Irish Food

When I was in Barbados, I promised an Irishman with whom we were drinking Mount Gay rum that I would report back to the people of Vermont that Irish food is underappreciated. I tell you now: Irish food is underappreciated. I have never myself been to Ireland, nor had Irish food prepared by an actual Irish person, I’m taking his word for it. I am however the daughter of a man whose family is from Maine by way of Slovakia, so I have a soft spot in my heart for cuisines that can get creative with potatoes and cabbage. Let’s take a walk down the lane of interesting Irish or “Irish” food ideas. I am not saying this is an authentic study of Irish food culture, I am saying that when you take a premise like “Irish food is awesome” and search around for corroborating evidence, you turn up tasty dishes:

  • The first stop is going to be Slow Food. If I had much seaweed / foraging area along the Irish coast at my disposal, I would make side dishes from the Slow Food Ireland site (particularly the rhubarb & bladderwrack scones) or from this seaweed UK list. If you don’t think that seaweed is a super-awesome way to open a claim of delicious cuisine, you can listen to this Gastropod episode and get excited.

 

We should agree that in the “presence of an ocean” food contest, Ireland wins (at least over Vermont). What about use of potatoes?  

  • The Daily Spud Blog - If you ever need a recipe for potatoes (ever, in any context) I’ve known for a while now that the Daily Spud Blog is the place to go.

  • Potato Fudge - The classic potato candy is, of course, the Maine Needham - but potato fudge is easier to make. This recipe calls for mashed potatoes, although really you need to rice them (or push them through a colander with a rubber spatula). I like my fudge with minced candied orange peel and walnuts.  

  • Potato drop biscuit - If you need anything to soak up the broth of a lamb or beef stew, reach for these.

  • Boxty - not only a good Scrabble work if you need something short yet impressive, it’s sort of a potato pancake, but more pancake-y than a latke - sometimes called a potato scone. Boxty can go with an Irish breakfast. The people of the United Kingdom know the meaning of “full breakfast”. It’s the sort of thing that Vice’s food section would write about and lo and behold they did in this 2016 article on an Irish pub breakfast.

I’m not going to concede that Ireland does potatoes better than Slovakia, and it’s hard to think about potatoes and not give credit to Quebec and Poutine, and those folks in Maine with the Needhams. . . not to mention, you know, Peru  - which gave us all potatoes to begin with (cue another Gastropod podcast - on potatoes). Maybe it’s not a contest, maybe we can simply stand with the people of Ireland in insisting that there’s nothing amiss in building a menu on the strength of potato.

What about another international food for which everyone seems to have a different answer - ways to use up sort of stale bread. It’s an important facet of every cuisine that serves bread. You might think that New Orleans is an obvious winner with its bread pudding enthusiasm. Okay, maybe they are, but let me suggest an alternative: the humble gur cake

  • Gur Cake This dessert combines tea-soaked bread with dried fruit and bakes it in pastry, and has plenty of room for variation. Like using dried pears and some blackberry jam in with the concoction. Or throwing some orange zest and ginger root in when brewing the tea, amping up the spices a smidge, and topping the final pastry with drizzles of basic icing. Maple syrup is obviously a good addition. So is whiskey. I use the Milk Street pie crust designed not to shrink for my top and bottom in this recipe.   

  • While you’re trying stale bread desserts that aren’t bread pudding, check out this variation on Egyptian Palace Bread - not Irish, but I’ve been craving it recently.

And of course we still haven’t touched the lens through which more cuisines ought to be considered - cooking with beer. I’m surprised that Guinness doesn’t have more recipes on their site, but what they do have includes lobster. Perhaps they don’t need to expand the official suggestions because so many others have compiled compelling unofficial recipes lists, like these from Real Simple (it starts with onion rings & stout gravy), BuzzFeed (including beeramisu), and the BBC (which reminded me that I like rarebit). My Guinness-braised chicken recipe is linked here.

