Chances are that much of your knowledge of Irish food is informed by classics you've come across at a neighborhood pub: Guinness stew, shepherd’s pie and corned beef. It's a tidy collection, commonplace enough to mask the fact that we don't know that much about Irish cooking, particularly compared to other European cuisines.
These traditional dishes are on many menus, often with a range of other bar fare, from tacos to Cajun chicken. But what exactly constitutes Irish cuisine? It's a question that's oddly difficult to answer, as there are few Irish restaurants in this country that are not pubs.
This question is not as much answered as it is expanded in Cathal Armstrong's My Irish Table: Recipes from the Homeland and Restaurant Eve (Ten Speed Press). Out since March, the cookbook, a first from the chef-author, in collaboration with David Hagedorn, is a collection of contemporary takes on dishes both familiar and lesser-known.
There are recipes for soda bread, a mixed vegetable relish called piccalilli and an Irish breakfast with two types of pudding that might take more than an entire morning to assemble. Armstrong's version of a Dublin coddle, bacon and sausage cooked in milk, riffs from a French cream-based stew known as a blanquette.
Each time you may want to lock down one of Armstrong's recipes as wholly Irish, he'll challenge your attempt by tracing a technique or ingredient off the Emerald Isle. According to Armstrong, what makes shepherd's pie Irish is the potatoes that top a stew inspired by a French dish known as hachis parmentier. He includes a recipe for gravlax with dill sauce and brown bread, beloved from his encounters with a Dublin colleague who had worked at a Norwegian restaurant.
Just when you think Armstrong's approach to the cuisine is an amalgam of various outside influences though, he ties in anecdotes, locales and traditions that are distinctly Irish. A chapter on seafood, dedicated to the Irish Catholic ritual of eating fish on Fridays, showcases a few fish and crustacean particular to the region. There's pan-fried plaice, a coastal fish akin to flounder, sauced in lemon caper brown butter.
My Irish Table is in large part Armstrong's ode to a childhood simultaneously rooted in Ireland and beyond. While growing up in Dublin, Armstrong often traveled along the Atlantic. His father Gerry at one point worked as a tour operator, which meant he and his five siblings were often exposed to a range of tastes early on through their travels to Greece, Spain and Tunisia. For several summers, his parents sent Armstrong to France, where he learned about French food as an exchange student.
And yet, many of the dishes featured in the cookbook are those picked up from family members, amongst whom his father prominently figures. His fathere often cooked with the 60-plus fruits and vegetables grown in their garden. That experience planted an appreciation for locally-sourced ingredients, picked up again in his repertoire as a chef.
Armstrong's cosmopolitan Irish upbringing is most apparent in the dishes he developed for Restaurant Eve. He and his wife Meshelle opened the restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia, a decade ago. Since then, Armstrong has garnered critical attention, including a top chef award from Food & Wine in 2006, to visits by luminaries, including President and Mrs. Obama.
Armstrong shares 10 recipes from the restaurant's menu, each highlighting an Irish element, such as Cashel blue cheese in a toasted pecan terrine; and housemade potato rolls for a braised lamb sandwich with harissa mayonnaise. While he calls these recipes Irish-inspired, with this book you can cook and perhaps eat with a broadened understanding of the term.
From: Cathal Armstrong and David Hagedorn
Makes: 4 one-pound loaves
10 cups bread flour
2 Tablespoons Kosher salt
1 Tablespoon active dry yeast
2 Tablespoons canola oil
1 quart water
1. Place half of the ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. Mix on the lowest speed for about 3 minutes and then on the next highest speed for another 3 minutes, until the dough comes together and pulls away from the bowl. It will be slightly sticky. Transfer the dough to a large, lightly oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Repeat the process with the remaining ingredients and place the second batch in the bowl next to the first. Cover the bowl again and let it rise in a warm part of the kitchen for 1 ½ to 2 hours, until doubled in size.
2. Let the dough rise a second time: Spray a 9 by 13 by 6-inch baking pan with cooking spray. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and divide it into 4 pieces. With floured hands, shape each piece into a ball about the size of a grapefruit. Place them in the bottom of the pan. They should fit perfectly, touching each other and the sides of the pan. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and let the dough double in size again, about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 475°F.
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3. Bake the bread: Dip your thumb into a glass of water and push it all the way down into the center of one loaf; repeat the dipping and indenting for each of the other loaves. Bake the bread for 40 minutes, until it forms a dark, slightly burnt crust (lay a piece of foil over the pan halfway through if you object to that) and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of a loaf registers an internal temperature of 200°F. Let the bread rest in the pan for an hour before breaking the four loaves apart. This bread is good for about two days if stored in a bread bin.
Reprinted with permission from My Irish Table by Cathal Armstrong, copyright © 2014. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc.