St. Patrick’s Day is cause for revelry. People without a single drop of Irish blood love the excuse to wear green, pinch each other and drink Guinness. And who can blame them?
Food served at St. Patrick’s Day parties, however, is generally less exciting. Verdant food dyes can be fun for children, but they lose their charm after the third or fourth glass of green milk served with a plate of green cookies.
Traditional Irish recipes, while hearty in their simplicity, are often uninspiring to California palates used to exciting spices and healthier fare. With a little work, however, an Irish classic can be transformed into a modern gourmet dish – and a greener one, at that.
If you ask Americans to list some traditional Irish recipes, they may rattle off Colcannon, Irish soda bread and anything involving potatoes. Corned beef and cabbage is probably the meal most associated with St. Patrick’s Day and Irish cuisine. This is somewhat unfortunate, because the resulting dish generally contains bland beef and limp cabbage. Though some supermarkets do sell corned beef with a flavor packet, and one can always add potatoes and onions, the dish – and the rest of Irish cooking – is in this area too easily associated with flavorlessness and boredom.
Corned beef and cabbage, despite protestations to the contrary, is also not traditionally Irish. Beef was expensive, often prohibitively so, in Ireland until relatively recently, so pork was the meat of choice. Cabbage boiled with bacon was probably the original recipe, which was then changed to the dish we know today by early Irish settlers in America who were celebrating the abundance of America along with their own heritage.
Spicing it up
One way to spice things up while retaining traditional Irish roots is to use the essential ingredients in another form, a kind of Irish fusion.
A great riff on bland corned beef and cabbage is a kale and pancetta barley risotto. Lacinato, or dinosaur kale, one of the closest modern species to the wild cabbage that Irish peasants would have eaten hundreds of years ago, is a dusky green beauty with a sweeter taste than regular kale.
To further emphasize the Irish connection, make your risotto with pearl barley, a traditional Irish grain, rather than the usual Arborio rice. The resulting dish has a fuller texture than typical risottos, and adding pancetta and Italian cheeses turns the meal into a masterpiece of Irish-Italian fusion. Serve atop a leaf of green cabbage for the prettiest presentation.
There are other ways to go green at mealtimes. The health benefits of adding green, leafy vegetables to your diet are undeniable. Kale is rich in vitamin K, vitamin C and beta carotene, and is thought to have cancer-fighting properties.
Fresh green vegetables are perfect candidates for purchase from local farmers. While the Los Altos Farmers’ Market doesn’t reopen until May, the California Avenue Farmers’ Market in Palo Alto is just a few minutes away. Buying vegetables through a Community Supported Agriculture program like Hidden Villa’s in Los Altos Hills is another great way to eat sustainably.
Veggies and staples like barley are also relatively inexpensive, especially if you are assembling your St. Patrick’s Day feast at home rather than heading to your local Irish pub. The pancetta is a little pricier, but you could go the way of the historical Irish peasantry and use regular bacon. Given the economic climate, it’s always a good thing if you can save a few dollars for your mortgage payment – or another round of Guinness.
Kale and pancetta barley risotto
6 cups vegetable broth
3 ounces pancetta, diced
2 tablespoons butter or oil
1 yellow onion, diced
5 cloves garlic, peeled and diced
1 head lacinato, or dinosaur kale, rinsed, de-stemmed and chopped
1 1/2 cups pearl barley
1/2 cup parmesan cheese, grated
3 tablespoons mascarpone cheese
Salt and pepper, to taste
Cabbage leaves (optional)
Place vegetable broth over medium-high heat and regulate temperature throughout so it remains very hot but not quite boiling.
Sauté pancetta in skillet over high heat until crispy, approximately 5 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
Heat butter or oil in dutch oven, sturdy stockpot or large, nonstick skillet over medium heat. Sauté onion and garlic until onion is tender, approximately 3 minutes. Add kale and sauté until cooked down and wilted, approximately 5 more minutes.
Add barley and sauté until opaque, approximately 3 minutes.
Add pancetta back in.
Add vegetable broth 1/2 cup at a time, stirring constantly and waiting to add more until all liquid has been absorbed. Continue adding broth until barley is cooked to taste. The resulting texture should be chewy but not hard.
Remove from heat. Add parmesan and mascarpone cheeses and stir to coat.
Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately, in cabbage leaves if desired.
Makes four generous servings.