* To most people, Ireland may not seem a land of plenty, but it does to me. I first visited Dublin in 1947, when in my English homeland even bread and potatoes were rationed. The generous spread of meat, potatoes and terminate composition hearty puddings that appeared at every Irish meal exactly suited my 10-year-old tastes. Butter in unlimited quantities often came directly from the farm. The healthful properties of green vegetables were not even mentioned and I was allowed both sausages and bacon with egg for breakfast.
That must be when I first had Irish stew -- a dish that is easy to make and easy to spoil as well. Only three ingredients are obligatory -- lamb, potatoes and onions (or, in this recipe, leeks). They are layered in a deep dish with water, salt and pepper, then simmered or baked in the oven. A good Irish stew is rich and creamy with potatoes that dissolve to thicken the sauce. The top is an agreeable brown and the meat falls from the bones. Undercooked, the stew is pallid and soupy, the meat too chewy to enjoy; overcooked, it is drab and tasteless.
The meat is obviously an important factor. Irish stew was developed for mutton, so that mature lamb with big bones and dark meat is best. Neck is the traditional cut -- lean with a good proportion of bone -- but you can also include some riblets. Shoulder chops can be used to add more meat, but be sure to trim as much fat as possible. As for potatoes, a good cook closely duplicates the famous floury Irish kind.
Fish is also an Irish staple, a fact I did not appreciate until I was in my teens when I got to know the Dublin Bay prawns, the splendid salmon, the river trout that arrived on my plate within an hour of being hooked. Once a shoal of mackerel came into the loch and we caught so many of the glittering, slippery things that the villagers refused to accept them as gifts.
Herring and mackerel are underrated, partly I think because their oily flesh can be strong. Cooking them in a souse, a mixture of vinegar with onion and spices, gives the right balance of acidity and has the additional advantage of softening the tiny fine bones that so often get overlooked when the fish is filleted. In this recipe the fish fillets are quite highly spiced with mustard, allspice, pepper and bay leaf as well as salt. The fillets are rolled so they cook evenly and are easy to serve. This is a dish that benefits from a two- or three-day rest in the refrigerator. A souse, after all, is a pickling mixture, intended to preserve as well as flavor the fish.
It is remarkable what Irish cooks contrive with few ingredients. Soda bread, a close relation to our cornbread, is made only with whole wheat or regular flour, salt and buttermilk. It is raised with baking soda and like cornbread it used to be baked on a griddle, or in a covered Dutch oven in the embers of the fire. However, where cornbread is sweet with a crumbly texture, soda bread is crusty, with a slightly sour taste all its own. Soda bread is invariably baked in a round loaf about two inches thick, with a floured surface scored deeply into wedges. Quick to mix (five minutes should suffice), it is best made at the last moment and baked at quite a high temperature so the crust is crisp.
Tipsy cake -- what a way to end an Irish lunch. But memory failed until I looked in "Good Things in English" by Florence White (London: Jonathan Cape), a collection made in 1932 of recipes dating to medieval times. Tipsy cake is a version of trifle in which cake (preferably stale) is soaked in a mixture of liquor (Irish I've included a quick version called Tipsy Pudding, as well as a time-consuming complete version for the cake.
This charming 18th-century recipe, tipsy cake, is shaped like a hedgehog, complete with almond spines. The custard, a mix of pastry cream and whipped cream, is spooned around the animal in a billowing sea of golden grass. The notion would surely have pleased St. Patrick, whose day arrives so soon on March 17.
With an Irish lunch must come an Irish libation of stout, porter, Guinness or some other dark beer, with a lighter ale for the less stout-hearted. A glass of Irish Mist would no doubt be popular, served as a liqueur, or mixed in a stemmed glass with hot coffee and topped with whipped cream as Ireland's toast -- Irish coffee. TIMETABLE
With no last-minute preparation of any kind and only one dish to reheat, this menu lets the cook relax away from the stove. To reduce the workload even further, you can substitute Quick Tipsy Pudding for the Tipsy Cake.
Up to three days ahead: Cook soused fish and refrigerate. Make Irish stew and refrigerate also. Bake sponge cake.
One day ahead: Soak tipsy cake, prepare custard and keep in refrigerator.
Up to three hours before serving: Bake soda bread. Set the table. Finish tipsy cake or make tipsy pudding and keep in refrigerator.
One hour before serving: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Reheat Irish stew in oven.
Five minutes before serving: Warm soda bread in oven. SOUSED HERRING OR MACKEREL (10 servings) Small sea trout are a wonderful substitute if mackerel or herring are unavailable. 10 fresh herring or mackerel, 3/4 to 1 pound each, filleted but not skinned 1 teaspoon dry mustard 1 teaspoon ground allspice 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 1 teaspoon sugar 5 bay leaves, broken into quarters 1 1/4 cups cider or white wine vinegar 1 1/4 cups water, more if needed 1 carrot, thinly sliced 2 medium onions, thinly sliced
Rinse fillets and dry on paper towels. Mix mustard, allspice, salt, pepper and sugar and rub into cut side of fish. Roll fillets, starting from tail, and insert a quarter bay leaf. Pack rolls tightly in a baking dish.
Pour the vinegar and water over fish and scatter with carrot and onion slices. Add more water if necessary to just cover fish. Cover dish and bake until fish flakes easily, 1 to 1 1/4 hours, in a 325-degree oven. Let fish cool, then chill.
Soused herring or mackerel is best kept 2-3 days in the refrigerator before eating. Serve it chilled, in the dish in which it was cooked. IRISH STEW (10 servings)
In this recipe, leeks can be replaced by 2 pounds onions; be sure to choose the pungent yellow type. 4 to 5 pounds neck, ribs or shoulder chops of lamb, cut in 1 1/2-inch pieces 3 pounds leeks 9 pounds potatoes, peeled and thickly sliced Salt and pepper to taste 2 quarts water, more if necessary
Trim meat of sinew, leaving bones and a little fat for richness. Trim leeks, leaving some green top, split lengthwise and wash thoroughly. Cut into 3/8-inch slices.
