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Book of the Month: Irish Traditional Cooking

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The Grand Irish Cross-Country Expedition and Pub (Grub) Crawl is over, but not forgotten. I’ve already shared the Irish Pub Cookbook with you, and I continue to enjoy its contents (and the food it presents). There’s another side to Irish cooking, though, and I’m learning to appreciate it as well: the common or ordinary dishes, often called traditional.

As I noted earlier, there are a lot of appealing cookbooks about Irish food, and the traditional table is well represented. There’s one that I particularly enjoy: Irish Traditional Cooking by Darina Allen. (Photography provided by Michelle Garrett and Kevin Dunne.) Besides the scrumptious recipes, there’s another reason to pay attention to this book. Mrs. Allen teaches traditional Irish cooking techniques at the school she and her husband started in 1981, on the grounds of Ballymaloe House in Shanagarry, Co. Cork, on Ballycotton Bay. (Dontcha just love those Irish names?)

This is a hefty volume, with over 300 recipes. The layout is well designed to provide such a large amount of information and still be enjoyable to read. Allen’s book isn’t all work and no play, however; there is a nice variety of (mostly landscape) photos scattered about to provide eye relief from the mounds of tasty recipes. The book isn’t new (although it’s new to me): It was first published in 1995, and was a James Beard finalist. The copy I have is a 2005 reprinting. That fact alone proves the staying power of Mrs. Allen’s book, as less than 1% of cookbooks ever reach a second printing.

Irish Traditional Cooking has many sections, beginning with a history of food and cooking in Ireland in the Foreword. Broths & Soups, Eggs, Fish, Game, Poultry, Lamb, Beef, and Pork each have sections. Potatoes, Vegetables, Desserts, Pancakes, Breads, Oatmeal & Other Grains, and other items also get individual attention. The most intriguing section may be the one on Food from the Wild. Great attention is given at the end of the book to the contents of the Irish Pantry, with appendices covering Cheeses, The Potato and the Famine, and Cooking Pits. The Index and Bibliography build this collection into a full research volume on Ireland’s cooking history and trends.

Many of the recipes are provided by friends of the Allens, or alumni of the cooking school. Darina gives careful attribution to all contributors. Some of the items in the book aren’t recipes, exactly; such as the short piece on preserving sprats, or how to pickle salmon. If a side-dish is important to a meat recipe, for instance, it will be included with the meat in question, rather that with the vegetables (say); a nice touch, preventing a lot of page-flipping to find the key companion.

Some recipes I think I’ll check out soonest:

  • Brotchá Roy (King’s Broth), pg. 18
  • Oatmeal Soup, pg. 22
  • Irishman’s Omelet, pg. 35
  • Venison Stew, pg. 84
  • Ballymaloe Irish Stew, pg. 99
  • Beef & Guinness Stew, pg. 108
  • Bacon & Cabbage, pg. 119
  • Champ, pg. 143
  • Colcannon, pg. 147
  • Stovies, pg. 150
  • Cauliflower in Cheese Sauce, pg. 170
  • Burnt Cream, pg. 200

That should keep me busy for a while! And that doesn’t count all those oddly-named things just begging to be tried, like boxty and fierling and bocáire.

At first, I felt the book was unbalanced, with too many recipes covering seafood and fresh water shellfish. However, on reflection, I now realize that I’m the “unbalanced” one here. (Careful, Tom; I know where you live.) I have a bias against shellfish recipes due to my allergy to them; and I don’t live in a region completely surrounded by the bountiful ocean. Of course Irish cooks will use what’s local and fresh! Viewed from that perspective, this book is not merely balanced, it’s thoroughly so.

I hoped to visit the cooking school the Allens run, but alas, I missed it. We got close, perhaps within a dozen miles; but time ran out on us and we didn’t stop by. I hope to visit in the future, as I have a strong feeling I’ll be visiting Ireland to taste-test my way across the Emerald Isle once again, in the near future…

Enjoy the (Traditionally Irish) Heat!

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