St. Patrick's Day Dinner Solved in Cathal Armstrong's My Irish Table
Irish stew, ala Armstrong
All photos copyright 2014 by Scott Suchman, courtesy Ten Speed Press
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My Irish Table: Recipes from the homeland and Restaurant Eve By Cathal Armstrong and David Hagedorn, 272 pages, Ten Speed Press, $35
"I never, ever set out to be a chef," native Dubliner Cathal Armstrong admits early in a recent conversation about his new book My Irish Table, which drops today. "That wasn't my life plan." But that's exactly what happened for the DC chef and owner of Restaurant Eve, which has garnered a hungry following and even feeds the Obamas from time to time.
Armstrong came from a food-focused family that traveled a lot (his father was a travel agent and passionate cook) and planned trips not around sites and destinations, but around eating, from packing to rest-stops. Food figured prominently in the itinerary, and at home, meals were sacrosanct: "You were not permitted to miss dinner. That was not part of the general makeup of our house; everybody sat together, and all eight of us ate together."
With the success of Restaurant Eve, which serves Irish classics and modern cuisine, Armstrong says he embraced the opportunity to collect his repertoire into one place. In the book are simple recipes anyone can cook -- an Irish BLT; roasted potatoes -- and tougher instructions, for dishes like pan-roasted rockfish with mushroom reduction and mock risotto, plus a tutorial on how to make blood pudding and Irish blood sausage from scratch.
But as the project progressed, it became much more personal than that. Each dish starts with a history, and throughout the book, Armstrong shares stories of growing up in Dublin in a big Catholic family, on gardening through tough times, failing through his first restaurant, and later, cooking for the Obamas and Julia Child.
Lamb shepherd's pie
What is one quintessential St. Patrick's Day recipe you feature in the book? I included a recipe for corned beef in the book, although corned beef isn't really found that much in Ireland. It was made in Ireland for hundreds of years, but it was all exported to the United States. But really, I'd say about 80 percent of households in Ireland are having leg of lamb for dinner on St. Patrick's Day. And there are several reasons for that; it feeds a good amount of people, and Catholic families have lots of kids, and lamb is in season in spring, and it's a celebratory meal at a time when most people are fasting for Lent. But we get dispensation from Rome to celebrate on that day. And a good celebratory meal is going to be leg of lamb and anything else that was in season at that point.
What seasonal ingredients do you really rely on during winter? We're still in the throes of root vegetables, so parsnips, carrots, turnips, and rutabaga are all over the place on the menu at Restaurant Eve. We just started to see green pea shoots, and somebody offered me peas, but they're from California, so I'll wait until I can get them more locally. But an ingredient that's commonly found on Irish tables that's still in season right now is parsnips. I like the venison dish we did with carrots; there's a carrot puree.
What is one of the oldest recipes in this book and what's its origin? The most traditional recipe in the book is the Irish stew. I made very few changes from what the traditional Irish stew is. Most places in America that serve Irish stew, you get this big, thick, beefy Dinty Moore type stew. And that has nothing to do with Irish stew. Irish stew is always made with lamb, and it's a peasant dish that people with very limited access to raw materials had, so it was made with bones and onions and potatoes and water. That is the classic, quintessential Irish stew. It's a thin, not particularly flavorful dish. So all that I really did to it was to use a cut of meat that's probably more available here in the United States; you don't typically see lamb neck in your grocery store -- and I added a bit of carrot too, which gives it a bit of sweetness, and a little fresh thyme. But what I really wanted to illustrate with that dish is how something so old and so simple like that can be made into something that is quite delicious.
And how about a recipe that's indicative of where modern Irish cooking is headed?? The classic dish I changed the most is probably the shepherd's pie. Most traditionally, it uses ground beef as the base, and that didn't make any sense to me, because shepherds herd sheep, so it made more sense to use lamb as the meat for that. So I use leg of lamb in mine, and I dice the lamb by hand, so it doesn't have that sort of crumbly texture. I wanted it to be more of a refined stew than the classic. And then I stayed fairly true to the technique and ingredients that I used, but I did use some lamb demi glace, which I think more people are and should be making at home. It really takes a small amount work, but the end result is phenomenal. You can make a decent quantity of it, and put it in the freezer... I'd really encourage home cooks to make their own stocks.
