(Some) Irish food is great — no joke

  • Barmbrack, here with butter, is a traditional bread that is slightly sweet, with raisins and bits of candied fruit in it. (Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)
  • Guinness stew on October 3, 2018. (Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: Irish food? Seriously?

Yes, Irish food. Seriously.

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It is true that Irish food is the butt of many jokes, and for good reason. The Irish will put potatoes in dishes that are better off without them (potato and apple pudding), they eat parts of animals that you wouldn’t think of eating (stuffed lamb hearts) and they do frightening things to fish.

But then there is Irish stew.

And there is Irish stew’s cousin, Guinness stew.

And there is colcannon.

And there is barmbrack, though to be perfectly honest I had never heard of barmbrack until I started doing research for this story. I found several recipes for it, and I thought, “Hey, this sounds good.”

So I made it. Hey, this is good.

Barmbrack is a traditional bread that is briefly mentioned in James Joyce’s “Dubliners” (actually, that’s one of the reasons I made it). It is a slightly sweet bread with raisins and bits of candied fruit in it. It’s what fruitcake would be if it were bread. It’s fruitbread.

It is also terrific. You can make it yeasty, but the loaf I made was nicely dense and studded with the candied fruit. A blend of spices added just a hint of mystery.

It tasted a little special, like the kind of thing you would serve at a holiday or celebration. And in fact, a variation of it is often served at Halloween. But it can also be served as an everyday sort of bread or a subtle dessert.

If it’s good enough for James Joyce, it’s good enough for me.

Next, I made Irish stew, which is a testimony to man’s ability to create great food out of very little.

Lamb — which is still common in Ireland — potatoes (of course), carrots, leeks, celery, chicken stock and a sprinkling of thyme are all that are needed to make a stunning, hearty, memorable meal.

Yet it is surprisingly easy to make. Irish stew is just a standard stew with one exception — you begin by boiling the pieces of lamb (see Irish food jokes, above).

The broth you get when you make the stew is thin, but that turns out to be deceptive. Irish stew is a substantial, stick-to-your-ribs kind of dish that can get you through the coldest and dampest of wintry nights.

Guinness stew is much the same but also very different. Even their ingredients are similar, but the two main exceptions make all the difference. The first is the choice of meat, beef instead of lamb — and no, it is not boiled. The second is the choice of cooking liquid: Instead of stock, it uses Guinness.

The result is a stew that is just as robust as Irish stew, but deeper and richer in flavor. You don’t even taste the Guinness at all; it simmers into an unidentifiable umami flavor that enhances the taste of beef.

Finally, I made colcannon, which strikes me as the ultimate expression of Irish cooking. It is an irresistible combination of every food that the island is famous for.

It takes potatoes, cabbage and leeks, simmers them (the leeks are simmered in milk) and then mashes them all together. And then, to make it fabulously rich, it stirs in butter. I mean a lot of butter.

Barmbrack

Yield: 10 servings

1 1/2 cups any combination of raisins, golden raisins and currants, see note

1 cup cold tea, optional, see note

4 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon table salt

Pinch ground cloves

Pinch ground allspice

Pinch ground ginger

1/8 teaspoon (2 pinches) ground coriander

1/8 teaspoon (2 pinches) ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon (2 pinches) ground nutmeg

1 cup plus 3 tablespoons milk, divided

1 teaspoon active dry yeast

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided

4 tablespoons butter

2 eggs, divided

2/3 cup candied fruit (as for fruitcake)

Note: Plain raisins will do, if you don’t have golden raisins and currants. And it is not necessary to soak them in advance, but they will be plumper if you do. Some people in Ireland use tea for soaking, which adds a bit of tannin and taste to push against the raisin mixture’s sweetness, but, again, it is not necessary. Water will do.

1. If desired, soak the raisins in the cold tea or water overnight. Before making the bread, drain and dry on paper towels.

