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COOKBOOK WATCH

A nouvelle brogue

March 12, 2003|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

When I started going to Ireland in the early '70s, every restaurant had pretty much the same menu: grilleens (grilled steak, chops or sausage) with two veg, which didn't mean two different vegetables but potatoes prepared in your choice of ways. In a charming town named Sneem, I had dinner at a restaurant where the special that night was shepherd's pie, meaning that I ended up with three veg on my plate: baked potatoes, French fries and the mashed potatoes that already topped the main dish.

After two weeks of potatoes at every meal, I needed a break, so when I got back to Dublin, I went to a French restaurant. Beside my plate, in place of a bread basket, I found a bowl of new potatoes, daintily covered with a napkin to keep them warm.

"People expect their potatoes, you know," explained the waiter.

Mind you, I've never had such good potatoes, so fresh they were practically sweet. The Irish know their potatoes.

But that was then, and this is now. Already in the '70s the Irish Tourist Board had started sending B&B operators to France to upgrade their cooking skills. And today, Ireland is no longer a proverbially poor country limited by lack of capital and resources -- thanks to computers, its GNP is one of the fastest-growing in Europe. The natural result has been an Irish nouvelle cuisine.

In fact, the recipes in "The New Irish Table" by Margaret M. Johnson (Chronicle Books, $24.95) look a bit like California cuisine, with a similar eager, unself-conscious appropriation of any ingredient or kitchen practice that appeals. Which only means that in the modern world, the natural way of upgrading your cookery, wherever you are, starts with eclecticism. If we can use balsamic vinegar, pink peppercorns and goat cheese, well, by all the saints, so can the Irish.

But the effect is somewhat different, because, as Johnson explains, the Irish are also consciously expanding on their own traditional dishes and making the most of their local ingredients. The ingredients line of development is particularly promising, because Ireland has always had excellent fish, lamb and dairy products, and Irish cheeses have improved in the last 20 years.

Technically, in some of the book's dishes, you have to use one of those Irish ingredients to get the exact flavor -- the Cashel blue cheese broiled on filet mignon (which gets served with a Port, raisin and pine nut sauce) and the nettles and ramp leaves in Rathcoursey emerald soup. But you can substitute another blue cheese, of course, and arugula and garlic in the soup, which then comes out as a spring-like soup with a Jane Austen-ish delicacy (Rathcoursey House does date from the 18th century). Lamb cuts with honey, apricot and tarragon sauce get an understated kick from Thai curry paste. The next thing on my list is trying the smoked salmon pate and the blue cheese potato cakes.

I have to say, though, that the book's dessert recipes are disappointing. Probably because dessert was not an important part of traditional cuisine, they seem less original. (Come on, carrot cake and apple cobbler?) On top of that, some of the more attractive-sounding must not have been tested, because they can't be made to work, even with a couple of tries. (I'm talking about you, Spicy Pear Tart and Marmalade Puddings With Bushmill's Custard Sauce.)

The book is illustrated with photos of dishes, Ireland's poetic countryside -- and the occasional local gourmet shop. Among the sources for the recipes Johnson has assembled are some celebrity chefs who have worked all over the country.

Irish celebrity chefs. Who'd have thought it?

*

Accordion potatoes

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Servings: 6

Note: Specialty stores such as Trader Joe's carry small baking potatoes.

6 baking potatoes, about 2 pounds total, scrubbed

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 tablespoon sea salt

1 bunch fresh rosemary

Shredded Cheddar cheese for sprinkling, optional

1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees.

2. Put a potato on a cutting board and lay a wooden spoon next to it. Cut 8 or 10 slices down through the potato until the knife reaches the spoon handle; this will leave the base of the potato intact. Repeat with all potatoes.

3. Place the potatoes in a roasting pan, drizzle with the oil and sprinkle with the salt. Place a sprig of rosemary between each slice. Bake until tender, 40 or 50 minutes.

4. For serving, remove the rosemary springs and replace with fresh ones, or sprinkle with shredded cheese.

Each serving: 173 calories; 585 mg. sodium; 0 cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat;

31 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein;

3 grams fiber.

*

Turnips Anna Livia

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Servings: 6 to 8

Note: A variation on the classic French side dish potatoes Anna.

1/2 cup flour

1/2 cup (2 ounces) grated Dubliner or white Cheddar cheese

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

1/4 teaspoon minced fresh thyme

1/4 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary

Ground nutmeg

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

About 1 3/4 to 2 pounds white turnips, peeled and thinly sliced

6 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled

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