What do people need to know about cooking Irish food? Understanding a little bit about the climate will help you to understand the food a little better. When you think about Ireland, it's the same latitude as Newfoundland, which is frozen for most of the year, but it's affected by the gulf stream, so that keeps the climate moderate and temperate year-round. So we don't really get the hot summers like you would in New York or DC, but we also don't get a long, extended winter like we do here. So for the most part, the country is green 365 days a year. So we have pasture-raised cattle, sheep, we have hogs that are fed outdoors, and vegetables that are grown outside year round. Also, it's a tiny island surrounded by the Atlantic ocean. So we have incredible oysters, lobsters, the Dublin Bay prawn; there's a salmon population that swims up the River Shannon. You have access to all this wonderful seafood. But because of the history of Ireland and its association with Britain, the cuisine was never really allowed to flourish there, even though all the raw materials are there.
There's also been this notion that with Irish cuisine, it's all about boiling the hell out of everything. Which is really not true; it's a lot of braised dishes. And braising food, it can be exquisite when it's done properly, and boiling the hell out of something is not the same as braising. You know, it's slow cooking things until they're delicate and tender and all of those flavors start to meld and you get these complex layers of flavor, and that's something that's really well-represented in the book...The shepherd's pie, the Obama stew, the steak and kidney pies, the beef stew, the corned beef...There's a good selection of them. But those dishes, they make you feel so good, you know?
Feed this to your family on St. Patrick's Day.
Roast Leg of Lamb au Jus with Herb Pesto
When I was very young, we'd go to Nana's house for Saint Patrick's Day. Nana, my father's mother, was a very strong woman, the matriarch of the family. When I was ten years old, she took us to Dublin's Phoenix Park to see Pope John Paul II. We walked all the way from her house to center city, a good hour-and-a-half walk. It seemed to me that all of Ireland was there, and it took all day to get there and back. As we were walking home exhausted that evening, I remember Nana turning to me and saying, "I'm so hungry, I could eat the hind leg off the lamb of God."
Lamb, except for less expensive cuts like shanks, shin bones, or neck meat, was a special occasion meat in my family, reserved for days like Easter and Saint Patrick's Day. One of the most vivid memories I have of growing up is sitting at the oval table in my Nana's living room with her and Granda, the eight of our family, and anyone else lucky enough to have been invited for Sunday dinner's leg of lamb.
Occasionally, I'll be out somewhere and catch a whiff of a leg of lamb roasting, and it takes me back instantly to my place at that table in another time. Too bad if I want to do anything about it, though; [my wife] Meshelle hates lamb. She never lets me make it at home, but lamb remains one of my preferred meats. As Nana got older, Saint Patrick's Day dinner shifted to our house. Mam would serve spring lamb with peas because they were the first green vegetables to be seen at that time of year. My version of them is "Marrowfat" Peas. There were always Roasted Potatoes, if not also Boiled New Potatoes and Mashed Potatoes. Other nice accompaniments for this dish would be Glazed Baby Carrots and Roasted Root Vegetable Purée (all of which are printed in the book--ed.).
Serves 8 to 10
Ingredients 1 (9-pound) bone-in leg of lamb, H-bone removed by your butcher 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 2 teaspoons kosher salt 1 cup lamb demi-glace (page 244)
For the herb pesto: 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil 6 cloves garlic, crushed 1 cup fresh basil leaves 2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves 2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary leaves (see Notes on Herbs, page 64) 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Roast the lamb: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the leg fat side up in a flameproof roasting pan. Rub it with the oil and season with the salt. Roast for 1 1/2 hours, until a meat thermometer inserted into thickest part of the lamb (but not touching the bone) registers 135°F for medium rare.
Make the pesto: Meanwhile, place the oil and garlic in the bowl of a food processor or blender and pulse briefly. Add the basil and process until a coarse purée forms. Add the thyme, rosemary, and salt and process briefly, until incorporated.