2. Line a 9-inch cake pan or 2 loaf pans with parchment paper, and grease it and the pan’s sides with butter or nonstick spray. Sift together the flour, salt, cloves, allspice, ginger, coriander, cinnamon and nutmeg into a bowl and leave in a warm place.

3. Heat the milk until warm, but not hot. Place 3 tablespoons in a cup with the yeast and 2 tablespoons of the sugar, and stir until combined. Leave in a warm place for about 20 minutes until the surface is frothy. Meanwhile, add the butter to the remaining 1 cup milk, bring to a boil and allow to cool until tepid.

4. Pour the yeast mixture into the flour and add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar. Beat 1 of the eggs and add it. Add the tepid milk-butter mixture and the raisins, and mix to a loose dough.

5. Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead well until the dough is smooth and elastic. If the raisins were not sufficiently dried, the dough may be sticky; if so, add a little flour at a time until it is smooth and elastic. Dust the bowl with flour and return the dough to it. Cover the bowl with a damp towel and leave in a warm place until doubled in size, about 50 minutes.

6. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface again, and knead for 1 minute. Place in prepared pan or pans, cover with a damp cloth and allow to rise 20 more minutes in a warm place.

7. Beat the remaining 1 egg, mix with 1 tablespoon water, and brush over top of loaf or loaves. Bake 40 to 50 minutes, until done. If the top starts to become too brown, tent with a piece of aluminum foil. Turn onto a wire rack to cool.

Irish Stew

Yield: 8 servings

3 pounds deboned, lean lamb shoulder, cut into 2-inch pieces

1 1/2 cups sliced onions

1 cup sliced leeks

1 cup sliced celery

3 sprigs thyme

Salt and pepper, to taste

2 1/2 quarts chicken stock

16 small potatoes, peeled

1 1/2 cups carrots, cut into 2-inch pieces

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1. In a pot large enough to hold lamb, cover pieces with cold water. Bring to a boil. Boil 10 minutes. Drain, and cool under cold water.

2. In a 4-quart pot, layer the meat, onions, leeks, celery and thyme. Season with salt and pepper, and cover with stock. Simmer 1 hour, adding potatoes and carrots after 30 minutes. Skim stew periodically to remove fat. When cooked, sprinkle with chopped parsley.

Guinness Stew

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

1 pound beef round or other slow-cooking cut

2 tablespoons oil

Salt and pepper

3 medium-sized onions, sliced

3 to 4 carrots, sliced

3 to 4 ribs of celery, chopped

5 to 6 potatoes, sliced thick

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

20 ounces stout beer, such as Guinness

Bouquet garni (a few sprigs of parsley, a few sprigs of thyme and a bay leaf tied together)

Chopped parsley, to taste

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut beef into 1-inch cubes. Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or other large pot with a lid that can be placed in the oven. Season meat with salt and pepper and sear until golden brown on all sides. Remove from pot with slotted spoon.

2. Put the onions, carrots, celery and potatoes in the pot, season with salt and pepper, and cook without browning until the onions are softened and translucent. Return meat to pot, stir in flour, and cook for 1 minute. Add the Guinness slowly, bring to a boil and add the bouquet garni. Cover, and cook in the oven for 2 hours. Remove the bouquet garni, test for seasonings, sprinkle with fresh parsley and serve.

Colcannon

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

1 pound cabbage, cored, quartered and shredded

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

2 small leeks, including white and light green parts, washed and sliced thin

1 cup milk

Salt and pepper to taste

1/2 teaspoon ground mace or nutmeg

10 tablespoons (1 stick plus 2 tablespoons) butter cut into small pieces, divided

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1. In separate saucepans, cook the cabbage and potatoes in salted, boiling water for 12 to 15 minutes, or until tender. Drain the cabbage, and chop. Drain the potatoes, and mash.

2. Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, combine the leeks and milk. Bring to a simmer and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the leeks are tender. Add the potatoes, salt, pepper and mace to the pan and stir over low heat until well-blended. Add the cabbage and 8 tablespoons (1 stick) of the butter and stir again until blended. Dot with the remaining 2 tablespoons butter, and serve.