No More Soggy Cabbage: Ireland is reinventing its dining scene

St. Patrick’s Day is here again, but if you simply can’t face the prospect of another holiday dinner of stringy corned beef and mushy cabbage, you’re not alone. The Irish themselves are breaking out of the culinary traditions that have kept their food best described as overcooked and bland; today’s young and creative Irish chefs are tweaking the classics and using old ideas to forge new ground. The result has been dubbed “New Irish” cuisine, and it’s transformed Dublin and other spots in the Emerald Isle into culinary destinations worthy of inclusion on any foodie’s tour of Europe.

That’s not always been the case, as many know. For centuries, Irish food, like its English and Scottish counterparts, had a reputation as being, well, not very good. “For the first 10 years I was doing this shop, people griped about the food there,” said Maura Lawlor, owner of the Kerry Cottage, about Ireland’s fare.

Aidan Murphy, a native of Ireland and executive chef at Old Warson Country Club, agreed. “Ireland was not quite a Third World country, but it was a poor country,” he explained. “There wasn’t a lot of money to spend on food, so they did simple food. But it wasn’t that good; a lot of it was overcooked.”

That poor economy was also the reason that the fare remained uninspired for decades, if not centuries. Unable to find work in their native land, the elements needed to sustain a thriving restaurant culture – talented chefs and diners willing and able to spend money for good food – were driven out of the country in search of jobs. “I left to get better at this profession,” said Murphy, who has been in St. Louis for 15 years. “And back then, the chefs who left didn’t come back.”

But these days, Ireland is enjoying one of the strongest economies in Europe, and as a result, “the young people are staying,” Lawlor said. As the economy steadily grew over the past 10 years, chefs who left to be trained in Europe’s culinary centers returned to open restaurants and cooking schools; diners, who now have the financial ability to eat out, have responded enthusiastically.

So, too, have Lawlor and Murphy, who each travel to Ireland once a year. Both report that the cuisine has indeed undergone a transformation at the hands of some capable and creative chefs. “The food is fabulous over there now; they’ve spiced everything up,” Lawlor said. “If people haven’t been there in a while and they’re still griping, I say, ‘You can’t do that anymore – it’s so different; it’s so good!’”

This revamped Irish cuisine is both new and not so new. It’s based on simple, hearty dishes and the high-quality ingredients so abundant in Ireland, including salmon, pork, lamb, dairy, fresh produce and farmhouse cheeses – elements that have always been a part of the country’s culinary heritage. But today’s chefs are tweaking the classics with modern touches and, perhaps most importantly, are applying the masterful touch of proper technique. It makes sense. After all, Irish cuisine was never really bad, just badly prepared –
underseasoned, overcooked, boiled to a pulp, fried to a greasy crisp.

“From a chef’s point of view, food is food,” Murphy said. “It’s how we take care of it that’s important, from when we get it to when we serve it. You have to handle it correctly – buy the freshest ingredients, cook it properly. Ireland has always had good food – great seafood, great lamb, the produce is absolutely incredible – but now Irish chefs are using them properly.”

As an example, he mentions an Irish “stew” he had during his last trip home. Instead of an overboiled mush of lamb and vegetables, the dish that arrived was a rack of lamb served atop a bed of the requisite vegetables and broth; a classic Irish dish redefined ever so slightly, beautifully prepared and innovatively presented.

“It knocks it to the next level,” Murphy said. “They’re using traditional foods, but they’re incorporating them into things in new ways – like black pudding. Growing up, we considered that to be a breakfast food; now they’re incorporating it into main courses.”

New Irish cuisine hasn’t appeared in local restaurants yet, but don’t let that stop you from applying its principles to your own St. Patrick’s Day dinner. At the very least, consider substituting another Irish classic for the been-there-done-that corned beef this year. Irish fare has always had many dishes to offer, so why limit yourself to just the corned beef – a dish that is not, by the way, technically Irish. (Both Murphy and Lawlor noted that it is in fact American, the corned beef standing in for the Irish version’s boiled bacon in order to better suit American tastes.)

Lawlor suggested that you try traditional Irish stew or simple lamb chops served with colcannon. For a twist, she also suggested serving a traditional Irish breakfast for dinner.

“I love having breakfast for dinner,” she said. Lawlor serves afternoon tea and a traditional Irish breakfast at Mary Brendan Tea Shop inside the Kerry Cottage; customers may purchase scones, brown bread, authentic Irish bangers (sausages) and rashers (Irish bacon) to re-create the meal at home. “You’d simply add your own eggs, cooked any style, and serve some sliced tomatoes,” she said. “It’s the meal you’d be served in any Irish B&B.”

But if you must have corned beef, take a cue from today’s young Irish chefs. Murphy noted that, if done properly, corned beef and cabbage can be a great meal. In fact, he serves it to club members every year for St. Patrick’s Day. It’s all about the quality of ingredients and the method of cooking; Murphy’s version is a good example of the new cuisine’s small tweaks to old favorites. “Start with a nicer piece of beef and corn it yourself; we corn a prime rib,” he said. “The cabbage is cooked separately from the beef, in broth. And we serve it with a parsley-horseradish sauce.”

It’s a classic dish, ever so slightly updated and beautifully prepared – you’d be hard-pressed to find more authentic (New) Irish cuisine.