February 2016

Why Irish Food? Part Two, A Brief Historical Perspective

From The Great Hunger in the 19th century to the Irish Food Renaissance of today, cuisine has shaped and framed Ireland. There is a reason that a pub often functions as the center of a community, a big Irish breakfast is the quintessential first meal, and the small farms are some of the best around. And there are now many reasons to visit Ireland for the food! Below is a simple overview addressing the complexity of Ireland’s relationship to food. There is also a list of a few interesting resources for further reading if you are interested.

The Great Hunger


For several hundred years leading up to the 19th century Ireland had been an impoverished country; cheap basics formed the backbone of the population’s nourishment. For a long time and for the poorest, the main sustenance was the potato. It was filling and grew readily in the climate and soil.

Unfortunately, the country relied too much on the lowly potato. In the late 1840s, blight washed over most of the country’s potato crops, turning them into blackened goo. There were plentiful other crops, but they tended to be sold for more profit outside Ireland. So the masses began to starve.

The blight lasted for several years and became known as the potato famine, but in recent years its name has been changed – more aptly – to the Great Hunger, as there was no famine; there was plenty of food. It was just a lack of humanity.


It is estimated that about a million people died during the famine and two million emigrated – many to America.

However, undeterred by the recently ended blight, the Irish potato regained its stature as the turn-to staple and even today you should hold your surprise if two forms of the tasty tuber are presented on your dinner plate.

Hearty and cheap

The financial fortunes of the working class in Ireland didn’t change for a century and a half and affordable filling food fueled the country: meat, potatoes, milk, and bread. Eventually a full breakfast piled on the calories for a hard working day. It consisted of a selection of eggs, sausage, blood sausage (blood mixed in with the sausage innards), bacon (more like fatty American ham than American bacon), toast, beans and a piping hot cup of tea.

Stew was a cheap and filling dinner, consisting of whatever odds and ends were lying about. I had an Irish friend once jokingly describe to me his recipe for stew: “you put some meat and vegetables into a pot and boil them until they’re all the same color.”

The Irish weren’t as concerned about a variety of flavors in their daily meals as much as they were about filling up for heavy drudgery.

The Celtic Tiger

And aside from some pizza places, Chinese and surprisingly good Indian food in the latter half of the 20th century, that’s how some of the diet remained until the mid 1990s when the “Celtic Tiger” came roaring in.

With the 1998 Good Friday Agreement ceasing hostilities between the British and the Irish and the European Union forming into a financial powerhouse, Ireland was chosen as a country the Union would help bolster. European money flooded the country, helping to improve infrastructure and stabilize the economy, multinational corporations set up main offices in Ireland with their well-educated, enthusiastic, English-speaking workforce and for the first time in hundreds of years, the Irish people had money.

But like all booms, it didn’t last. The easy money flowing throughout Ireland dried up and the citizens, having expanded their palates during the brief prosperous years, looked around at what they had. What they discovered was that they possessed the elements necessary to create great food all along – pasture-raised animals, small-scale food producers, local farmers and an ingenuity familiar to underdogs the world over.

The Irish Food Revolution (or Renaissance if you prefer) was born.

In the past several years pride in Irish food has shot through the roof, so to speak. Chefs are fusing the essence of other cuisines into their own and creating a gastronomical wonderland that is taking unsuspecting international visitors by surprise.

Sure you can still order the full Irish breakfast or enjoy a locally farmed carvery lunch, but you can also join a “food trail” and sample cutting edge dishes from three or four up-and-coming restaurants in a row. You can drop in on one of the many food festivals cropping up across the country or sample any of its world-renowned pubs.

In short, you can start thinking of Ireland as a food destination.

Sources and recommended reading
The Course of Irish History,
T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin
The Great Hunger,
Cecil Woodham-Smith
Forgotten Skills of Cooking,
Darina Allen
Irish Traditional Cooking,
Darina Allen
Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum www.ighm.org (resources for educators and scholars)


Grilled Veg Cottage Pie (aka Sunken Cottage Pie)


Serves 5-6

I was planning on focusing on lighter fare this week; however, the recent cold snap we had here in New England demands a warming, comforting meal. And a cottage pie is perfect! Cottage pie is quite similar to shepherds pie, except it uses ground beef as opposed to ground lamb.

I prepared the meal for a dinner party, and the guests said I could quote them: "Absolutely delicious!" And they asked for seconds so that must be a good sign! It certainly is serious comfort food! And makes for tasty leftovers.

A few tips and lessons learned:

I had a slight mishap - the filling bubbled over the potato/cauliflower topping as it cooked. I believe the mashed mixture was too cool and did not spread over the beef easily – gaps were left around the edges of the pie. Make sure the topping completely covers the filling and you should be fine. If not….call it Sunken Cottage Pie! Still tastes great!

Also, you’ll also want to make sure you leave enough time to grill the vegetables. With one small grilling pan, it took me a good hour and a half working in stages. You will need a grilling pan, available at most kitchen stores.

