Emerald tradition: On St. Patrick’s Day corned beef is king — but not in Ireland

Thursday, April 30, 2015
You don’t have to be Irish-American to eat corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day. It’s the iconic must-have meal on March 17.

Other holiday foods range from green bagels for breakfast to green-frosted cookies for snack and a cake decorated with shamrocks, leprechauns and more emerald frosting for dessert. You can get your hands on green beer, too, if you want.

But that’s not quite the way it is in Ireland.

There the pièce de resistance is likely to be ham, often served with parsley sauce. An alternative could be the family’s favorite roast. Either way there are vegetables, including Ireland’s traditional colcannon — a mix of cabbage, or kale, with potatoes. As for dessert, indulgence is the key word. There could be something chocolatey, or a layer cake with cream, or a cheesecake perhaps flavored with an Irish cream liqueur. Or the treat could one of the many traditional desserts that Ireland shares with the rest of the British Isles: trifle or sticky toffee pudding for example.

Why ham in Ireland and not corned beef?

One answer is that the Irish have a historic fondness for pork products: bacon, sausages, trotters, and best of all, ham.

A ham is a handsome meal to set out on the table, and so it’s fitting it should be served on the country’s most important holiday. And it’s no surprise that it should be accompanied by a green-speckled parsley sauce and a green dish of colcannon because spring comes early to Ireland and by March parsley and other leafy things are already growing in gardens.

But why didn’t Irish immigrants bring their choice of ham with them to the United States? After all, America has its own ham traditions and so the meat was never hard to get here.

One theory is that large numbers of Irish arrived in American cities at the same time as large numbers of Jews, and settled in the same neighborhoods. Since Jewish people traditionally avoid pork products the butchers did not stock ham. They did, however, have corned beef, which, like ham, is a salty preserved meat, so the Irish newcomers found it an easy and tasty substitute.

Another theory, explained by Daniel Corkery in “The Hidden Ireland,” is that Ireland actually produced a lot of corned beef because their famed emerald pastures are perfect for raising beef. Historically it was used by the British navy and in the British colonies. This connection with British rulers made it unpopular in Ireland. But for immigrants in a new country, it was easy to fit in with local tastes, whether they were the Jewish fondness for corned beef or the New England enthusiasm for the boiled dinner of corned beef with root vegetables.

It used to be that having any kind of meat in March was a treat. St. Patrick’s Day falls during Lent, the 40-day Christian fast that precedes Easter. For Ireland’s observant Roman Catholics, meat and animal foods are forbidden during Lent. But since St. Patrick is venerated as the national saint because he brought Christianity to Ireland, March 17 — the date of his death — is a holy day. It’s celebrated by church-going and a relief from the stringencies of the fast — not only the big meat meal, but the desserts rich with cream, eggs, butter and other animal foods that are often off-limits in Lent.

As you do your shopping for St. Patrick’s Day you are sure to see the bright-green baked goods, the packages of corned beef, and also the handsome cabbages, often on sale for the holiday. But look also for other options. Perhaps a ham. Certainly, check out cheese counters. Typically they now stock an array of Irish cheeses including Cashel Blue — Ireland’s answer to Stilton and Gorgonzola — and Dubliner, a cheddar-style cheese with a rich creaminess that comes from the milk of cows grazing on those lush green pastures.

Other Irish products now commonly available include Irish tea — the Irish drink more cups of tea a day than any other nation — and cream crackers, a square cracker perfect with cheese and popular throughout Britain and beyond.

Look for Irish butter, too. The Kerrygold brand found in most local markets is made from the milk of grass-fed cows. Grass feeding makes the milk and other products richer in omega-3 fats, vitamin E, beta-carotene, antioxidants and conjugated linoleic acid. It’s also delicious. Here are some recipes to make with the butter and other foods of Ireland.

Brotchán Foltchep

In “A Taste of Ireland” author Theodoa FitzGibbon tells a story about how St. Patrick provided a leek to a dying woman who ate it and was cured. FitzGibbon notes that since then leeks have a special connection to the saint. The word “brochtán” is Irish for broth. Oats are the traditional grain of Ireland, and appear in several traditional soups. In the spring this soup can be made with young nettle tops rather than leeks.

6 medium-large leeks

3 cups milk

2 cups vegetable of chicken broth (or an additional 2 cups milk)

2 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons rolled oats

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Salt and white pepper to taste

Trim off the coarse tops and outer layer of the leeks. Wash them well, making a 3- to 4-inch slit in the top of the leek and splay the layers under running water to remove dirt or grit. Cut the white and tender green parts into 1-inch lengths.

Heat the milk and the stock is a large saucepan with the butter. Stir in the rolled oats. Let the mixture come to a steady simmer then add the leeks and a tablespoon of the parsley.

Partially cover with a lid, allowing steam to escape, and cook gently for about 15 to 20 minutes or until the leeks are tender.

Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Garnish with the remaining parsley.

White Bean and 
Rosemary Dip with 
Dubliner Cheese

1 (15-ounce) can small white beans, rinsed and drained

1 cup shredded Dubliner cheese

¾ cup sour cream 1 to 2 cloves garlic

1½ tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary

Freshly ground pepper to taste

Puree the beans, cheese, sour cream and garlic in a food processor until very smooth. Add the rosemary, using on-and-off pulses, and process until the rosemary is finely chopped. Season with pepper.

Serve with dippers such as crackers or crisp leaves of green or red endive.(This dip is even better if prepared a day or two in advance and refrigerated to meld flavors.)

