In my student days St Patrick’s Day was really just an excuse for a liquid lunch, a liquid dinner and a liquid evening supper! Several friends included breakfast in that list but even as a carefree student I was never that professional in my drinking habits. Food has always been the greater passion for me and regardless of the craic or peer pressure I would always stop and eat; even if it was a less than gourmet, gourmet burger.
Between student-hood and recent years St Patrick’s Day largely lost its appeal. As I matured I began to resent the connection between our national day and a day in the pub. I will admit it is a type of snobbery in that I believe the overriding Irish stereotype of excessive drinker is long gone. Particularly these days when those of us with families to support, mortgages to pay and all the other responsibilities can hardly afford a champagne lifestyle. There are also the health and social issues surrounding drink and if anything curtails a potential drinking career it’s small children, but that’s not a bad thing at all. Having gone off St Patrick’s Day for quite some time suddenly I’m beginning to ‘get it’ again particularly as the little ones reach an age where the parade is a highlight and they are learning about St Patrick and making St Patrick’s Day stuff at school. La Feile Padraig is definitely having a renaissance in chez Whelan. I’m slowly but surely coming around and I’m also starting to think that it might be a chance to celebrate the good things about being Irish given all the negative political and financial fallout of recent times. I noticed on the news one evening last week that there had even been a Tricolour Commemoration in Waterford recently. Our national flag was raised there for the first time by Thomas Francis Meagher in March 1848.
Maybe we are finally getting a grip on our culture and heritage and finding ways to celebrate it positively without the emphasis on alcohol. I think we can really do that through food and send that message to the world at large. To celebrate St Patrick’s Day we should go all out and gather our family together to enjoy the best of real Irish food. I’m not talking about green food colouring in the mini meringues although it’s a touch that the kids always love. I’m talking about generating a feast for the family.
There are many ways to create this traditional Irish feast, a warming one pot that can be prepared the day before and gently reheated after a cold parade. A large meat pie made with local ingredients and oozing with gravy or you could go all out and create a roast dinner. I like the idea of the roast and it also gives a great deal of choice. Choose from fresh lamb, luscious beef, a tender chicken or turkey. Yes, it’s just long enough since Christmas to bring one to the table again. However I’ve decided that this year we are going to try an even more traditional route and I’ve settled on Bacon and Cabbage with a Mustard Crust. Anybody who has my book, An Irish Butcher Shop, will find this recipe on page 91. It is simply cooked bacon but finished off in the oven with the addition of a crumbed topping. It certainly lifts an everyday bacon dish to a higher level.
I have also been experimenting recently with various cooking liquids. I liked Nigella Lawson’s recommendation for cooking ham in Coke so I thought I’d try it with bacon. I sliced up the onions, put the bacon on top and covered it with Coke. This works quite well with the sweetness of the coke offsetting the saltiness of the bacon and there is a definite, subtle taste change. According to Nigella you can make black bean soup out of the dark, inky liquid left behind but I have yet to try that and found myself just discarding the warm sticky mess that it is. Usually I try to cook the accompanying vegetables in the meat liquid but found that cabbage cooked in coke was all wrong according to my taste buds. The carrots weren’t as offensive but I still wouldn’t recommend it. I also tried cooking the bacon in cider. Arguably a little more expensive than coke but it gave a fine result. While I think I would ultimately prefer the taste of the meat cooked in the coke, the cider cooked cabbage was good. However the best result all round is cabbage cooked in plain bacon water and so for me cooking the bacon in plain water has to win every time.
When serving bacon and cabbage it’s hard not to think of buttery mash, but for a special occasion you could try being a little fancier. There is a simple recipe for potato gratin on page 212 of An Irish Butcher shop that would be just perfect. The creamy cheesy potato dish also provides a moist sauce in and of itself. Some people like to make an onion or white sauce with bacon or ham but potato gratin allows you to dispense with that. My special tip with potato gratin is that it can be very, very hot when it comes from the oven. I like to let it cool slightly before serving as this also helps it to set and therefore it’s easier to portion and looks better on the plate. Five to ten minutes cooling should do it.
The great thing about a bacon or ham joint is that it is just as good cold in a sandwich or with some coleslaw and salads the next day. Cook a large enough joint and the day after St Patrick’s Day will be an easy ride to get you in the mood for a nice weekend. It certainly shortens the week. Enjoy. I welcome your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
We hope you enjoyed reading this post by Pat Whelan of James Whelan Butchers. Pat is a 5th generation butcher, cook book author and the director of James Whelan Butchers with shops in Clonmel, the Avoca Food Market Monkstown and Avoca Rathcoole. Sign up to our newsletter for more updates from James Whelan Butchers