Add the pesto to the lamb: Transfer the lamb leg to a cutting board and spread 4 tablespoons of herb pesto over it. Cover the leg loosely with aluminum foil and let it rest for 15 minutes.
Make the jus: Meanwhile, skim and discard the fat from the roasting pan. Add the demi-glace to the pan and place over medium-high heat. Use a flatedged wooden spatula to scrape up all the brown bits from the bottom of the pan.
Present the dish: Pour the jus into a small pitcher or gravy boat. Spoon the remaining pesto into a small serving bowl. Transfer the lamb to a serving platter and carve it at table. At about the middle of the leg, use a carving knife to cut a horizontal wedge the width of the leg and about 2 inches wide, cutting at a 45° angle from both sides until you hit bone. Then cut thin slices from both sides of the wedge. Once you've carved as much meat that way as you can, grasp the bone and stand it on its end with one hand, using your other hand to cut slices off the leg. Spoon some jus over each serving and place a little pesto on the side. Serve with your chosen side dishes.
Veal or Lamb Stock
This recipe takes some work over the better part of a day, but having the stock on hand increases the quality of whatever soups, stews, and sauces you are making tenfold. So make it once in a while and freeze it. While making the stock, adjust your burner heat as needed to keep the liquid at a constant simmer throughout the process; do not ever let the stock boil. Add water as needed to maintain the level of liquid with which you start. Because you don't add the vegetables right away, you can prep them while the stock is simmering.
(Makes about 3 1/2 quarts)
5 pounds veal or lamb bones 1/2 cup tomato paste 3 yellow onions, halved 7 carrots, peeled and cut into 3-inch pieces 1/2 bunch celery, leaves discarded, cut into 3-inch pieces 1 small leek, white and light green parts only, halved, cut into 3-inch pieces, and well washed (see How to Clean Leeks, page 32) 3 fresh bay leaves 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns 1 large bunch fresh thyme 1/4 bunch fresh rosemary
Simmer the bones: Place the bones in a very large stockpot and add enough cold water to cover them by 2 inches. Bring to a simmer over high heat. Lower the heat to medium or medium-high, as needed. Simmer the stock for 2 hours, using a ladle to skim, skim, skim whatever fat and particles rise to the top. Do this very often in the first hour and often in the second hour. From time to time, use the ladle to gently move the bones so that particles trapped among them can rise to the top.
Add the remaining ingredients: Stir in the tomato paste and simmer for another hour, skimming regularly. Then add the onions, carrots, celery, leek, bay leaves, peppercorns, thyme, and rosemary and simmer for another 6 hours, remembering to maintain the water level and skimming regularly.
Strain the stock: Use a wire-mesh spider to remove and discard the solids. Strain the stock into another large pot or bucket. Clean the cooking pot. Set a fine-mesh sieve over it and strain the stock back into it.
Cool the stock: Fill your very clean sink with ice and plunge the pot into it. Let the stock cool completely, then refrigerate it overnight. Remove and discard any congealed fat from the top and strain the stock through a fine-mesh sieve into a clean container. The stock can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 days and frozen for up to 3 months.
Veal or Lamb Demi-Glace
Demi-glace is the backbone of meat sauces. Without it, you'd have great difficulty creating the deep, lingering, complex flavor that makes a dish truly great. It used to be that making demi-glace involved roasting bones with tomato paste and incorporating flour into the process, but many modern cooks, I among them, prefer to use a simple stock reduction because the result is more straightforward.
(Makes about 7 cups)
3 1/2 quarts Veal or Lamb Stock, skimmed of fat
Reduce the stock: Bring the stock to a boil in a large saucepan over high heat. Lower the temperature to medium, or wherever is necessary to maintain a simmer, and simmer until the stock is reduced by half, 1 1/2 to 2 hours, skimming often.
Strain and cool the demi-glace: Strain into a container through a fine-mesh sieve or chinois. Cool the demi-glace as you did the stock. The demiglace can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 days and frozen for up to 3 months.
Recipe reprinted with permission from My Irish Table by Cathal Armstrong and David Hagedorn, copyright (c) 2014. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.
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