Corned Beef and Cabbage

Serves 4

The secret to fork-tender corned beef is never to boil it. Rather, cover it with cold water, bring to the simmering point gradually, then hold it at “just simmering” till done. A 5-pound piece simmers tender in two to three hours. It is then ready to eat hot.

1 five-pound piece corned beef

1 onion stuck with 3 cloves

8 peppercorns

6 large carrots

1 small rutabaga

6-8 large potatoes

1 medium head white cabbage

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Freshly ground black pepper

Rinse the corned beef and place it in a large Dutch oven or other large casserole. Cover with enough water to cover it by at least an inch. Add the clove-stuck onion and the peppercorns to the water and bring to simmering point. Keep it simmering very gently.

Meanwhile, scrape the carrots and peel the rutabaga and potatoes. Cut each carrot into 3-4 pieces and the rutabaga and potatoes into chunks.

After the meat has simmered for 1½ hours, add the carrot and rutabaga to the pan and cook another 20 minutes. Now remove about 2 cups of the broth to another pan.

Cut the cabbage into wedges and put in the broth, cover with a lid and simmer for 20 to 25 minute or until tender.

At the point the cabbage begins to cook, add the potatoes to the meat and vegetables, and let cook for another 20 to 25 minutes or until tender.

To serve, remove the corned beef to a board and slice across the grain.

Remove the potatoes and other vegetables with a slotted spoon and serve alongside sprinkled with the chopped parsley.

Put the drained cabbage in a serving bowl and grind some black pepper onto it. Other vegetables that can be included are beets (boiled separately and often later used in Red Flannel Hash), purple-top turnips (added with the carrots and rutabaga), a cup or two of frozen peas (added about 5 minutes before the end), and navy beans or black-eyed peas (cooked separately and served as an accompaniment — an old New England partner rather than an Irish one.)

Parsley Sauce

Parsley sauce is often eaten with ham in Ireland. A favorite all over Britain, it’s often served with white fish and occasionally with cauliflower. You must use fresh parsley; dried won’t do.

2 cups whole milk, warm

3 tablespoons Irish butter

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

3-4 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

Salt and white pepper to taste

Melt the butter in a pan. Remove it from the heat. Stir in the flour to form a smooth stiff paste. Stir in ¼ cup warm milk. Return the pan to low heat and gradually stir in the remaining milk and half the parsley. Simmer until thickened. Add salt and white pepper to taste. Stir in the remaining parsley and cook for another minute.


Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish

In Ireland, colcannon is made with either the hard white winter cabbage or sometimes “spring greens,” a loose immature cabbage that arrives in early spring. It seems that kale was the original form of cabbage in colcannon, and tender early-season kale is perfect for this. So is Savoy cabbage. Often colcannon is served with meat, but is also delicious topped with a piece of steamed or poached salmon or other flavorful fish.

1½ pounds potatoes, peeled

5 tablespoons butter

1½ pounds cabbage or kale, chopped

1 medium leek or 6 scallions, washed and trimmed

1 cup milk

½ teaspoon mace or nutmeg

½ teaspoon salt

Salt and pepper to taste

Cook the potatoes in boiling salted water until tender, then drain and mash them with 2 tablespoons of the butter.

While they are cooking, fill another pan with water, add half a teaspoon of salt, bring to the boil, drop in the cabbage or kale and boil until tender but not overdone — about 15 minutes. Drain and finely chop the cabbage or kale.

Cut the leek or scallions into 1-inch bits, drop them in the milk and let simmer gently for about 8 minutes or until tender.

Mix the cabbage or kale with the potatoes and stir in the leeks or scallions and the milk they cooked in plus the mace or nutmeg and pepper to taste. Mix well but not so much as to make a uniform mass.

Reheat as necessary then place in a bowl, make a well in the center, melt the remaining butter and pour it in.

Sticky Date Pudding

This pudding is actually a cake, though called a pudding. It’s called Sticky Toffee Pudding and a favorite throughout Britain. Cakes made with dates have a long history there, but the luscious buttery sauce that turns a homely cake into an indulgent pudding is a relatively recent addition, variously attributed to chefs from the Lake District or Scotland as well as to Irish claimants. Whoever invented the sauce raised this cake to new heights.

1½ cups pitted dates (about 8 ounces), finely chopped

1 cup boiling water

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup granulated sugar

8 tablespoons (½ package or 4 ounces) unsalted Irish butter, softened

3 large eggs

1⅔ cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

Toffee Sauce:

1 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1 cup heavy cream

4 tablespoons (2 ounces) unsalted Irish butter, cut into pieces

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

Lightly whipped heavy cream

Heat the oven to 350 degrees and lightly spray a 9-inch springform pan with cooking spray; set aside.

In a bowl, combine the dates, boiling water and baking soda to soften dates; let stand until lukewarm.

In an electric-mixer bowl, beat together the sugar and butter until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt.

With a spatula, gently fold the flour mixture and the softened dates, including the water they have soaked in, until just blended.

Pour into the prepared pan, spreading the top to make it even. Place on a shallow baking pan; bake until top is slightly puffed and yields only slightly to the touch in the center — about 45 to 55 minutes

Cool in the pan on wire rack for 20 minutes. If necessary, run narrow knife along the side of pan to release the cake. Unclasp the fastener on the pan and carefully remove the rim leaving the cake to cool on the base. Continue cooling the cake until it is warm rather than hot.

Meanwhile, combine all sauce ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 5 minutes, without stirring.

Cut the cake into 12 wedges; spoon about 2 tablespoons warm sauce over the top and serve with whipped cream.