Roasting Option: If grilling is not an option, you can roast the vegetables. Grilling adds a certain smoky complexity, which is lovely. But roasting works too! Usually 400° for 20-25 minutes does the trick. First toss all the veggies with oil and salt. You can work on the filling while they roast. Take them out and turn the oven down to 350°. Then follow the directions for after grilling.


(To make roux: melt 4 tablespoons butter in a saucepan over low heat; blend in ½ cup all purpose flour and stir for 2-3 minutes.)

For the topping

  • 2½ lbs. white potatoes, rinsed, peeled and cut into 1½” chunks
  • 1 head cauliflower rinsed and cut into bite sized pieces (a bit smaller than potatoes)
  • 3½ tablespoons vegetable oil
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 lb. parsnips rinsed, peeled and cut into small bite sized pieces
  • 1¾ cup organic whole milk
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons chopped chives
  • ½ cup grated pecorino romano cheese
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley

For the filling
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1½ lbs. lean grass fed ground beef (90 percent)
  • 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
  • ¾ cup red wine
  • 1¾ cups organic beef stock
  • 1 cup frozen pea/carrot mix
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon HP sauce (available at Irish import shops) or steak sauce of your choice
  • 1½ tablespoons tomato paste
  • Roux (see above)
  • Salt and pepper

Prepare roux. Preheat oven to 350° F.

Grilling Method (see above tips for roasting option)

Parboil potatoes and cauliflower for 7 minutes. Remove them from the pot with a hand strainer and place in a large strainer to fully drain, reserving the boiled water. Working in two batches, place potato/cauliflower mix into a sealable gallon plastic bag with 1½ tablespoons vegetable oil and ⅛ teaspoon salt. Shake to coat and place in large bowl. Repeat with the second batch.


Working in small batches, cook the potato/cauliflower mix in a grill pan on a grill set to high (550-600° F) until well charred (about 15 minutes) stirring often, placing the cooked veg in a large bowl. The grill lid should remain closed except for stirring. (This process could take an hour or more, so pour a glass of wine and add slowly to mouth. Repeat as necessary.)

When about half the vegetables are done grilling, return the water to a boil and parboil the parsnips for 6 minutes, straining. Set milk and butter on countertop to warm to room temperature.

When the potato/cauliflower mix is fully grilled, reduce the grill to medium-high (450-500° F) and toss the parsnips in ½ tablespoon vegetable oil and sprinkle with a pinch of salt, using the gallon bag method if desired. Grill the parsnips in the grill pan until well charred (about 8 minutes) stirring often.

After grilling or roasting….

Heat olive oil over medium heat in Dutch oven or large oven-safe pot. Add garlic and onion and sauté until onions are soft and becoming translucent. Add the ground beef and thyme, breaking up the beef with the back of a wooden spoon and cook until the meat is browned. Add the wine, half the beef stock, Worcestershire sauce, HP sauce, tomato paste, parsnips and pea/carrot mix. Bring to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes.

Mash the roasted or grilled potato/cauliflower/parsnip mixture with the milk and butter, adding more milk if needed for a rough mashed consistency. Mix in chives. Taste and season with pepper and more salt if needed.


Add the remaining beef stock to the filling and bring to a boil, adding the roux as needed to thicken. It should be thick, but juicy. Spread potato/cauliflower mixture on top, making sure to completely cover the filling so it doesn’t bubble up over the top. Spread cheese over the top and bake for half hour or until the top is golden and slightly crispy.

Sprinkle with fresh parsley before serving.

Pancake Tuesday (a.k.a. Crêpe Tuesday)


The week before Ash Wednesday, again back in 1989, I first heard about the event in Ireland known as Pancake Tuesday. Even in the States, Fat Tuesday was foreign to me, so I was double clueless. As the big day approached, I finally figured out that it was a day of eating indulgence before Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent). However, a big stack of old fashioned American pancakes was in my head – then I arrived home on my first Pancake Tuesday. The yummy smell of pancakes filled the air; however, they were crêpes! And we filled these crêpes with any sweet we could find – from marshmallows to chocolate chips to strawberries. The entire ritual was a self-indulgent delight.

Below is my recipe (but adapted a bit from Clodagh McKenna): simple, quick and delicious. And of course add in whatever sweets you are craving.



  • ½ heaping cup of all-purpose flour
  • 2 organic, cage free eggs
  • 1 cup of organic milk
  • 1 teaspoon of organic orange extract
  • 1 tablespoon of canola oil for the pan
  • a spoonful of butter (melted)
  • sugar
  • 1 lemon
  • Cookie butter (or Speculoos, available at Trader Joe’s)

Put the flour in a bowl and make a well for the 2 eggs. Crack the eggs into the well. Using a whisk, blend the eggs and flour a bit. Slowly add in the milk, whisking as you go. After the mixture is smooth, with no lumps, cover and place in the fridge for a few hours.

When the mixture is ready, heat a non-stick pan with a small amount of oil. Be careful to keep the pan from getting too hot (about medium high heat. Number 6 on the dial is what I used).

