Is Irish cooking finally ready to emerge from its corned beef and cabbage purgatory? It's a cuisine that has been bubbling just under the surface for years, thanks to the work of writers such as Darina and Myrtle Allen of Ballymaloe, and the island's natural bounty of meat, cheese and seafood.
But finally it seems that it may be reaching something of a critical mass. Three Irish cookbooks have come out in the last couple of months, and joined with Colman Andrews' wonderful "The Country Cooking of Ireland" from 2009, we may now be approaching something like a modern Irish culinary canon.
At its best, Irish food seems to be informed by those qualities that we all seem to be so admiring of these days — terrific ingredients treated simply to let their natural qualities show through.
At least in its traditional cooking, it's also a cooking of great economy, in the very best sense of the word. There are plenty of braises to tenderize tough cuts. And then meat pies to use up the leftovers. Produce tends to run to kitchen staples such as potatoes, carrots and leeks. There's a rich use of dairy. Breads tend to be quick, leavened with baking soda, to emphasize the flavor of the grain.
Oddly enough, though, of the four books, the two that seem most "Irish" (at least to an American) are written by outsiders — Andrews' "Country Cooking" and "My Irish Table" from transplanted Irish chef Cathal Armstrong of Washington, D.C.'s Restaurant Eve.
Andrews' book is based on a combination of traditional recipes taken and only slightly updated from historical cookbooks and the cooking of the new wave of inspired Irish country restaurants. Photographed by Christopher Hersheimer, it is predictably gorgeous.
Armstrong would probably qualify as one of those Irish new-wavers if he had stayed at home. But he immigrated to the U.S., bringing his Irish roots and French technique with him and now has seven highly praised restaurants in the D.C. area.
These are the two books you'll go to to revel in the country dishes — Dingle pie, marrowfat peas, Brussels sprouts with bacon, and brown bread — the foods of the picturesque Ireland we appreciate from a distance.
But when you look at the books by the in-country authors, a slightly different picture emerges. Sure, you'll find some things that sound like they could have come from an earlier day, but modern Ireland is every bit as outwardly focused food-wise as anyplace else.
What do more cosmopolitan Irish eat? Judging from "Irish Country Cooking," recipes collected by the Irish Countrywomen's Assn., pretty much the same as anywhere else – a smattering of the traditional, a little of this and that (there's even a recipe for Cajun salmon) and a lot of Italian (it may come as a shock that turkey meatballs with pasta qualifies as Irish country cooking).
At least in part, that eclectic mix might be due to the internationalizing influence of Ballymaloe House, the celebrated restaurant, hotel and cooking school founded by Myrtle Allen and run for the last several decades by her extended family.
In the compendium "30 Years at Ballymaloe," daughter-in-law, teacher, cookbook author and television presenter Darina Allen collects recipes from the many noted cooking teachers who have passed through the school — Claudia Roden, Marcella Hazan, Madhur Jaffrey — as well as the current staff, including Darina Allen's brother and chef Rory O'Connell, her daughter-in-law and fellow teacher Rachel Allen, and, of course, Myrtle Allen herself.
To an American reader who presumably already has access to the American editions of cookbooks from those authors, it is probably the recipes from the latter that will be most interesting. It's hard to imagine anything that sounds more delicious than Myrtle Allen's hot buttered oysters — shucked, firmed in warm butter and napped with a reduced sauce of butter, oyster juice and parsley.
Corned beef and who?
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
4 lemon wedges
Open the oysters and detach completely from their shells. Discard the top shell but keep the deep shell and reserve the liquid. Put the shells into a low (225-degree) oven to heat through. Melt half the butter in a pan until it foams. Toss the oysters in the butter until heated through, approximately 1 minute.
Put a hot oyster into each of the warm shells. Pour the reserved oyster liquid into the pan and bring to a boil, whisking in the remaining butter and the parsley. Spoon the hot juices over the oysters and serve immediately on hot plates accompanied by the lemon wedges.
Note: Adapted from a Myrtle Allen recipe in "30 Years at Ballymaloe" by Darina Allen.
