St. Patrick's Day rolls around and it's once again time to eat Irish food, or rather our Irish-American version of it. If the salty little slab of pink brisket we ate from a sample cup in Costco didn't sate us, we toss a corned beef in a pot. Sure, corned beef and cabbage isn't as big a deal in the old country as it is stateside, but it's become our de facto March feast. Years ago at a St. Patrick's Day dinner, I witnessed a pair of ethnically Irish but culturally Southern Californian redheads having their first taste of the stuff. How they struggled to maintain politeness, cringing at the soft layers of cabbage, gulping down water to chase the briny meat. The rest of us passed the mustard and tried not to openly enjoy their suffering.
Those of us who like shepherd's pie and meaty stews indulge, sopping up plates with buttered soda bread. Outside of that, it's mostly gimmicks: Bars run green beer through their taps, McDonald's whips up Shamrock Shakes and bowls runneth over with Lucky Charms. St. Patrick help me, I saw some clover-shaped ravioli last week.
Should it be such a stretch? OK, let fly all your Irish cooking jokes. Certainly our reluctance to explore beyond some bar food or an obligatory loaf of soda bread comes down to the limited sex appeal of boiled meat. Fair enough. But we have the makings of some of the best of traditional Irish foods right here in Humboldt.
According to my research (meaning obsessive Googling and brochure reading, the intensity of which can only be achieved by those too broke to travel), the Emerald Isle has more than a few things in common with our own Emerald Triangle, including staple ingredients. Here we are, after all, in our seaside pasturelands of rolling green hills, misty mountains and rainy weather. Snuff out that joint, throw on a fisherman's sweater and you're practically in County Kerry. I exaggerate. But the salmon, crab, oysters, beef and dairy we're so proud of here are traditional on Irish tables, too, as are the root vegetables, kale and, of course, potatoes we go crazy over at the farmers market.
And perhaps it's my Celtic genes flaring up, but whenever I see someone dutifully grinding a kale salad down with exhausted molars, I think, Wouldn't that be better boiled to hell and covered in butter and cream? I like it best as colcannon, the green-flecked mash that makes a lovely Irish meal on any day with our local salmon, grassfed beef or just a great big pat of butter that melts down into a sunny pool. Colcannon is also made with green cabbage, and it's a fine year-round side. And like all mashed potatoes, you can always mix in a beaten egg to make little patties with the leftovers and pan fry them in bacon fat for breakfast. Yes, bacon fat. It's still Irish food.
If you have a ricer, that will yield the fluffiest mash. If not, a regular mashing tool is fine. No masher? A clean pint glass will do in a pinch.
Ingredients and method:
8 medium russet or Yukon gold potatoes, washed well (3 pounds)
3 cups raw kale, cleaned and chopped with stems removed
1 leek, cleaned and chopped (optional)
1 cup milk
½ tablespoon coarse salt for boiling potatoes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
½ stick unsalted butter, divided
Salted butter for the table
Use a paring knife to score the potatoes full-circle around their middles — this will help the skins come off later — and place them in a pot with enough cold water to cover them. Bring them to a boil over medium-high heat, then turn down the burner so the pot just simmers for around 20 minutes. Test the potatoes by poking one with a fork or a sharp knife; if the potato slides off easily, it's done. Drain the potatoes, rinse them with cold water and set them aside to cool a bit.
Meanwhile, in medium saucepan, place the kale in an inch of cold water. Cover the pot and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir the kale in the pot with a wooden spoon and mash it down a bit. Reduce the heat to medium and let the kale steam a few minutes until it's tender to the bite. Drain off the water well and put in a tablespoon of unsalted butter, a pinch of salt and a grind of pepper. Mix the kale and set it aside.
Take the remaining unsalted butter and heat it with the milk, either over the stove or in a microwave. It should be drinking hot but not scalding.
Once the potatoes are cool enough to handle, pull off the skins. Either put the warm potatoes through the ricer or mash them in the pot. If you're mashing, don't go crazy. Working them too much in an effort to squash every last morsel will leave you with a gummy batch that can't be rescued. It's like pie crust — you have to know when to stop messing with it. If the potatoes are properly cooked, you won't need too much force. When you're more than halfway done, pour in the warmed milk and butter, incorporating it into the mash.
Add the cooked greens and mix until combined, adding salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot with salted butter.