Friday, April 1, 2011


I have been working hard on a new section to our WeLoveDonegal website ~ Irish Recipes.  And it has indeed been quite hard work, and continues to be, as I research, make and sometimes re-make each dish before I am happy.  The dish then has to be photographed and the recipe written up together with a bit of history where appropriate.  Many people around me have enjoyed the results of my labours as they were pulled in as testers and so got taste, eat and approve each dish before it was added to our site.

My aim in adding the dishes was to try to give our readers the most authentic version of the dishes possible.  I thought a lot about each dish and consulted with older people who remembered for me their mothers and even grandmothers making the dishes for them as children, in order that the recipes added are as near the original as is possible.

Another thing I wanted to achieve was to write up the recipes in as straight forward a way as possible.  I do this under three headings: What You Will Need (ie the pans and utensils needed); Ingredients (I have tried to avoid too much fuss here, for example instead of saying you will need so many grams/kilos/pounds of say carrots I instead put is as, for instance, 2 medium carrots); and finally the Method where I have listed in what to do in numerical order.  As I am writing the recipes I have my notepad and pen beside me (usually covered in flour, butter, or other food stuff!) and list what I am doing as I do it and then write it up properly later.

During my research as I said above, I find out from others what they think their own mother and grandmother would have used.  I also consider further what would be available to the people of the time.  To consider this for a while is actually a good rule of thumb when deciding which ingredients to use in any traditional Irish recipe.

Bacon and Cabbage
The recipe that kicked off our Irish Recipe section on our website was Bacon and Cabbage.  I made it for St. Patrick's Day this year and thought it was the ideal dish to put on first.  It is so popular (not to mention delicious) but there are so many untruths and misconceptions about this simple dish.

People confuse the meat.  Some think we in Ireland eat Corned Beef and Cabbage.  We don't.  Or at least, most of us don't.  Corned beef here may be used from time to time but it is usually of the sliced variety and put between two slices of bread to make a corned beef sandwich.  Corned beef is probably an Irish dish but it only came to popularity after the Famine when many Irish went to America and found that beef, which had been almost impossible to get in Ireland as it was far too expensive for the majority, was much easier to get in America.  But these people were thrifty from having to stretch out whatever was available to eat and so they cured the beef they got in the same way the pork had been cured in Ireland.  To preserve it and so make it last longer.  And that is where the idea for Corned Beef and Cabbage more than likely comes from.

The meat used in traditional Bacon and Cabbage is cured pork taken from the shoulder or the back of the pig whereas bacon in America is usually taken from the belly of the pig. 

Some say the cabbage, which should ALWAYS be of the dark green variety, was cooked for hours on end with the bacon joint.  That may or may not have been so, but in my recipe I only cooked it for a very short time to retain some crunch.  I, and no-one else alive today, could possibly know how our ancestors cooked it so it is each persons option to cook it as they see fit.  But in my opinion retaining the colour, and more importantly the vitamins, is paramount.

Speaking of Bacon and Cabbage I considered the idea of a sauce.  Some say a mustard sauce (highly unlikely this was used by our ancestors), others say a parsley sauce, which I still doubt very much would have been used many years ago but at least the ingredients are things that would have been available. 

"Shamrock" Sauce!
A lady from Donegal told me that as a child her father had always referred to the parsley sauce as shamrock sauce.  At the dinner table he would say to her "pass the shamrock sauce", resulting in her spending her childhood thinking they ate shamrocks.  I loved this story so much that I decided to rename the parsley sauce as used in my recipe "Shamrock Sauce".  It has such a happy, Irish ring to it and I don't think I will ever be able to think of parsley sauce again without automatically thinking Sharmock Sauce!

Traditional Irish Stew
In the case of research for my Irish Stew recipe I found many, many recipes on the net purporting to be "traditional" Irish Stew.  Some I knew instantly could not be traditional or indeed authentic because of some of the ingredients listed.  So I sat down and actually thought about what people would have used.

My conclusion was that there were only two ingredients I could be certain of: mutton and potatoes.  A third, pearl barley, was almost certainly used too.  Just these three together and without anything else would have made a good filling meal.  In relation to the meat, it would have been mutton as opposed to lamb.  One, in days of extreme poverty and want no-one would kill a lamb to eat.  If they were lucky enough to have a lamb it would have been kept because it would later produce more lambs, wool, and even milk.  Mutton on the other hand is the meat of an older sheep, probably past her productive age and therefore a viable ingredient for a meal.

Cheap ends of mutton would have been used too.  Why?  Because many would not even have had a sheep to kill and so would only have been able to take the rough bits of the animal that those better off discarded.  This is course is the history of many peasant dishes across the world, one of the best known would be beef stroganov, a Russian peasant dish which originated at a time in history when the fillet of beef, now one of the most prized cuts, was considered offal and therefore thrown away by the better off and only used by those too poor to obtain the more prized cuts of the time.

The secret to Irish Stew is in the length of cooking.  The cheaper cuts of mutton, although tough if cooked for a short time, come into their own producing lots of flavour when cooked slowly for a long time.

One problem I came up against though is the problem in finding mutton nowadays ~ it is not really available which seems ridiculous but there it is.  I spoke with my best friend who is a chef and he says that (here in Donegal) some of the Asian shops sometimes sell mutton so next time I make my Irish Stew I will visit them first.  So I had to use lamb and the best cut for Irish Stew after mutton is neck of lamb (I used neck of lamb chops).  As with mutton these are too tough to quick cook but after a long slow cook they produce the most delicious meat which almost falls apart when your fork touches it.

After the meat, potatoes and barley I thought that, despite what many recipes say, there would have been no hard and fast rule about any other ingredients ~ people would have used whatever they had to hand so it may have been carrots, onions, or any other root vegetables which grow in Ireland and maybe even the likes of wild garlic which grows freely in Ireland.  So my advice with Irish Stew is to go back to what would have been available and not fuss too much about different recipes.

One person commented on my Irish Stew recipe "this is just exactly as my grandmother used to make it" and to me that was the greatest accolade for authenticity of my recipe.

Irish Apple Cake
The Irish Apple Cake recipe I used for our site is a sweet dish my own grandmother used to make for my mother and her brothers as sisters when they were children.  It is quite a simple dish in that it's components are simply Irish soda bread topped with apples, sugar and cinnamon.  It would have been served to adults with a big mug of tea.  In earlier days it would have been made on a griddle pan but I used a bit of modernity and used a ring bound baking tin.  This worked out well in that it kept the apples in place with no bother of them slipping off during cooking.  Sometimes it is okay to update the old, providing of course that the new it is for the better.

And speaking of updating and new ... with all this cooking and reading of what people ate over the centuries in Ireland, I came up with my own original (and brand new) dish ~ Irish Cottage Pie.  My eight year old grandson was one of the first to taste this dish as I served it up for dinner last night.  He declared, totally unprompted, "This is the best dinner I have ever eaten!".  I will tell all and discuss my Irish Cottage Pie (topped with another of my own inventions, Irish Mash) in my next blog post.


  1. I love your recipes Catherine. First the bacon and cabbage, then the Irish Stew, which made me a fan of lamb, no small feat.

    The results alone would be enough for me to be a raving fan, but I am delighted too by the history of these wonderful Irish dishes.

  2. Thanks Lady Greetums ~ so glad you enjoyed them. I'm sure you'll love the Irish Cottage Pie topped with Irish Mash which will be added soon.

  3. All these recipes sound delicious :)