Most people don’t go out of their way for cuisine from the Emerald Isle.
Until, that is, mid-March, when everyone’s a wee bit Irish and looking to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by dining on culturally appropriate dishes. While corned beef may seem like the go-to St. Patty’s dinner, there are plenty of other tasty ways to create an Irish feast, minus the corned beef.
Last fall, Donna Olson, who lives near Lodi and is Irish by association, hosted a “half-way to Saint Patrick’s Day” party on Sept. 17. Because “if you’re Irish you want to celebrate more than one day a year.”
Her menu included Irish cheeses and smoked salmon pate as appetizers; Guinness Irish stew and shepherd’s pie made with lamb as main courses; and bread pudding with a hard sauce made with Bushmill’s Irish whiskey for dessert.
“It took me a week of planning and then I had to make sure I could find everything,” Olson said of preparing the dinner.
She was able to find all of her ingredients at Woodman’s and Whole Foods, including Cashel Blue and Kerrygold Dubliner cheeses. To drink she served various Irish beers and mead — a honey wine.
“They were real receptive,” she said of her guests’ response to the Irish meal. “There were a couple of them that had never had lamb before and they enjoyed it. It was a nice deviation from the corned beef.”
For the stew, Olson recommends cooking it the day before so the flavors have a chance to meld.
“The Guinness cooks out, but does give it a little bit more body to it,” she said.
Olson took several of her recipes from Margaret Johnson’s “The Irish Pub Cookbook,” and Johnson said the Guinness stew recipe is one of her favorites as well.
The Guinness gives the stew a rich flavor and color, she said via email. “I also make a similar version with lamb shanks, but braise them and then cook them with vegetables in Guinness.”
Colcannon (mashed potatoes with cabbage or kale) and boxty (potato cakes made with mashed potatoes and grated raw potatoes) also top her list of favorite Irish dishes.
Olson and others who enjoy cooking and eating Irish dishes say the food gets a bum rap.
People hear Irish food and immediately envision low-brow dishes featuring organ meat, said Chris Swenson, executive chef at Brocach Irish Pub on Monroe Street.
“I appreciate comfort food ... and there’s definitely something comforting in Irish food.”
Two popular — and comforting — dishes at Brocach are the shepherd’s pie made with chuck roll that’s been slow-cooked for five hours, and bangers and mash topped with spiced apples. Bangers are a pork sausage made with cracker meal — “it’s kind of the Irish brat,” Swenson said.
The dishes have a refined presentation — the piped-on mashed potatoes for the shepherd’s pie and the spiced apples for the bangers and mash certainly elevate people’s expectation when it comes to Irish food.
Still, plenty of people can’t resist corned beef and cabbage on March 17. That includes Michel McGettigan and her husband, Patrick, who are being honored this year as the Dane County Shamrock Club’s “Irish persons of the year.”
“My husband comes from a large Irish family,” Michel McGettigan said. “They always have corned beef and cabbage ... that has been their St. Patrick’s Day food of choice.”
Johnson, who has written eight cookbooks — with “Christmas Flavors of Ireland” coming out this summer — said corned beef and cabbage is an Irish-American interpretation of the traditional bacon and cabbage served in Ireland.
“The story goes that when Irish immigrants came to the United States and couldn’t find ‘boiling bacon’ they turned to corned beef, which they saw their Jewish neighbors (particularly in the Boston area) eating,” Johnson said. “Like bacon, the beef was cured and then boiled, so it became a suitable substitute.”
There’s no dispute, however, about the authenticity of McGettigan’s recipe for baked beans passed down from her great-grandmother.
The recipe uses great northern white beans, salt pork and white sugar, giving the beans a different look and flavor than the dark brown sugary taste of baked beans from a can, she said.
“That’s a recipe that really did come from Ireland,” she said. “I usually make it once a year for family get-togethers and picnics and stuff.”
And she’ll be making it this month to go with her corned beef.
McGettigan said cooking Irish food is “a way to carry on traditions in the family.” Plus, “it’s good food. Nobody turns it down.”