Plus a few little tidbit food items that I enjoy:

  • Fried Dandelion Blossoms

  • Whiskey Cured Salmon - okay, okay, this recipe is for sazerac salmon, but Irish whiskey also works.

  • Speaking of Irish whiskey, I’m pretty sure Paddy is getting hip . . .and if it isn’t, it should. I’ve appreciated this whiskey ever since I went to a wine tasting and asked the wine shop’s owner if he had anything a bit stronger, and he pulled a bottle of Paddy from the bottom drawer of his desk and poured me a wineglassful.

  • Oat Cakes - I do not know the relationship between oat cakes and English digestive biscuits, but surely they are related and they are both a great reason to eat Dubliner cheese.

Phew. Now. There's a start. Consider all the additional specialties you could be introduced to by an actual Irish person, or even someone who had once visited Ireland! I’ve done the best I can by this cuisine and there’s an Irishman somewhere out there living in Haiti and occasionally visiting Barbados who owes me another drink.

Convenience Foods

This is the fifth of five posts that get all food travelogue-y about Barbados, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, and Grenada. The previous posts were “Return from the Windward Islands” “Coconut Drops from Carriacou” “St. Vincent and the Grenadines” and “More Fruits in Heaven and Earth.  . .

I’ve been thinking about convenience foods. Partially, I’ve been thinking about it because I wrote an article on TV dinners for the newest Local Banquet and partially because it drives me around the bend when people use the phrase “convenience food” to mean “terrible food that you should be ashamed to feed your children” and largely because I read a description once of Spanish missionaries arriving in what is now Mexico in the 1500’s and finding streets full of vendors with all manner of what we’d call tamales* for sale as takeout. That last idea has lodged in my imagination, much like the fruit descriptions from the last post.

[*If they had been eating tacos I would have been able to link this thematically appropriate article from the Smithsonian - but tacos are a recent invention. Thus, linked in a footnote]

Convenience foods are. . . convenient. Somewhere we (and by “we” I mean “liberal Vermonters”) developed a negative moral judgement around convenience - which, granted, the behavior of many fast food chains helped reinforce, and for some of us Fast Food Nation was published about the same time we started fending for ourselves as adults setting our own food rules, thus impeding our ability to enjoy fast food hamburgers ever again. Getting judge-y around using convenience really is a self-generating moral quagmire because convenience foods have for thousands of years been associated with working classes and, well. . .  tamales are still delicious.

This bigger point is that convenience foods and takeout foods have a centuries (millennia, even) old pedigree that far predates McDonald’s - and it’s not entirely Americans who set the agenda in this field, even today. I’ve mentioned Icelandic hot dogs and South African bunny chow before, and now let me speak the word “roti”.

A roti is a flatbread originating in India, and as it has traveled across the globe it has evolved to mean a wrap around a meal of curried items. I realize that “curried items” covers a huge range of possible interpretations - but that’s correct, we’re talking about a huge range of possible interpretations. The rotis I had in St. Vincent were filled with either conch, fish, or lobster. In nearby Trinidad they apparently get even more creative  (I may fly to Trinidad some day just to taste their rotis). And then there were the Chefette rotis in Barbados.

Chefette is a chain of fast food restaurants with solidly good-tasting food. They’re a Barbados company, founded in 1972. Everyone we talked to -- from the cab driver to the founder of the Bridgetown food tour -- adored Chefette. I’m sure it’s not universal. I’m sure that, just as you can find someone in Vermont who will disparage the local maple creamie stand, you can find people in Barbados speaking ill of Chefette, but nonetheless eating there felt like we were rooting for the hometown team against KFC and Burger King (and did you know that KFC is a major pro cricket sponsor? Something I learned while sitting at a Barbados bar eating Chefette rotis and watching sports TV). I particularly liked the Chefette beef and potato rotis, with a mild-yet-not-insipid curry flavor, tender meat, and potatoes cooked to soft yet not mushy, and the roti wrapper tasted somewhere between the soft, flour-y rotis I know and a crepe - and how do that you quality control that dish in a fast food snack bar system that’s on every corner? The potatoes alone - the texture was perfect, I’d be happy just to know the potato secret.