Take out the mixture and whisk it a bit. Add in a small amount of melted butter (about a spoonful) to the mixture. Next, whisk in 1 teaspoon of orange extract.

Using a pitcher (for easy pouring), pour a thin coating into the heated pan. Be careful – it needs to be fairly thin. Swirl it around a little so you coat the pan if need be. Cook for about 1 or 2 minutes.

Here is the tricky part – since not all non-stick pans are created equal – after it cooks fully on one side, and it slides easily in the pan, flip it all in one go (commit and it works). I admit my non-stick pan was not great, so I used a very thin metal spatula and flipped it carefully over in one piece for the first few. I added a bit more oil to the pan after cooking a couple to help as well. And after some practice and loosening it with a spatula, I was able to generate a perfect flip. It was great fun!


Version 1
After you’ve completed cooking each one, fold it into quarters, plate, and squeeze lemon juice over them, then sprinkle a nice amount of sugar on as well. The orange essence of the pancake mixes well with the lemon/sugar combo. The taste is light and fresh.

Version 2
Place the cooked pancake onto a plate and spread cookie butter on one side. Make sure that you give the cookie butter a few seconds to melt before spreading (folding over the pancake for a minute speeds up the process). After spreading on one side, fold into quarters for a sweet, gingerbread-like treat.

Voilà! Pancake Tuesday debauchery complete. I hope you enjoy!

Irish food????

Calf, taken 1989 outside of Athlone, Ireland – moments up close and personal with animals were common in my year there.

Part One: A Personal Perspective

Since our launch three weeks ago, the question “why Irish food?” has come up a great deal during conversations. And the tone is one of bewilderment. Americans have a somewhat negative view of Irish cuisine: bland potatoes comes to mind for them. So I decided to share my reasons for embracing Irish food and further our mission here at Irish Food Revolution.

Longing for Tradition
Growing up, my family did not identify with any particular cultural tradition. Our cultural history lacked the richness for which I longed and saw in some of my friends’ families.

Our family certainly never built rituals (always changing it up, we never did the same thing twice). The only moments I recall were the sounds of the Irish music my father enjoyed. So I latched onto this musical cultural heritage – starving for connection to those who came before. It is no surprise that I’ve spent much of my life trying to forge a cultural identity – one that feels right.

On a parallel track has been my relationship with food. Meals at our house were often a slap/dash affair. However, my fondest memories as a child are of my father cooking homemade donuts and applesauce made from the apple tree in the back of our house (a rare occurrence). It felt so special, and hidden in my heart all these years has been a love for slow food – almost without me realizing it.

One Step Removed
Over the past several years, two things came together: an identification with my Irish heritage and a love for the farm to table movement. I lived in Ireland for a year over twenty years ago and will never forget the glass milk bottles on the doorstep. Up until that point, I never drank plain milk; I always put in chocolate or used it as a vehicle for cereal. After my first sip of the milk in Ireland, I was struck by a taste that was full bodied and creamy – without the metallic after taste in the milk back home. I did not understand then why it was so wonderful. But throughout that year, I began to sense why, watching the green fields and cows roll by the window on frequent train rides.

After leaving Ireland, I moved to New York City and became even more distant from the sources of food. Food was simply something to purchase and consume – not meaningful or connected to the natural world. I saw cows back home in New Hampshire, but food felt one step removed from those farms and animals. Farms were quaint and nice to look at, but they had nothing to do with the food I bought in the grocery store.

After struggling with eating issues for many years, I now realize eating local produce and grass fed meats helps me to eat mindfully. Taking a step towards actual food sources has helped me reassemble the scattered pieces of my cultural identity as well. Cultural tradition and the farm to table movement have come together as an integral part of my life; Ireland embodies these two ideas ten fold.


Finally, in the past three weeks, I am reminded of the connections that form between people over food. Long ago in Ireland, a hearty meal was always good “craic” as they say. And when I visited again after many years, in 2012, I sensed a palpable change around the attitude towards cuisine. People are embracing the old ways of traditional cooking and recognizing how delicious it is. They are also updating old favorites in new, approachable ways. A love for real food, real people, and homegrown fare; the Irish are experts at all of it.

And after meeting people through social media, I see that the phrase “Irish food revolution” is definitely not an over exaggeration. The love for the land, farming, eateries, and artisan food production is inspiring. People have offered to show me around farms and eateries in Ireland already; this glowing pride has brought my own passion to the next level. I am more determined than ever to share this exciting country and its lovely cuisine.

In honor of my newfound connections on Twitter, I must dedicate this blog post to some folks: Suzanna @ZwartblesIE, Annie @desperateAnnie, @the_greensheep_, @tasteofireland, @MidletonFarmers, John @irishtasteclub, Imen @ModernFarmette, @danoharafarm, Loretta @LorGMedia, Drigin @MsEatGalway, Rory Morahan @RoryMorahan, and the hundreds more with whom I have interacted on social media so far! May I connect with many more of you on this journey!