St. Patrick’s Day is approaching, and that means a celebration of all things Irish. With more than 36 million Americans claiming Irish ancestry, the traditions of the old country have been kept alive in the New World…with a few notable changes. Like Italian immigrants to America, most Irish immigrants were poor and moved to the United States for a chance at a better life. In America, they found foods such as beef—an impossibly expensive luxury back on the Emerald Isle—in abundance; for a people scarred by the ravages of the Great Irish Famine, the well-stocked larders of Boston, New York, Chicago, New Orleans and other American cities must have been a revelation.
For a variety of historical reasons, the Irish had come to depend heavily on the potato by the mid-19th century. Fresh meat was almost unheard of in the Irish diet, as nearly all Irish beef was sold for export to English cities; what little meat the Irish had came in the form of pork which was invariably cured to provide sustenance during the winter months. When a potato blight struck Irish fields in 1845, the country’s staple crop turned to mush in the soil. The blight, combined with an array of oppressive policies from London, caused the Irish to starve in their millions, even as the few unspoiled fruits of the Irish soil were loaded onto ships destined for British markets. An Irish political firebrand wrote at the time, “The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.”
Desperate and destitute, Irish emigrants crowded aboard ships in ports such as Cobh, hoping to find a second chance in the New World. When they reached America, they found beef cheap and abundant, and so Irish chefs adapted their recipes accordingly; where they’d eaten bacon and cabbage in the Old Country, they would now eat corned beef and cabbage in their new home.
Today, Irish food is, fundamentally, comfort food. Stick-to-your-ribs stews, rustic country breads and creamy farmhouse cheeses are the staples of Irish cuisine. With the (possible) exception of breakfast, every Irish meal pairs well with the island’s pitch-black stout beers. This St. Patrick’s Day, you can make your own version of two Irish favorites: soda bread and Guinness stew. Here are our recipes—if you know of an interesting variation, let us know!
1. Preheat your oven to 450 degrees. Sift together dry ingredients in a mixing bowl, making sure the baking soda is evenly distributed throughout. Make a well in the center, pour in about three-quarters of your buttermilk and start stirring. Ideally, the dough will appear lumpy and dry to the eye but feel moist to the touch.
2. Turn out your mixture onto a lightly floured board and begin kneading. Work quickly: soda bread rises because of the reaction between the buttermilk and the baking soda, and the sooner you get your dough in the oven, the better. The kneading process should take no more than 30 seconds.
3. Dust a baking sheet lightly with flour, flatten your dough into a round, slightly domed cake, and use a very sharp knife to score a cross into the top of the dough. Be gentle as you place the dough into the oven, as the carbon dioxide bubbles within the bread will pop if handled roughly. Bake for 45 minutes at 450 degrees (some recipes call for ten minutes at 450 degrees followed by 35 minutes at 400 degrees; your results will vary based on altitude, humidity and the consistency of your dough).
4. Remove the sheet from the oven and pick up the soda bread. Tap the bottom with your finger; if you hear a hollow sound, that means the bread is done. Place on a rack to cool. You can also wrap the soda bread in a clean, damp kitchen towel if you prefer a softer crust.
1. Sift together flour, salt and pepper in a bowl. Toss the cubed beef in one tablespoon of olive oil, then dredge the beef cubes in the flour mixture.
2. Heat the remaining oil in a deep skillet or Dutch oven. Add the beef and brown on all sides. Add onions and garlic, stirring occasionally until the onions begin to turn translucent. Stir in tomato paste and, if you’d like, a small amount of water, cover, and let cook for five minutes.
3. Uncover the pot and add 1/2 cup of Guinness. The beer will deglaze the skillet, so use a wooden spoon to scrape up any bits of food that were stuck to the bottom. Then, add the remainder of the beer, the carrots and the thyme. Cover, reduce heat to low and let cook for two to three hours, stirring occasionally.