Anyhow. Chefette proves two things that I’ve long believed: 1. The roti is the most brilliant fast food ever* and 2. screw McDonald’s**! Which doesn’t have outlets in Barbados.

[*It tastes great and also its packaging (the roti) is edible. Want to hear about wild stuff happening in edible packaging? Here’s a podcast on that very topic]

[**Except when McDonald’s is doing things like creating massive demand for meat to be antibiotic free and eggs to be cage free, in which case, yay McDonald’s! And, McDonald’s, I thank you in advance for figuring out a way to popularize veggie burgers, since surely your food technicians can produce the same Big Mac taste without ground beef, and you can find a hot shot marketing person to invent a way to sell it. Yes there is an article to link on that topic too - it’s about junk food ending obesity - I told you at the beginning I’ve been thinking a lot about convenience foods]

 

The next questions is - naturally - how can we make these foods from scratch at home, thus making them much less convenient.

I’ll defer to better home-cooked roti experts first with these two recipes:

If you want to experiment at home. . . the filling could be anything curried, usually with potatoes. You could even maintain the convenience spirit and get curry in a can / premade sauces. Here is the most recent recipe I made, a sort-of-Asiany fish that I wrapped up with yogurt-braised potatoes in a coconut "roti" (see below). 

  • 2 Tb Ginger Paste (or very finely minced ginger - when I get a big ginger root I puree it in the food processor and then freeze it by the tablespoonful in trays made from plastic Pete & Gerry’s egg cartons)
  • 2 Tb Green Curry Paste
  • ½ an Onion
  • Juice of 1 small lime
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 Tb canola oil
  • 1 hot red chile seeds and membrane removed (optional)

Puree all these in a food processor, then blend in about ¼ cup of water (to make it a marinade)

Cut about 1.5 pounds of a white fleshed fish fillet (cod, catfish, etc.) into bite sized chunks and marinate it in the marinade, in the fridge, for about 2 hours.

In a large skillet, heat a few tablespoons of canola oil, then gently cook the fish chunks until they’re about cooked through (this will depend on how large they are). Towards the end, add enough of any extra marinade to be sure the final fish are coated in it.

 

For the roti, I recently stumbled on this delicious option. In a mixing bowl, mix up

  • 1/2 cup rice flour
  • 2 1/2 cups regular flour
  • 1 egg (lightly beaten)
  • 1 can of full fat coconut milk
  • However much hot water you need (if any) to make a very soft dough.

Knead gently just until it holds together in a smooth dough. Put in a greased bowl, covered, and leave out 12 hours. Then break the dough into pieces the size of a clementine, roll thin, and cook in a hot skillet until browned on each side.

More Fruits in Heaven and Earth . . .

The fourth post in the notes from the Caribbean series. 

I’m not going to say that Vermont lacks in produce diversity (we’ve got a lot of different apples, that much I know), but it’s one, relatively cold, bit of the world. The world beyond my home is huge and full of food. Adam Leith Gollner gives a hint of the possibility in the introduction to his book The Fruit Hunters:

 

. . . Our whole planet is brimming with fruits that are inaccessible, ignored, and even forbidden. There are mangoes that taste like pina coladas. Orange cloudberries. White blueberries. Blue apricots. Red lemons. Golden raspberries. Prink cherimoyas. Willy Wonka’s got nothing on Mother Nature. The diversity is dizzying: most of us have never heard of the Araçá, but Amazonian fruit authorities say there are almost as many types of this yellow-green guava relative as there are beaches in Brazil. Within the tens of thousands of edible plant species, there are hundreds of thousands of varieties - -and new ones are continually evolving. Magic beans, sundrops, cannonballs, delicious monsters, zombi apples, gingerbread plums, swan egg pears, Oaxacan trees of little skulls, Congo goobers, slow-match fruits, candle fruits, bastard cherries, bignays, belimbings, bilimbis and biribas. As Hamlet might’ve said: “There are more fruits in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”.

