Ireland's young chefs forge new cuisine from country's traditions

Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Salmon with sorrel sauce is emblematic of the new Irish cuisine that now flourishes on the Emerald Isle. (TOM HARTE)

The acerbic comedian Dennis Leary, son of Irish immigrants, once remarked, "Irish food isn't cuisine ... it's penance."

While they might think his comment a bit harsh, an awful lot of people would agree with the sentiment. At the least, they'd say the phrase "Irish cuisine" is an oxymoron.

Even Margaret M. Johnson, the author of one of the most beautiful Irish cookbooks you'll ever read, confesses that when she first visited her ancestral home in Ireland some 25 years ago she was not impressed with the food."I loved the people, the landscape, the history, the folklore and the music, but I must admit the affection didn't extend to my palate," se said.

She is not alone. That's because for many of us the only contact we have with Irish food comes once a year on St. Patrick's Day and it's usually confined to corned beef and cabbage, Irish stew and boiled potatoes.

Moreover, as the celebrated science fiction writer Diane Duane, who happens to live in County Wicklow, Ireland, points out, the ideas many of us have about Irish food have been shaped by outdated images from the past. And there's no question that from a culinary standpoint, not to mention many others, Ireland's past has not always been a happy one.

John McKenna, the country's foremost food critic, put his finger on the problem: the terrible potato famine of the mid-19th century. "After this experience," he notes, "traditional staples came to be regarded as 'famine food' -- a necessity and nothing more. The idea of an indigenous fine cuisine seemed ridiculous."

But all that is now changing.

As Johnson observes, whereas just a generation ago the Irish diet did not go too far beyond "a pint of Guinness and a bowl of stew," today people are talking about the "new" Irish cuisine as young Irish chefs are taking traditional ingredients and presenting them in innovative ways.

Bland and boiled are out, and once-stodgy dishes are being refined and elevated. Take, for example, boxty, a potato cake that is a specialty of Cavan and Fermanagh counties in the north. These days you're likely to find it perked up with various spices, or served with a blue cheese dipping sauce, or accompanied by a confit of pork.

Not only are Irish chefs bent on tweaking traditional dishes to make them more sophisticated, but they are insisting on fresh, locally produced ingredients. With its mild climate, great stretches of green grass suitable for grazing, fertile soil and miles of sea coast with unpolluted waters, the country produces world-class ingredients.

The result is that Ireland, surprisingly, is now a gastronomic destination with nearly a half-dozen restaurants boasting at least one Michelin star. Given its checkered culinary history, that's no small potatoes.

Salmon with Sorrel Sauce

It's hardly surprising that in Ireland, an island nation, they appreciate good seafood. Salmon are especially prized and at one time were even considered to have magical powers. Prepared following the tenets of new Irish cuisine, as in this recipe adapted from IrishCentral.com, they still do. If you can't find sorrel, you can substitute arugula.

4 (6-ounce) boneless and skinless salmon fillets

Salt and pepper

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

4 tablespoons butter, preferably Irish, divided

2 Granny Smith apples, diced

1 bunch green onions, chopped

8 sorrel leaves, shredded

Pat salmon dry with paper towels and season with salt, pepper and lemon juice. Heat oil and 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add salmon and saute until golden, turning at least twice. In a separate pan, saute the apples and onions in the remaining 2 tablespoons butter until softened, about 2 minutes. Add sorrel and stir until it melts into the sauce. Serve salmon topped with sauce.

Tom Harte's book, "Stirring Words," is available at local bookstores. A Harte Appetite airs Fridays 8:49 a.m. on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Contact Tom at semissourian.com or at the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, MO 63702-0699.

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