Wednesday, March 11, 2009

March = Ireland

The luckiest sheep anywhere - beachfront property!


This time of year my thoughts always wander to the Emerald Isle. Of course all the cable networks trot out their Irish documentaries and specials, Saint Patrick's day decorations are on display, and QVC does it's annual All Irish day (I love watching just to listen to the accents). My family isn't Irish, and I knew almost nothing about Ireland before becoming a tour guide and escorting tour groups there in 2000 - 01. It was terrifying -- 10,000 years of history, guests who were fiercely Irish American, in a new country where they "sort of" speak the same language (try figuring out what "half eight" means, or whether the "the craic is mighty" at the pub is a good thing or a bad thing!). There is nothing easy about being a tour guide.

Being in Ireland, however, couldn't be easier. The people are friendly, generous and well informed. I had the best, most interesting conversations nightly. The landscape is gorgeous, the history fascinating, and the food is very good. I learned to love many things while touring there, and decided to recreate some of the edible ones in my kitchen this month.

Poulnabrone - Portal tomb in County Clare

Ireland is a cool country (both in attitude and temperature) and a pub lunch of soup and brown bread hits the spot on a rainy day. Lunch is at 1pm there, so it's good to get ahead start on the locals. Irish pubs are wonderful places and I wish the US could embrace the idea. They aren't just about drinking -- in fact you can spend a pleasant afternoon or evening in a pub and never have any alcohol. They are places to get good food at a fair price, and to enjoy great conversation and exchange information about your community. It's the community function that is the heart of any pub.

Paddy Burkes Pub - Clarinbridge, Co. Galway

Soup in Ireland is different than in the US - most are creamy and blended (no minestrone or chicken noodle soup). I became a huge fan of Potato Leek Soup and decided that my first recipe would be along that vein. I have a cookbook called The Irish Heritage Cookbook by Margaret M. Johnson, and decided to try out the Colcannon Soup. Colcannon proper is a traditional dish served on All Hallows' Eve (many of our Halloween traditions come from Ireland), and is a dish that uses cabbage, potatoes and leeks. One of the traditions is for a gold ring, wrapped in paper, to be placed in the dish. Whoever finds the ring is likely to marry within the year.

It is a little hard to hide a ring in some soup, but this soup is very easy to make. I under estimated my potatoes and over estimated my chicken broth, but overall I was very pleased with how the soup turned out. Served with some Irish Brown Bread (that will be the next post) it tasted just like Ireland. And with my many pleasant memories of Ireland, that was a very good thing indeed!

I used an immersion blender rather than a traditional blender (aren't immersion blenders the handiest of gadgets!?) and I left out the parsley (not a fan). Otherwise, I followed the directions below.

Colcannon Soup from The Irish Heritage Cookbook

Serves 6 as a first course

4 Tablespoons butter

2 cups shredded cabbage

1 1/2 pounds boiling potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

1 pound leeks (white and pale green parts only), washed and chopped

5 cups homemade chicken stock, or canned low-salt chicken broth

Salt and ground white pepper to taste

Pinch of ground nutmeg

1 1/4 cups half-and-half

3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley, or 1 tablespoon dried.

In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Stir in the cabbage, potatoes, and leeks, cover, and cook over medium heat until slightly tender, 10 to 12 minutes.

Add the stock or broth and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to a simmer, and cook until the vegetables are soft, 15 to 20 minutes. Season with the salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Transfer to a blender or food processor in batches and process until smooth. (To make ahead, cover and refrigerate for up to 12 hours).

Return the puree to the same saucepan over medium heat and whisk in the half-and-half. Heat through over medium heat. Ladle soup into bowls and sprinkle with the parsley.

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