 

I can get my hands on wonderful ingredients that provide a taste of far off places - dried Sumac, canned Amarillo pepper sauce, Sichuan peppercorns, mastic, real Champagne. But produce? I’m not even sure I know what a pecan tastes like, since I’m 90% certain that what I’m eating up here does not taste like what I ate one summer in the pecan groves of Louisiana (although there’s an equal chance that the Drive Through Daquiri stands affected my perceptions for the entire four day trip). And pecans can’t be that difficult to ship. I’ve stalked the “Winter Market Digest” from Los Angeles’ KCRW and I seriously doubt I know what a good orange tastes like, to say nothing of the pink cherimoya. Plus, it’s really really hard, even impossible, to recreate the complexity of these fruits and vegetables. Flavorists have been trying it since 1851. You can see how they’re doing by sampling a box of Jelly Bellies.  

 

I wanted to try lots of fresh produce when I was in the Caribbean. I do seem to always pick a time of year that is not peak harvest, however. One day I will synchronize my vacations appropriately. Some of what wasn’t in season, I found in other forms. . . like Golden Apple Ice Cream. Golden Apples are not apples in this context - they look like little papayas (according to photographs) - and the ice cream tasted like very concentrated watermelon. I also found out that fruits I know to be very sweet in their familiar non-fresh forms (e.g. juices) are pretty darn tart in their unadorned state - passion fruit is in this camp, although very fun to scoop out of the shell with a spoon. It did not bother me that the insides looked like yellow frog’s eggs. Honest.

 

Here are three produce items of note, with recipes:

 

Callaloo

 

I took a keen interest in determining the best callaloo soup in the Windward Islands. It turned out to be at Coco’s, the restaurant that claimed to have the best callaloo soup in the first place, which was a surprisingly straightforward answer. “Callaloo” means different varieties of dark greens depending on where you are in the world, here it meant the leaves of amaranth or taro bush.

 

I attempted to recreate the flavor of callaloo soup at home, and while I didn’t get it spot on, I did make a tasty modified spinach soup that gets you closer:

 

Spinach Soup Reminiscent of Callaloo

In a medium saucepan combine:

  • ¾ cup small chopped Jerusalem artichoke / sunchoke

  • 2 Tb dried Nettle leaves (bulk spice section of co-ops, or in with teas / health foods)

  • ¾ cup water

  • 1 tsp salt

Cover and simmer for 10 minutes, then add:
 

  • 12 oz fresh spinach

  • 1 can of full fat coconut milk

Cover and simmer another 10 minutes, until spinach is all wilted and the chokes are soft.

In a blender / food processor / with an immersion blender puree the saucepan contents with

  • 2 tsp curry powder

  • ⅛ tsp Cayenne pepper

  • salt to taste (around 1 tsp)

  • 2 Tb Cream (omit to make vegan)

Breadfruit

The breadfruit I saw growing were the size of petite watermelons, the fancy kind that they have at the farmers’ market, except these grow on trees. Which strikes me as dangerous, but this is also a place where coconuts grow, so I suppose people are used to being attacked by large and heavy fruit. As the name implies, breadfruit is starchy. It first came to St. Vincent and the Grenadines as an option for feeding slaves cheaply. The Mutiny on the Bounty, in fact, was caused by breadfruit - Captain Bligh's men went ashore in Tahiti on a breadfruit collecting expedition and intra-ship relations deteriorated soon thereafter. This history is both indicative of what was happening along those trade routes, and also of the fact that breadfruit is astoundingly good in both nutrition and yields - the horticulturists got that part right. The national dish of St. Vincent today is roasted breadfruit with fried jackfish. Also, there’s a Breadfruit Festival during Emancipation Month (August) every year. The advertisements for this festival promise that “The dishes include but are not limited to breadfruit cheese pie, breadfruit puff, pizza, lasagna, breadsticks, quiche, sweet and sour candy (blossom). There are also breadfruit drinks available.”

