Margaret Johnson, 64, of West Hampton Beach, N.Y., knows that Irish food is not all corned beef and cabbage, and itís a lesson sheís determined to share with her grandchildren. The Irish-American journalism teacher turned cookbook author says that, in the United States, where people have come to expect Buffalo chicken wings and chicken fingers at Irish pubs, it can be hard to broaden the hearts and minds of Americans to see Irish food as anything beyond meager pub fair.
"It is very, very hard. I could almost end with that," says the grandmother of Robby, 13 months, and step-grandmother of Alec, 6, and Will, 4.
"I guess as in any culture, grandparents want to keep certain traditions alive in subsequent generations, so for me itís Irish heritage and cooking," she says. According to Johnson, Irish food is typically easy on the palate for young kids ó not overly spicy or filled with unusual flavors and textures. Stew is an ideal example of Irish food at its best: a hearty dish, perfect for late fall and winter, with recognizable ingredients like carrots and potatoes, so it is an easy meal for grandparents to serve their grandchildren. It is also simple to put together, a perfect indoor activity for a crisp fall day.
Johnsonís culinary journey through the Emerald Isle began in the 1990s, after she began to notice a culinary Renaissance in Ireland. She published two books there ó Ireland: Grand Places, Glorious Food (1993, Real Ireland Design LTD), a compilation of recipes from chefs at country houses and castles, and Cooking With Irish Spirits (1995, Interlink Pub Group Inc). She says the nineties were a time when Irish chefs came to appreciate their bounty of local products: "great beef, wonderful seafood, terrific lamb, and great produce," for example.
"Irish chefs used to go abroad to France, Italy, or Switzerland to learn to cook and they brought back the recipes and cooking styles of these countries," she says. "I think it was the rise of tourism to Ireland that prompted some of this along with an increased awareness of maintaining the culture" and chefs and home cooks began to revive more traditional dishes like leek and potato soup, Irish stew and creamy roast chicken with bacon and leeks.
After her big break in Ireland, Johnson has assumed the task of debunking Irish culinary myths in the United States such as "the Irish pub is just a place to get a Guinness and not a place to go and eatĒ and that Irish cuisine is more than meat and potatoes since "Ireland is an island and seafood is also an essential part of todayís Irish diet." The Long Island resident has written five cookbooks stateside: The Irish Heritage Cookbook (1999, Chronicle), The New Irish Table (2003, Chronicle), Irish Puddings, Tarts, Crumbles and Fools (2004, Chronicle), The Irish Pub Cookbook (2005, Chronicle), and The Irish Spirit (2006, Chronicle).
Her books focus on authentic Irish dishes and the use of Irelandís local ingredients with recipes for dishes such as mussels cooked in Guinness, fried St. Killian Cheese, green tomato tarte tatin, and prawns and bacon with mustard sauce.
But re-educating the public is a goal that takes a backseat to Johnsonís mission to pass on the wonder of Irish culinary traditions, especially Sunday dinner, to her grandchildren. She says "On Sundays, my daughter Kate, who lives five minutes away, comes over for a big Sunday dinner. I would hope that tradition will carry on with the kinds of foods I grew up with. I am trying to keep dining together alive, especially on Sunday."
Johnsonís Sunday dinners always involve traditional Irish food, including roasts, potatoes, and parsnips.
When her grandchildren grow old enough to help out in the kitchen, Johnson will start them off the way many other grandparents begin their cooking lessons: with cookies and scones and cake batters to mix. She may throw in the occasional soda bread, giving them a taste of Irish cooking and a chance to "get their hands all mucky!" But she really looks forward to teaching them to make traditional favorites like Irish stew, cottage pie, and shepherdís pie, all kid-friendly and all foods that recall her familyís homeland, dishes that will connect her grandkids to their heritage.
Irish Pub Stew
2 1/4 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 pound lamb neck bones
6 cups homemade chicken stock, canned low-sodium chicken broth, or 6 chicken bouillon cubes mixed with 6 cups boiling water
3 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch thick pieces
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons minced fresh herbs, such as tarragon, marjoram, and rosemary
2 small onions, sliced
2 to 3 stalks celery, thickly sliced
2 leeks (white part only), washed and chopped
4 to 5 carrots, peeled and thickly sliced
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Minced fresh flat-leaf parsley for garnish
1. In a stockpot or large saucepan over medium heat, combine the lamb, bones, and stock or broth. Bring to a boil and skim off any foam that rises to the top. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook for 60 to 70 minutes, or until the meat is tender.
2. Add the potatoes, thyme, bay leaves, and herbs, return to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, uncovered, for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are nearly tender. Add the onions, celery, leeks, and carrots and simmer for another 30 minutes. Uncover and cook for 15 to 20 minutes longer, or until the vegetables are tender and the stock has thickened. Season with salt and pepper.
3. To serve, ladle the stew into shallow bowls, sprinkle with parsley, and serve with a soda bread/or thick slab of corn bread,with lots of butter.