Cooking up a Gaelic Storm

When you think of Irish food, what comes to mind? Potatoes? Shepherd’s pie? How about fish and chips? Bangers and mash, or bubble and squeak? Or perhaps to you Irish cuisine just looks like a tall, dark, handsome pint of Guinness. Who could blame you?

Before I arrived in Northern Ireland, I was convinced that somewhere buried below piles of mashed champ and cabbage lies a vibrant culinary tradition – as vibrant as the Irish countryside. I set out to discover the space where local farmers and producers meet chefs interested in Irish tradition, as part of my interest in food and nutrition as a method of healing survivors of conflict.

Back in the US, I  had worked on a project called Peace Meals that brings together survivors of trauma for informal cooking classes and nutritional meals. Studying international relations in Belfast, I am interested in learning from practitioners about the best ways to work with those who have been affected by conflict. I’m hoping to blend my love for food with my passion for working with survivors of trauma, one dinner at a time.

Imagine my delight then, when I received a call from one of the teachers at the famed Ballymaloe Cookery School, inviting me to attend a class. Debbie Shaw called me unexpectedly on a Friday afternoon to invite me to her course focusing on nutritional healing. We would be making dishes aimed at utilizing nutrition to heal winter maladies such as colds, depression, and fatigue.

This invitation was a dream come true, so of course I scrambled to travel overnight all the way across the island. Out beyond Cork in the middle-of-nowhere-Irish-countryside lies what must certainly be the closest thing to the Garden of Eden that exists today.

Ballymaloe's kitchen garden, source of most ingredients for the classes.

The cookery school is located on a 100-acre organic farm where most of the ingredients used in the courses are raised and grown. Started in 1983 by Irish celebrity chef Darina Allen and her farmer husband, the school now offers more than a hundred short courses like the one I attended, as well as longer vocational training courses.

We made dishes including pinto bean and roast butternut squash ragout, spelt brown bread, carrot and sweet potato soup with coriander and cashew pesto, gluten-free fig-ginger-cranberry muffins with homemade butter, cinnamon baked apples, rice pudding, and grilled lamb chops. And that was all BEFORE lunch!

Needless to say, these dishes were some of the best I have ever tasted. You can see more photos of what we cooked here in my photo album.

As I ambled around the kitchen garden, orchards, pasturelands, greenhouses and chicken coops (Le Palais des Poulets, as it’s called), I felt that I was walking in a living homage to Ireland’s rich history and culture. Irish culture is very communal – it’s not unusual to see entire families in a pub on a weekday evening – and subsistence agriculture is part of history here, for better or worse. It’s hard to explain how culinary traditions can bring us together so strongly. I just know that, even though I am currently across the ocean from my family, kneading Irish soda bread and sharing a warm slice with a new friend somehow feels like home.

Recipe:  Quintessential Irish Soda Bread

Be sure to eat with plenty of Irish butter!

  • 3 cups (12 oz) of wheat flour
  • 1 cup (4 oz) of white flour
  • 14 oz. of buttermilk
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 2 oz. butter
  • 1/2 cup currants or raisins (optional)
  • 1 Tbsp. caraway seeds (optional)
  1. Preheat the oven to 425 F. degrees.  Lightly grease and flour a cake pan.  In a large bowl sift and then combine dry ingredients. Mix in the butter until the dough is crumbly.
  2. Add the buttermilk to form a sticky dough.  Gently fold in the currants or raisins if using.
  3. Place on floured surface and knead — lightly.
  4. Shape into a round flat shape in a round cake pan and cut a cross in the top of the dough. Sprinkle with caraway seeds  if using.
  5. Cover the pan with another pan and bake for 30 min.  Remove cover and bake for an additional 15 min.
  6. When done, bottom of bread will produce a hollow sound when tapped.
  7. Cover the bread in a tea towel and lightly sprinkle water on the cloth to keep the bread moist.
  8. Let cool and slather with Irish cream butter and orange marmalade. Serve with tea or coffee.

**If you want to make this gluten free, substitute 4 cups gluten-free flour blend and 1 tsp xantham gum or 3 cups gluten-free flour blend and 1 cup ground flax meal.

Recipe adapted from The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread. (I’m not kidding.)

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