Breadfruit is a sort of blank palette, cuisine-wise. I had salt roasted breadfruit at Auberge Grenadines and topped it with the rum and peppercorn gravy that the beef came in and, let me tell you, the starchy fruit covered with that rich delicious gravy was delicious. Japanese Sweet Potatoes give a sort of similar sense of dry starchiness with a hint of sweet. However, the breadfruit has a different texture inside - I looked up botannically how to describe it, but trust me it’s complicated, so just picture how a pineapple is textured inside - like that. When you plan to smother a dry roasted starchy fruit in gravy, you want this texture to catch the gravy up. I could not get my Japanese Sweet Potatoes to behave in the same way. I’ve also learned that while there are whole campaigns to transform breadfruit with preparations like rum & peppercorn gravy, there is no campaign to turn other produce into something like breadfruit so that you can then turn around and transform it back into something delicious.  

Soursop

Oh how I love soursop. It wasn’t technically in season when I visited but it was good enough for me. It’s a big soft ugly fruit. Inside the thick green skin you’ll find white flesh with black seeds, like a watermelon seed perfectly formed for spitting but ten times larger. Yes it’s sour but it’s not acidic* or tart. Also yes, acidic and tart are subsets of the taste “sour”. Think of a sour flavor, then think of fruits that don’t have that tartness - roasted pears, for example. The flavor was mild, but on the very ripe mango end of the tropical fruit spectrum. It’s the texture, though, that really got me. I’m going to tell you it’s like eating BBQ with your hands - the way the meat falls apart and juice runs down your arm and it’s so satisfying - and you’re going to think I’m ridiculous. But I’m not. Soursop is often marketed as similar to jackfruit and jackfruit, my friends, is a trendy vegan meat substitute because of it’s texture. So it’s not just me.

Soursop might not be easy to get around here but you can find canned green jackfruit for vegan meat experiments. I first encountered such a recipe with the vegan fish sticks in Justin Warner’s The Laws of Cooking And How to Break Them. It’s mainstream now and we know this because Splendid Table did a segment on jackfruit, and it comes with recipes.

*According to the Internet, where a bunch of people are worried about acidic foods in their diets, a soursop is slightly alkaline and far less acidic than something like a strawberry. I believe that Wikipedia’s soursop entry is wrong about this issue and if I knew how to correct it, I would.

A Note On Carriacou Botanical Gardens

While wandering the Windward Islands looking for fruits to eat, we naturally wandered into the botanical gardens in Carriacou - which the tourist guides listed as a major attraction currently undergoing repairs. "Undergoing" might have been optimistic.

I don’t know that it will be a tragedy if this particular botanical garden is never again tended to, but it still felt sad. Pause to imagine: these islands were a doorway between two very different botanical worlds. Transatlantic currents, and the prevailing winds, put early ships from Europe into the southern Caribbean, carrying plants to and fro. Pretty quickly, land was transformed into sugar plantations and monoculture. There’s amazing diversity. There’s diversity collapse. More broadly, as two hemispheres mingled, tomatoes met onions and there was sauce. Apples met pecans and a great pie rivalry was formed. Bananas met peanuts and Elvis got his favorite snack. Vanilla met coffee met cacao and eventually we had frappes. Someone invented rum. And one day it too was added to frappes. Everyone learned about maple syrup. There were plants that aren’t food - there were textiles, medicines, and many beautiful flowers. There were also invasive plants and species extinction. The humans building commerce around these plants opened Pandora’s box - and I mean that in the classical sense of all the world’s evils being released. Remember the Garden of Eden? That didn’t end very well, either. There’s discovery and wonder and greed and evil and chocolate - I’m not a botanist but the need for history-rich gardens feels compelling.