Spread a layer of potatoes in a deep baking dish or shallow casserole. Sprinkle with seasoning and add a layer of meat followed by a layer of leeks, sprinkling each layer with seasoning. Continue adding layers until all ingredients are used, ending with a layer of potatoes. Arrange the top layer neatly, overlapping the slices. Pour in water, adding more if necessary to just cover top layer of potatoes.
Cover dish tightly with foil or a lid. Cook in a 325-degree oven until potatoes and meat are almost tender when pierced with a two-pronged fork, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. During cooking, add more water if the pan gets dry.
Remove lid and continue cooking until top of stew is lightly browned and meat is very tender, about one hour. The finished stew should be moist and creamy but not soupy.
Irish stew can be made up to 3 days ahead and kept in the refrigerator. Reheat it, covered, in a 350-degree oven for 30-40 minutes.
Tip: Lamb shanks can be cooked in an Irish stew, but have the butcher cut them in 2 or 3 slices. SODA BREAD (Makes 2 8-inch round loaves)
To this basic recipe all sorts of additions can be made, as suggested below. Butter for baking sheet 8 cups whole wheat flour plus extra for kneading 1 tablespoon salt 1 tablespoon baking soda 1 quart buttermilk, more if needed Grease a baking sheet.
Sift flour with salt and baking soda into a bowl and make a well in the center. Add buttermilk and stir, gradually drawing in the flour to make a smooth dough. While mixing, add more buttermilk if necessary so the dough is soft and slightly sticky. Note: do not overwork the dough or the bread will be hard.
Divide dough in half and, working on a heavily floured board, shape into round loaves. Transfer loaves to prepared baking sheet and flatten them until about 2 inches thick. Deeply score each loaf into quarters with a knife, and brush off any excess flour.
Bake in a 400-degree oven until bread sounds hollow when tapped, 30-35 minutes. Soda bread is best eaten while still warm, but it can be made up to 3 hours ahead and reheated in a low oven just before serving. VARIATIONS
For crumbly soda bread, rub 1/4 cup butter into flour before adding buttermilk. To make molasses soda bread, melt 1/4 cup dark molasses in the buttermilk and let cool before adding to flour. Stir 2 tablespoons sugar into flour. For a raisin soda bread, add 3/4 cup dark raisins to plain or molasses soda bread. HEDGEHOG TIPSY CAKE (10 servings) For children, omit the liquor from this recipe. Sponge cake (recipe below) 3/4 cup apricot jam 1 to 2 tablespoons, plus 1/4 cup water 1 cup orange juice 1/2 cup Irish whiskey or rum 2 ounces semisweet chocolate, grated or chocolate sprinkles 1/2 cup slivered almonds, toasted FOR THE CUSTARD CREAM: 1 1/2 cups milk 1 vanilla bean or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla 4 egg yolks 3 tablespoons sugar 1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch Butter for brushing custard 1 cup whipping cream, stiffly whipped
One day ahead, cut sponge cake into a 5-inch strip, leaving two crescent-shaped pieces. Put strip on wide platter with rim. Melt apricot jam with 1 to 2 tablespoons water, sieve it and brush strip with melted jam. Set crescents cut sides down on top of strip to cover it. Trim cake to an oval, pointing one end to resemble a hedgehog's nose. Reserve remaining jam.
Combine orange juice, 1/4 cup water and whiskey or rum. Pour over cake, cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. Baste cake from time to time until all liquid is absorbed.
For custard cream: scald milk with vanilla bean, if using, cover and leave to infuse 10 minutes. Meanwhile beat egg yolks with sugar until thickened and light and stir in cornstarch. Stir in hot milk and return mixture to pan. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly until the custard thickens. Cook it 1 minute, then take from heat and discard vanilla bean, or add vanilla extract if using. Transfer custard to a bowl and rub surface with butter to prevent a skin forming. Cover with plastic wrap and leave to cool. Custard can be made up to 24 hours ahead and refrigerated.
To finish: Mop any liquid from around edge of hedgehog. Brush hedgehog completely with apricot jam and press on chocolate until evenly coated. Stick slivered almonds into cake as spines, angling them backwards from the head.
To finish custard: Beat custard with a whisk until smooth. Fold in whipped cream and pile custard cream around the hedgehog. The finished dish can be kept up to 3 hours in refrigerator before serving. SPONGE CAKE (Makes one 9-inch sponge cake)
Butter for pan
1 1/2 cups flour plus extra for pan
Pinch of salt
1 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon vanilla
Butter and flour a 9-inch springform pan. Sift flour with salt.
Beat eggs, sugar and vanilla at high speed until a ribbon forms when the beater is lifted. Gently fold in the flour and salt. Note: do not overfold or you will deflate the mixture.
Pour batter into prepared pan and bake in a 350-degree oven until cake has shrunk slightly from sides of pan and top springs back when touched, 40-45 minutes. Remove cake from pan and set on rack to cool. Sponge cake can be stored in an airtight container for three days. QUICK TIPSY PUDDING
Use the same ingredient quantities as for tipsy cake and the finished custard cream and sponge cake in the preceding recipes.
To make the tipsy pudding, cut sponge cake horizontally in half and sandwich with apricot jam. Cut cake in 1 1/2-inch cubes and set it in serving bowl. Pour over orange juice-liquor mixture, cover and refrigerate, basting occasionally until liquid is absorbed. Just before serving, sprinkle chocolate over cake and spoon custard cream on top. Stud cream with toasted almonds.