as possible; never use a mixer.


          1 1/2   cups                    all-purpose flour

          1 1/2   cups                    whole-wheat flour

                1   cup                      wheat bran

          1 1/2   teaspoons           salt

          1 1/2   teaspoons           baking soda

          2 1/3   cups                    buttermilk

                                                extra all-purpose flour (for sprinkling)


1. Set the oven at 375 degrees. Lightly flour a baking sheet.

2. In a bowl, combine the all-purpose and whole-wheat flours with the bran, salt, and baking soda. Stir well with a wooden spoon.

3. Add the buttermilk and stir gently until just combined; the mixture will be sticky.

4. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter and very gently shape it into a disk. Lift the dough and carefully bend the sides of the dough back, causing the top of the disk to break open and look craggy. Set it on the baking sheet.

5. Using a serrated knife, carefully cut an "X" in the top of the loaf, cutting down about 1/2 inch. Sprinkle the top of the dough with flour.

6. Transfer to the oven and bake the bread 40 to 45 minutes or until it is brown and the bread sounds hollow when rapped on the bottom with your knuckles.

7. Cool the bread on a wire rack for 10 minutes before serving.

Makes 1 round

                                                                        —Keri Fisher and Matty Murphy




Blackberry apple pie


Blackberries grow wild all over Ireland, and every summer when we go home to visit Matty's family, we love to pick berries along the road. There are so many, there's always a surplus to put in the freezer, which means one thing: blackberry pie all winter long. Apples help thicken the filling. Here, we use frozen blackberries, which are loaded with water, so we add quick-cooking tapioca to prevent a runny pie.


                2   cups                    flour

             1/4   teaspoon             salt

                1   cup                      cold butter (2 sticks), cut into 1/2-inch pieces

             1/3   cup                      cold water

                                                extra flour (for sprinkling)

                1   large                   egg, lightly beaten

                2   pounds                frozen blackberries, thawed and drained well

                2   medium               Golden Delicious apples, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced

             3/4   cup

                      plus 1 teaspoon             sugar

             1/4   cup                      quick-cooking tapioca


1. In an electric mixer combine the flour, salt, and butter. Mix on medium speed for 1 minute, or until mixture resembles coarse sand. Add the water and mix until just combined and the dough starts to come together. Shape dough into 2 disks, wrap each in foil; refrigerate 30 minutes.

2. Set the oven at 325 degrees. Have on hand a 9-inch pie pan.

3. On a well-floured surface, roll 1 piece of dough to a 1/8-inch thickness. Lift the dough onto the rolling pin and ease it into the pie pan. Press the dough in to fit, letting the excess hang over the sides. Brush the rim of the dough with egg.

4. In a medium bowl combine the blackberries, apples, 3/4 cup of the sugar, and tapioca; mix well. Pour into the pie shell.

5. On a well-floured surface, roll the other piece of dough to a 1/8-inch thickness. Lift the dough onto the rolling pin and lay it over the fruit. Press the edges to seal them. Trim excess dough, and crimp the edges all around.

6. Bake the pie for 1 hour, or until golden brown. Remove it from the oven and sprinkle the top with the remaining 1 teaspoon sugar. Set the pie on a wire rack to cool. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.

Makes one 9-inch pie

                                                                        —Keri Fisher and Matty Murphy



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