BRAISED DERRYNAFLAN BRISKET
1 1/2 pounds beef brisket, rolled
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon margarine
1 onion, finely chopped
4 carrots, chopped
4 leeks, trimmed and sliced
1 cup chicken stock
2 bay leaves
1 sprig of thyme
1/2 cup white wine
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 to 2 tablespoons sour cream
Heat oven to 375 degrees.
In a flameproof casserole, heat the oil and margarine and brown the brisket well all over. Add the onion, cover and cook on gentle heat for 10 minutes before transferring to the oven. After 45 minutes, add the carrots, leeks, stock and herbs and continue cooking for another hour.
Transfer the brisket to a warmed serving dish and remove the string. Remove the vegetables from the casserole with a slotted spoon and arrange around the brisket.
Strain the cooking liquid into a small saucepan, add the wine and boil fast for 5 minutes. Blend the cornstarch to a smooth paste in a couple of tablespoons of water, stirring out any lumps, and add this gradually to the sauce to thicken to desired consistency. You may not need to add all of the cornstarch paste. Cook for another few minutes and finish with sour cream, to taste. Pour over the meat or into a sauceboat to serve separately.
Adapted from a recipe by Lily Barrett of Tipperary in "Irish Country Cooking" by the Irish Countrywomen's Assn.
2 cups Irish-style wholemeal flour
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup cold unsalted butter, diced, plus more for serving
1 3/4 cups buttermilk
1 egg, lightly beaten
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Lightly dust a baking sheet with flour.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, baking soda and salt.
Using your fingertips, rub the butter pieces into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse meal. Make a well in the center of the mixture and pour in the buttermilk and egg; work them into the dough with your hands just until they are incorporated. Do not overmix the dough.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and form it into a round loaf about 8 inches in diameter. Place it on the baking sheet and, using a sharp knife, cut a cross into its top about 1/2 inch deep. Bake until well browned, about 40 minutes. Transfer the bread to a wire rack and rest for at least 20 minutes before serving with lots of butter.
3 tablespoons canola or sunflower oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 pound trimmed boneless mutton or lamb, preferably from the shoulder or leg, finely chopped
2 tablespoons white flour, plus more for dusting
1 1/2 cups beef or lamb stock
1 teaspoon minced fresh mint
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
1 recipe shortcrust pastry without sugar
2 tablespoons milk
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot and salt and pepper to taste and cook, stirring occasionally until the vegetables begin to soften, 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer the vegetables to a bowl and set aside.
Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in the same skillet over medium-high heat. Add the meat and cook, stirring often, until browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Sprinkle in the flour, reduce the heat to medium, and cool, for 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Slowly add the stock, stirring to deglaze the pan.
Return the vegetables to the skillet, add the mint and thyme, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until the meat is tender, about 45 minutes. Uncover the skillet and cook until thickened, about 5 minutes more. Set aside to cool.
Heat the oven to 400 degrees.
Roll out half the pastry on a lightly floured board into a disk about 1/4 inch thick. Cut the disk into 8 rounds about 4 inches in diameter with a cookie cutter or the floured rim of a glass. Repeat the process with the remaining pastry to make 16 rounds in all.
Put about one-eighth of the meat mixture in the middle of a pastry round, then wet the edges with a bit of water. Top with a second pastry round, then press down the edges and crimp with the tines of a fork. Cut a slit in the top of the pie and transfer to a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Repeat the process with the remaining meat filling and pastry, arranging the pies on the baking sheet about 1 inch apart. Brush the tops of the pies with milk and bake until golden-brown, about 40 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature.
MYRTLE ALLEN'S SHORTCRUST PASTRY
2 cups white pastry flour, plus more for dusting
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup cold butter, cut into small pieces
1 egg yolk, beaten with 2 tablespoons cold water
Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl and rub in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the beaten egg and toss with a fork, gradually adding 1 to 3 tablespoons more of cold water until the dough can be gathered into a ball.
Halve the dough on a board lightly dusted with flour and pat each half into a 4 to 5-inch disk. Wrap each disk separately in plastic wrap and chill for at least 1 hour or as long as 24 hours before using.